On condos, schools, and social engineering

7:54 am

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.

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

filed under: Budget, Demographics, Equity, Facilities, High Schools, K-8 Transistion, Middle Schools, School Board

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39 Responses

  1. Comment from Zarwen:


    Thank you!!! Your opening statements are not “cynical” at all. Spending precious $ to meet a need that “might” exist in the future when so many existing needs go unmet is just plain irresponsible. Kudos to Gonzalez and Henning for telling it like it is! As for Ruth, here is yet another example of her supporting the kinds of things she campaigned against just two short years ago. I fear we are now forced to conclude that she didn’t mean a word of it. How sad.

  2. Comment from Terry:

    With due respect, Steve –and you know I hold you in high regard– it IS absolutely “cynical” to imply that schools are being built to subsidize the interests of developers. That’s the kind of conspiracy theory, popular among many of our school activist friends, that I have a hard time accepting.

    I may be proved entirely wrong. But look at this way.

    If you believe in encouraging population density, as I do for many good reasons, then condos and mixed commercial and residential projects are the wave of the future. And if you believe in neighborhood schools, then schools should be built –or opened– where the kids are. Even in the ritzy Pearl.

    Now, I don’t know if there are enough kids in the Pearl to warrant leasing space for a new school. I am convinced, however, that if the MLC site at the old Couch Elementary were available, that would work nicely as Pearl neighborhood public school.

    But as long as the district is wedded to choice and transfers, that doesn’t seem to be an option. And that’s the problem, not a murky cabal of real estate developers and school district officials.

    As I said, I may be proved entirely wrong. But until then, I’ll always have a hard time accepting the schools-for-developers line.

  3. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    First the density myth. We have ample, family-sized housing stock in close-in neighborhoods of Portland. When that starts running short in 50 years, we will need to start selectively building up.

    If your vision of “sustainability” is the Pearl district (or Vancouver, B.C.), you’ve been duped by all the green-washing monkey shine flowing freely around town for the last decade or so.

    The Pearl will never be anything but a high-end white enclave, even if this one small “affordable” project ever gets completed, and it simply wasn’t designed from the outset with growing families in mind.

    This model works great for affluent DINKs or retirees, but you tell me where all the service sector employees in Vancouver, B.C. live. Hint: it’s not in Vancouver proper, where the median home price is something like $700K Canadian.

    Second, we already know there aren’t enough kids to justify a school in the Pearl. The district is trying the old “if we build it” routine, even as they refuse to do the same for, say, high school students in the Jefferson cluster.

    This is not a conspiracy theory; the district is openly acknowledging that they want to help shape the future of the Pearl by encouraging families to move there. Who does this benefit? Well, first and foremost, it benefits the commercial real estate developers sitting on blocks of unsold condos. Follow the money.

    Meanwhile, my children do not have a middle school in their cluster, and their elementary school only goes to grade 5. Our neighborhood high school doesn’t have chemistry, physics, calculus, literature, a language other than Spanish, a single music class, or any college prep classes.

    Why invest to create need at a time when so many existing needs go unmet?

  4. Comment from anon:

    Thank you Steve!!!! You said it perfectly.

  5. Comment from Susan:

    PPS is not funding a school to draw much-needed students. It will enter a five-year lease to house two to four classrooms for a PK-2 program. Since we’re talking PK-2, class size will be around 25 students. That’s $500,000 to $750,000 per classroom or $150,000 per student for five years. And that’s just for classroom space.

    Meanwhile in the neighborhoods where school-age kids are already living, neighborhood schools have been closed (but still need maintenance at hundreds of thousands of dollars per year), other neighborhood schools are overcrowded, underfunded, losing students to public and charter schools, and are pretty much abandoned by city planners and district executives.

    I have a question for Ruth. Why not help shape the future of the neighborhoods where families with school-age children are already living? Do you still believe if these failing K-8s had better marketing, they would succeed? How’s that marketing working out for Rieke? Did Rieke ever meet it’s commitment to grow enrollment to 400?

  6. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Terry, forgot to say, the respect is mutual.

    I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m a little sensitive about living in a part of the city where we don’t get comprehensive middle and high schools, and we’re looking at more cuts in the coming budget.

    We already know who is going to bear the brunt of the cuts, just like they always have.

    And now this!

    A little boutique school for the condo people. Just what PPS needs.

    As far as sustainability goes, that usually means something shiny for white people and the same old shit for the rest of Portland.

    Until we talk about social sustainability along with the green stuff, we’re not truly talking sustainability (God, I hate that word).

    Crappy schools for poor folks are not sustainable, and sorry Prez, charter schools aren’t the answer.

  7. Comment from Anne T.:

    Here is what I wrote on the Get Involved with Jeff Schools listserv:
    When you were elected thousands of people were counting on you to be an voice for them on the school board. We hoped that your previously insightful critiques of PPS would continue. Instead, you continue to come to the community in weak attempts to rationalize unjust, poorly thought out decisions by the board and PPS administration. Instead of eagerly becoming an apologist and cheerleader for PPS, think about this list PPS travesties and then stop telling the community that we should trust PPS on the Pearl District pilot program.
    *Whitaker–and the promise to rebuild a middle school in NE
    *The closure of Rose City Park and many other schools around the city and the resulting over-crowding of surrounding schools
    *Loss of curriculum offerings due to K-8 and Jefferson High “reforms”
    *The overcrowded “green” Rosa Parks School
    *The Ockley Green Arts Magnet
    *the layoffs of skilled trade workers and custodians who MAINTAIN our buildings so that they don’t fall into irreversible disrepair
    *The huge payments to consultants like Magellan
    *The continued promotion of the transfer system
    *PPS’s and PSU’s skewed population projections to justify school closures from 2002-2008 and the sudden reversal in the last two years to justify building new schools
    Many community members DO see the big picture and we don’t trust PPS. We see that PPS continues to cater to the most economically privileged parents and ignore or patronize the rest of us.
    There are no words that can justify the continued racist inequity in PPS, and their policies that line the pockets of consultants, administrators, and developers instead of providing an excellent education to all our children.

    Anne Trudeau

  8. Comment from Terry:

    Point taken, Steve. I never said anything about sustainability, only density.

    Here in Sellwood, there are lots of residential/commercial mixed developments, many, I assume, attracting families with kids. Even the crappiest single family dwellings around here are usually far more expensive than two bedroom condos.

    As I said, I don’t know if a new neighborhood school is necessary in the Pearl. Regardless of the actual number of kids in the area, I know for certain that the existing neighborhood buildings, including Couch, would obviate the need for new classrooms if they hadn’t been given over to the real niche –or boutique– programs like MLC.

  9. Comment from sjdprods:

    Susan: Apropos your question regarding Rieke: 350 students this year; if the trend of the last three years continues, likely 375 next year. All working under the 20% cap on transfers. It’s crowded, like many other places (sure am glad we got rid of all that surplus property). The best marketing of all, of course: PPS not threatening closure on a bi-yearly schedule.

  10. Comment from Susan:

    Thanks for the stats. Great to hear Rieke’s up to 350. With a 20% cap on transfers, that’s about 70 non-neighborhood kids? Is that much different from where it stood as a neighborhood school during the reorg? I agree that being threatened with continual closure can’t be helpful to enrollment. Having a very smart and involved parent as a school board member has been pretty helpful. A board member I voted for in the hopes that she would help keep neighborhood schools open. With that, she’s been very successful. Unfortunately, I also thought she might spend a little time advocating for neighborhood schools that didn’t escape closure, reorganization to K-8s with no vision and no funding, and inequitable programs. The K-8s are trying to market their schools with programs that pale in comparison to traditional middle schools.

  11. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Okay, totally wrong place to get into this, but here goes.

    Terry, what’s the purpose of density if not environmental? Is it a virtue unto itself?

    I’m in favor limiting sprawl, but developments like the Pearl and South Waterfront really have nothing to do with that, given the existing inventory of family housing in close-in Portland.

    These developments are explicitly intended to attract new residents to Portland, and they were not designed for familes.

    What if we decided that’s not necessarily a good thing? It certainly pumps up the real estate market, but it’s not economically sustainable, given the dearth of jobs at the income level needed to support this kind of lifestyle.

    Density in this context has everything to do with maximizing property value. It’s simple math: the more units you can put on a plot of land, the more units you can sell.

    Those who look to Vancouver, B.C. as a model need to look closely at what this kind of density does with regard to affordable housing. Vancouver has a raging homeless problem, and even professionals can’t afford housing there and end up as suburban commuters. Hardly the intended effect.

    Now, mixed-use infill, like that in Sellwood, is a different flavor of the beast, and probably more sustainable economically.

    But subsidizing the ground-up creation of high-end neighborhoods in tough economic times is madness. It cannot be sustained.

  12. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Check this quote out from the Tribune article on a school in the Pearl (referenced above in Steve’s post).

    ““If you’re gong to have a city that’s kid-friendly, it’s got to be kid-friendly everywhere,” Sten says.

    Sten says the city made a mistake in not planning for children in the Pearl when the neighborhood originally was designed, but the time has come to correct that oversight, even if the census numbers don’t yet show a neighborhood with many children.

    “My thought for the last couple of years is if you don’t actively create the possibility, then you never get it,” Sten says.

    Sounds kind of like “If you build it, they will come,” right?

    If that’s OK for residents of the Pearl, then why isn’t it OK for residents of the under-served school clusters like Jefferson? Steve R. and others have been saying for years exactly this: build it and they will come. The Board’s response: “If only we can get enrollments up, then we can provide what’s missing at these schools.” But in the Pearl, the enrollments are not there! They don’t exist. And even if they were to attract new families via the “build it and they will come” mantra, how many families can afford to live there? As Steve rightly notes, and as the Tribune article makes clear, any new building projects intended to be “family-friendly” would be a windfall for developers. I’m not holding my breath to see what “family-friendly” would look like. But the last time I checked, the economy was nose-diving and families were struggling to make ends meet, not shop for million-dollar townhouses in the Pearl.

  13. Comment from becky:

    There is plenty of affordable housing for families in the Pearl! HAP has a whopping 78 two- bedroom units in their portfolio!

    My first thought about this was that they’ll get a lot of transfers because how convenient it will be to drop your kid off on your way to work downtown!

  14. Comment from Torridjoe:

    The commented citing cost per student is wrong, unless they are citing 5-year figures. The true cost would be 150k per room per year, or $6k per child in that posited scenario.

    I’m also hearing there are no kids in the Pearl, which is contradicted be reportage indicating as many as 250 school aged kids–and rising.

    It’s a neighborhood that was never expected to be residential, and now it is. Why is it outrageous that a space be leased two years from now to accomodate them?

  15. Comment from howard:

    I find it odd that PPS administrators fail to acknowledge that Emerson public charter school is located in the North Park Blocks of the Pearl District. It is unconscionable for PPS to open new facilities when Many recently configured K-8s still need promised libraries, laboratories and other facilities to adequately meet the needs of students.

    When full disclosure is lacking,it is not surprising that folks get cynical.

  16. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Joe, I’m pretty sure your questions have been answered in comments above, but let me summarize so you don’t have to read it all.

    The district is explicitly talking about anticipating future need for a school, not serving an existing need. Further, they’re talking about shaping the future development of the area to encourage more families, i.e. helping create more need in a predominately white, upper crust neighborhood.

    What’s wrong with this? Significant existing needs in poor and non-white neighborhoods continue to go unmet. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s patently offensive to those of us living in the part of Portland without comprehensive secondary schools.

  17. Comment from Terry:

    It’s simple math: the more units you can put on a plot of land, the more units you can sell.”

    I’m not sure the logic holds there, Steve. Maybe the profits are greater, but as South Waterfront teaches us, big condo developments are a risky proposition.

    As someone as anti-sprawl (and pro-urban growth boundary, I assume) as you are, the bottom line for me is that the Portland area is going to grow. I’d rather it grow up than out. But let’s put aside that argument for now.

    Here’s an issue of greater concern for me. It’s a big mistake to begin lionizing Martin Gonzales and Sonja Henning for opposing the Pearl school, even if, on that issue, they were right On too many other issues, they’ve been wrong.

    Perhaps its too early to say that about Martin, but from all his statements he appears to be a force for the status quo –pro-school choice and unwilling to do anything about the transfer policy.

    Same with Sonja. Even though she voted against school closures and some charter schools, her votes against the district’s union employees and her support of merit pay for teachers make her anathema to me.

    I would really like to witness an organized campaign for write-in candidates in the upcoming election–I’m thinking Lakeitha and Peter Campbell (is he in Martin’s zone?)– as a protest against board policies.

    They won’t win, but such a campaign would provide a venue for voicing anger and sending a message to the board.

    I’m not saying that PPS equity has made heroes of Gonzales and Henning, but it seems to be in the air. And that really irritates me.

  18. Comment from Susan:

    If Sonja Henning decides to run for Zone 5, she has my vote. Run, Sonja, Run!

  19. Comment from marcia:

    I heard Vicki Phillips was in town this past week. Maybe she had a hand in this. Enough of charter schools, boutique schools, and magnet schools. We are crammed in to too little space with too little resources in Phillips’ legacy K-8 underfunded k-8’s. Fix what is broken before starting anything new.

  20. Comment from marcia:

    oh! And …Run..Peter Campbell..Run..Or I guess we could write you in.

  21. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Don’t forget Rita Moore applied for the zone 4 job when they appointed Gonzalez.

    Last I heard she might be contemplating a run.

    Run, Rita, run! (The more the merrier!)

    Terry, as part of the PPS Equity family, I invite you to counter the whiff of lionization you’re getting with a blog post here. (And that goes for you, and you and you and you. This blog is your blog!)

  22. Comment from Terry:

    Interesting, Susan. Please tell me how Henning has earned your vote.

    Granted, she’s probably better than the other declared candidates, but I think I’d rather write in Donald Duck than ratify her position on pay for performance.

    I forgot about Rita. If she doesn’t file for Martin’s seat, she’d be a good one for a write-in campaign.

  23. Comment from Susan:

    I acknowledge that I don’t and won’t agree with Henning on everything. Henning has, however, consistently brought a unique perspective to the board that has been weak or missing from other board members. She doesn’t seem overly influenced by either district administration or any particular parent group. And I’m married to a teacher (a good one :)), so even though I believe pay for performance is elusive, I’m willing to listen and voice support or opposition as needed.

  24. Comment from Anne T.:

    Marcia got it right. PPS: Fix what you broke (and that is a very long list), before you embark on the Pearl condo mini school.
    To those of you on this blog who have been active in PPS school politics for less than 3years, you have to understand that we who have been lied to, manipulated, patronized and ignored by PPS for too long. Schools were closed because they said they were too small, parents who brought up different population predictions were smirked at, many students now have to go a mile or more to their nearest “neighborhood” school, and, to repeat, the curriculum offerings and other things like librariesm, art and music for lower income students, particularly for those in the Jeff cluster, are abysmal.
    The transfer policy contributed to this but so did the Portland School Foundation, which allows parents in “richer” schools to raise 100s of thousands of dollars to supplement their children’s education, while other children have nothing.
    No more excuses! to coin a phrase from the right wing school reformers, except this time I mean no more excuses for PPS admin and the board.

  25. Comment from mary:

    Well put Anne. I recall a time when “surplus” of buildings was all over the media. Now we are paying for portables at Scott, Rigler, Laurelhurst, etc. Too bad no one from the district bothered to actually walk through the buildings prior to designating them as K-8s. Why not put portables at Chapman and if the Pearl really starts to attract children, then lease a space. I sure wish the board advocated for the needs of all children.

  26. Comment from Rose:

    As a journalist, I remember sitting down sometime in the early 1990s and reviewing plans for something called the “Pearl” district.

    I had a hard time getting these plans. As much as the local press seemed all ga-ga over this new Pearl district, no one appeared to have actually reviewed the plans. Which, by the way, were going to cost the city millions of dollars.

    At that time this district was an industrial area.

    I remember reading the plans and initially laughing. There was going to be a butterfly musuem, and water canals off the river.

    The centerpiece of this plan was high-end housing built for singles.

    I did more research by looking up the property owners of the Pearl who stood to benefit most by an increase in value. I can’t remember them all, but one family stuck out: the Naitos.

    The Oregonian acted like all was wonderful. The only paper that wrote anything that raised questions was the one I worked for, the scrappy little PDXS.

    I wrote my article. My juvenile effort went up the flagpole, as they say, waved, and disappeared.

    Fast forward several years. The Pearl plan went in to play. The city funded all sorts of development. Property values skyrocketed. The lofts went in. Those who owned property in the Pearl pocketed serious profits.

    The butterfly gardens and canals never materialized.

    So now we have the Pearl, thanks to a spineless local goverment that ink-stamped a stupid and poorly thought plan designed to benefit the wealthy.

    And they think now, years later, uh, maybe a school is a good idea.

    Maybe instead we should examine our priorities.

    Or else we will end up with another pie-in-the-sky plan that, oddly enough, ends up benefitting the most wealthy among us. Strange how that happens, isn’t it?

  27. Comment from howard:

    “The transfer policy contributed to this (inequity among affluent and other schools) but so did the Portland School Foundation, which allows parents in “richer” schools to raise 100s of thousands of dollars to supplement their children’s education, while other children have nothing.”

    To be fair, neighborhood school foundations have to contribute a share of monies they raise to the district foundation which distributes that money in the form of grants to less affluent schools.

    PPS collective bargaining agreement (CBA) limits the ability of central office to assign teachers to less popular neighborhood schools. CBA also delays the hiring of teachers in understaffed neighborhood schools until teachers with seniority have had two separate rounds in which to apply to fill vacancies in more popular schools.

  28. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Howard – As per Portland School Board policy, one-third of any funds over $10,000 raised through individual (school) foundations are set aside in an Equity Fund to assist all schools in the district. Why only a third? Why not more? Why not use Portland Schools Foundation money to provide funding for low-income schools that can’t offer a full complement of offerings like more affluent schools do? Why not make schools give a greater percentage of their fund raising efforts to the foundation? These schools should not have to write grants (beg) to get the money they need for art, music, etc.

  29. Comment from pdxmomto2:

    Also of note, It is my understanding that when low-income schools do get grants from the equity fund they can not be used to fund FTE.

  30. Comment from Rita:

    In addition, last time I looked at the numbers, I believe much of the grant money actually went to the relatively wealthy schools.

    Grantwriting skills — which are fairly specialized –are presumably a bit less available in Title I schools. The Portland Schools Foundation has offered grantwriting assistance at best only fitfully over the years.

  31. Comment from Zarwen:

    Last week, I had a conversation with a parent whose children used to attend a Foundation school. She told me that, at their Foundation meetings, one of the agenda items was how to AVOID paying the 1/3 to the central Foundation. If that’s an agenda item at one Foundation school, I bet it’s an agenda item at every Foundation school.

  32. Comment from marcia:

    Yes, I have a friend who complains about their school having to kick in that extra 1/3 to our less fortunate schools. And as far as cramming people into the k-8’s…At our K-8 we have a portable for the added 8th grades. We also have a sp.ed teacher who is teaching in the hallway…right next to my door. The noise from my class annoys her and vice versa. We have an ELL teacher who is no having to teach in the teachers lounge..That is no fun for her either. As far as the grant writing goes for the foundation…what a joke …it’s like another full time job just to make the application…then..you will probably be turned down..Forget it.

  33. Comment from lauralye:

    Marcia, how sad that anyone would feel the way your friend does.

    Can schools have parent volunteers write the grants?

  34. Comment from Anne T.:

    Many of the PSF grants do go to more affluent schools, who have foundations also. When we began to document this in 2003, PSF pulled the data from their site.

    Neighborhood Schools Alliance has started some equity studies, as has Steve Rawley of this blog, Jefferson PTSA published an extensive comparison of High School Curriculums across the city.
    We believe that the books should be open and clear about every schools’ offerings. It becomes very clear when you go to PPS’s website that the data is being obscured on the glaring inequities in this district.

  35. Comment from Susan:

    Individual school foundations contribute 1/3 to the equity fund after their first $10,000 raised. When comparing a school that can raise $10,000 to one that regularly raises $100,000, that seems to make sense. What doesn’t make sense is fundraising schools being able to buy FTE and grant-writing schools only able to use grants for training and community building, if they are able to find staff or volunteers to write the grants in the first place.

  36. Comment from marcia:

    That’s right, Susan. The Foundation is totally messed up in my opinion, and always has been. When one school can afford to auction off mansions and trips to Paris, and others auction off gift certificates to the dog groomer, what kind of equity can you have?

  37. Comment from PPSexpatriate:

    hey, marcia I worked hard to get that dog groomer spa day/doggie day care gift certificate for the auction!


  38. Comment from mneloa:

    And, what kind of equity can we even think of having, when our public schools are vying for
    students who come with fundraising- or wealthy-and-willing to pay- parents to fill in the gaps. Faulty as the current lottery system may be, it was, in part,
    designed to prevent the old interview system where the principal was more interested in parent income and connection than the child’s “fit” in the school.
    I cannot see any way that this private fundraising can be used fairly for ALL the children in PPS.

  39. Comment from mary:

    Allowing schools to use grant money for FTE would be a step toward fairness. Money could also be given to schools without a foundation in the form of need based scholarships vs. grants. There could be a fixed amouont of money given to schools, perhaps as seed money to build a PTA program, site council or foundation. Private fundraising will never bring about perfect fairness but the current system could be improved.