Fred Stewart

City Commissioner #2

(This is part of PPS Equity‘s Election ’08 coverage. Some questions are abbreviated here. Please see the main Election ’08 page for the full questions, the full list of candidates and election information.)

1. When was the last time you visited a public school in Portland? What was the purpose of your visit?

I visited Irvington Elementary School in February of this year.

2. Do you have any children or other relatives enrolled in Portland Public Schools?

I have a daughter at Irvington Elementary School. She is in the 5th grade and has attended the school for the last 4 years.

3. Did you attend Portland Public Schools?

I attended Binnsmead Middle School and Washington/Monroe and Cleveland High Schools. I was part of the “Administrative Transfer” program (mandatory busing) in the days before the Voluntary Desegregation Plan. I was a student at Washington/Monroe when it closed.

4. …If elected, will you do anything to hold the school district accountable to the Flynn/Blackmer audit?

The current transfer policy replaced a system in which individual schools developed their own enrollment policies and families had to research those policies at the school level. It also replaced a system in which transferring into a neighborhood elementary school conferred the right to follow resident neighborhood children through middle and high schools. That system, in turn, replaced one in which students were simply expected to attend their neighborhood schools, as defined by the district, with some intermediate steps involving “magnet” and “focus” schools.

First, I don’t think we’re going to go back to a strictly residence-based enrollment system. Families have got used to the idea that they have some choice of where to send their kids to school, and besides, families do a better job of choosing the right place for their kids than the district does. Sometimes that might be based on the educational program, sometimes on other aspects of the school environment, sometimes on the location of the babysitter. We should also take note that one result of getting away from assigning children to schools based on current residence is that kids are more likely to stay in the same school when they move, which is one of the easiest ways to support better achievement.

If segregation is what we’re concerned about, we should also be concerned about the recent reversion to K-8 schools in poorer neighborhoods in PPS. The conversion to middle schools in the 1980s supported the desegregation plan. Combining K-8s with strictly residence-based enrollment would only speed the resegregation of the district.

What we actually have is a hybrid of a residence-based and a choice-based system, where families have a “right” to enrollment in the neighborhood school, but they don’t have to use it. What’s missing, of course, from the choice side, is transportation. When choice was part of the desegregation plan, we provided transportation to magnet schools. Now, school choice is only available to children who have a way to get to school outside their neighborhood. If we truly want an equitable enrollment system, we are going to have to find a way to pay for transportation.

This is not to say that strong neighborhood schools are not a priority. Most families will choose to keep their kids close to home if it makes sense educationally. I do not believe the district is going to solve any of the shortcomings or disparities in educational programs through high visibility, “magic bullet” interventions. We know how to do it, but it isn’t easy or cheap and it isn’t glamorous. Things like Head Start for every eligible child, intensive, individualized reading and math instruction in the early grades, and plenty of adult attention for every child every step of the way are what we know will make the difference.

5. …If elected, how will you work with the PPS Board of Education to ensure their policies do not work at cross purposes with city policies?

The divestment in poorer neighborhoods and closure of schools in those neighborhoods were choices made, not necessarily a result of the enrollment system. During the era of desegregation-driven magnet programs, families were quite willing to send their children to attractive programs located in poorer neighborhoods. The problem is in the lack of commitment to strong programs located in poorer neighborhoods, not in the ability of families to make choices for their own children.

6. School closures and school facility decisions heavily affect the livability of the city. What is the role of the city council in
influencing these decisions?

All of us, elected or not, need to get involved in these decisions. We should all look behind the claims that are made regarding facilities needs and advocate for good programs accessible to all of our city’s children. The City Council has a special obligation to advocate for our neighborhoods, and to be well informed about the issues.

For many years I tracked and helped shape NE neighborhoods by helping more than 700 families to create not just a home but a future. My clients often asked about the schools in their neighborhood, how safe they were and how well they prepared students.

7. If PPS puts forth a facilities bond of around a billion dollars, what will be your position on this election?

My initial instinct is to support it. I have some serious questions about how much of the facilities needs are driven by the initiative to create K-8 programs and close neighborhood elementary schools, which I don’t think has been justified yet, either educationally or financially. So I guess I’m waiting to see if the board makes a plausible case for the bond measure.

8. What is the specific role of the City Council in helping children in the lower income neighborhoods of Portland?

While K-12 schools are not in the City’s charter, education depends on much more than schools. Stable housing, safe routes to and from schools, safe parks and community centers and after school programs are well within the purview of City government, and are essential to the success of our schools and the students who attend them. The City has an essential role to play in “closing the achievement gap” by closing the after-school gap.

I know personally how important that after-school focus is. When I was in high school, football and wrestling helped me maintain the focus I needed to keep up with academics. To this day, the time I spent and the lessons I learned from my coaches Doug Fanning and Carol Mayte are part of what has made me the person I am today.

9. …Would you support permanent city supplementary funding, or some kind of local option tax, to bring Portland school funding back to pre-Measure 5 levels?

The simple answer is yes. When I compare the programs available when I was a student to what is offered now, I’m embarrassed for my generation and how it is failing the next. I want to support anything that will get appropriate resources to schools, even though I think that a local solution diverts attention from the inadequacy and unfairness of the State funding system.

I think the State has at some point to come to grips with the fact that the school funding system is inadequate and unfair. Measure 5 caused the Portland metro area to become a bigger net exporter of dollars to the rest of the state via the school funding formula, but there has never been a rational case made that this has done anything more than substitute one set of inequities for another.

The State has the measurement tools to re-examine the school fund distribution formula. It’s time for that to take place. We also have to recognize that unfairness bites harder when nobody is getting enough. We have to find a way to provide what it takes to have a high quality system of schools. “Doing more with less” is a myth, and we need to get real.

Until then, the city of Portland has got to commit resources to support the needs of the citizens of Portland where the State and the Portland Public School System can not.

10. Do you have any other thoughts on the roll of city government in the governance of our public schools?

There is a role for the City both as a taxing authority and as a catalyst for other political entities to work together, and to help the community understand the successes of our students and the challenges they face.

Measure 5 took a lot more than money away from local schools. It stripped local school boards of most of their taxing authority, and made them dependent on other entities to obtain the resources to do their job. City government and school district governance share a lot of issues as well as a commitment to the betterment of our local community, but a model that makes school district governance subordinate to City governance is one that, frankly, has not worked in other cities. City and School District leaders should work as partners on our common goals.

Any child whose learning day ends at 3:00 is not going to succeed. If we think in terms of learning rather than programs, there is a great deal that the City can do to wrap around the school system and help children succeed. When every child has access to help with homework, access to books and the internet, and access to enriching extra-curricular activities after school, every child will have a better shot at meeting the high expectations we have for the next generation. The City also has a fundamental responsibility for a safe, stable, thriving and stimulating environment in which children can live, learn and play, in all neighborhoods.

This is what I enjoyed as a Portland Public School student and this is what I feel the children of today should experience. When I was in high school our classes were of reasonable size and our teachers knew us individually. Our counselors worked with 200 students versus caseloads of 450 or more today. We had a real chance to try out a variety of things, to understand history and art and science and music, not just a small list of required courses or things included on a state test. We owe our children the learning opportunities and the environment of curiosity needed to develop their potential to the highest level possible.

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