On condos, schools, and social engineering

Monday night’s vote by the Portland Public Schools board of education to lease space in the Pearl condo district for a PK-2 school raises an interesting question: is it responsible public policy to use public schools as a tool to promote real estate development? Or, more cynically, why do we see the need to invest in a new school in anticipation of need, when so many existing neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of poor and minority students, are currently underserved?

PPS administrators and school board members seem to want in on the dreamy social engineering mentality made popular by former city commissioner Eric Sten, in which public investment in the form of roads, parks, streetcars, and now schools, are used to subsidize commercial real estate developers. The brief history of this kind of development in Portland tells us that promises of affordable housing are rarely (if ever) met.

More importantly, if we wanted to use our precious education investment in this way, why get in on it when most of the housing in the Pearl is already built, and it is inadequate for growing families? Even worse, why enter the condo market craps game after the bottom has fallen out?

Ruth Adkins, in remarks at the school board meeting and in an e-mail to the “Get involved with Jefferson Schools” e-mail list, justifies the move: “We are trying to plan for and help shape future growth…” she writes. She also claims that this move will not distract the district from its other work.

But those of us following the K8 debacle know that PPS has a proven inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. There has been no public progress on the K8 transition for nearly a year, and, other than a mention from Ruth Adkins from time to time, there has been no serious talk of restoring a middle school option to the broad swath of Portland that lost it in the rushed and ill-conceived K8 transition.

More than anything, this move shows that PPS is inept at perception management. Even if the district were able to follow through on its other commitments, to approve a five-year, $1.5 million speculative gamble at a time when we’re seriously talking about cutting the school year for lack of money looks really, really insensitive.

It also sends an inconsistent message regarding small schools, as Martin Gonzalez pointed out in his dissenting comments Monday night. Sonja Henning also opposed the move, and gave a withering critique of the “exponential track” this project was put on. Henning remarked that connected people can “pick up the phone” and get this kind of project done, while other citizens have waited “10 or 15 years” and gotten nothing (a replacement for the razed Whittaker school comes to mind).

PPS Chief Operating Office Cathy Mincberg appeared shaken by Henning’s remarks, and jumped in to insist that the idea originated among district and city staff, an assertion contradicted by the fact that wealthy white Pearl residents have been advocating for a school for at least a year.

In an annual budget of half a billion dollars, a quarter million really isn’t much money. But given the fact that the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters — serving the poorest, least white parts of Portland — have had comprehensive secondary education virtually eliminated in recent years, spending any money trying to “shape future growth” in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white and wealthy indicates a serious problem with priorities.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.