Last week’s school board candidate forum at Franklin High School provided some interesting insight into the personalities of four of the candidates, but was ultimately disappointing for the lack of substantive information it provided to attendees at the 90-minute event.
About 80 people, including an impressive number of students, gathered in the gym last Wednesday evening to hear candidates debate the future of Portland Public Schools. Three of the school board’s seven seats will be decided in next month’s elections.
The forum, which is the only scheduled PPS debate in Southeast Portland this year, was cosponsored by the Cleveland High School PTA and the Franklin High School PTSA. All five candidates for the three PPS Board seats were invited. Pam Knowles, the Zone 5 incumbent who did not draw an opponent in her re-election bid, was a no-show.
The candidates vying to represent Zone 6 were David Morrison and Tom Kohler. Kohler is a small business owner and former Corvallis City Council member who calls our schools Portland’s “best asset” and emphasized critical thinking skills as an educational goal.
“What do we want in our kids?” he asked. “We want them to be able to read and write, to think. We want them to be tapped into their creative selves… When I dream I dream about changing the way that we educate. We need project-based learning. We need people and kids out in the community, we need them outside, and exploring and doing critical thinking.”
David Morrison is a self-confessed single-issue candidate who is running to bring awareness to health impacts of wi-fi radio signals to students in wi-fi enabled schools. His lawsuit against PPS on the subject was dismissed last year.
“The science is irrefutable,” he says. “Don’t take my word for it, look it up. Look up ‘wifi health schools.’ The issue is on fire in Europe, on fire in Canada. France is taking wifi out of the schools, Switzerland rewired all of its computers with hard wire. Bavaria refuses to take wifi.”
The Zone 4 race will likely be the more competitive of the two, with incumbent Martin Gonzales running against former PPS Board member Steve Buel. Although Gonzalez alluded to disagreements between the two, there was really only one disagreement aired at this event: their differences on the importance of student testing.
Buel, who has a background as a teacher, union leader and PPS Board member from 1979 to 1983, blasted testing, saying that “corporate educational reform has destroyed all sorts of schools systems… One of the reasons that I want to get on the School Board is that I recognize this and I’m not sure that the people on the School Board now do, and we need to fight against it.”
Gonzalez, who is nearing the end of his first term on the Board, recognized that the testing regime has its problems, but he says that the problem isn’t the tests, it’s their role in the way teachers and schools are evaluated that’s the problem.
“Testing is appropriate as a tool,” he said. “It’s what we do with the information that’s the question.”
Buel also talked about what he sees as the “void” at the PPS Board, which is that they’ve “cut the community out” of policymaking.
“It’s so difficult even to go and talk to them. Have you been down there? They give you two minutes and that’s it. There’s no exchange, no dialog, there’s no one who asks you a question. There’s no one who says ‘Why don’t you come back later and we’ll talk about this some more?’”
Gonzalez emphasized his working relationships with the current Board and his commitment to educational equity.
“Why did I decide to put in my name again? I think it’s because I finally am beginning to see the full potential in regards to working with my colleagues on the Board –and my contribution in that process to be able to look at how do we bring those voices together? How do we continue to build momentum in terms of issues of equity and how do we provide a space for those people we hardly ever hear from? How do we continue to deliver a quality education for all children?”
Questions were submitted from the audience and screened by the moderator, former Mayor Sam Adams. Among those that made the cut: “Would you rather go to Cleveland or Franklin High School and why?” and “What was your best and worst day in high school?”
Sadly, among the index cards that remained unchosen were questions about PPS’s shocking high school dropout rate.
Also unmentioned was the PPS’s failure to equalize course opportunities between high schools in different areas of the district. During the High School Redesign process that resulted in closing Marshall High School two years ago, PPS told the community that the closure would enable the district to offer the same course offerings to former Marshall students as are offered at the top district schools elsewhere in the city.
Ballots for the May elections will begin arriving in voters’ mailboxes in about two weeks. The deadline to return them is May 21st.