Our Opinion: Scott, DePass for Portland schools
"This is the only thing I've ever set out to do where everyone's response has been, 'What the bleep are you thinking?'"
That quip, shared by Portland school board candidate Andrew Scott, captures a concern we had entering the 2019 election season.
With three veteran Portland Public Schools board members declining to run for re-election, we wondered who would step up and seek an unpaid position than can easily chew up 20 hours per week and deliver far more grief than gratitude.
After all, it's not surprising that three incumbents on the seven-person governing board are bowing out. The past four years have been more grueling than the Blazer-Nuggets postseason play, as the volunteer panel has had to respond to a couple blistering state audits that revealed entrenched dysfunction in the state's largest school district, struggled to explain how a bond measure came up $200 million short of what's needed, and hired a new superintendent to clean up the mess and deal with a possible $17 million budget shortfall.
Who would want this job?
It turns out several smart, dedicated Portlanders who are well poised to lead the district into what we hope is a new era focusing on equity, accountability and greater transparency.
In making our endorsements, we were looking for a few common themes. First, we shied away from anyone who seemed intent on fixing specific problems at individual schools or with the district's curricula.
PPS educates nearly 50,000 students at more than 100 locations, employing 4,000 teachers and an equal number of nonclassroom personnel.
It's like a midsize city, with the superintendent in the role of a city manager. A board seat is not a perch to pursue pet projects or settle political scores. The board's job is to set out clear expectations for the superintendent and hold him or her responsible.
Here are the people we think are best poised to do that.
Given his background as government finance analyst, it's easy to peg Andrew Scott as the board's future "budget guy." And Scott, currently the deputy chief operating officer for Metro, says he looks forward to diving into the district's $687 million spending plan. But the self-described "privileged west-side parent" says his real passion is equity.
As he explains it, when he was trained as a budget analyst, little attention was paid to how spending plans impacted poor and disenfranchised communities.
As his career evolved (he's had stints in Portland City Hall and the White House) he's learned that the power of the purse can be used to either protect patterns of historic discrimination or break them. He's troubled by the lingering achievement gaps among Portland students and committed to joining those working to close them.
"I'm not an educator," said Scott, whose opponent, Jeff Sosne, is not campaigning. "I don't know the best curriculum for grade school that will get kids to read. My job is to let the superintendent decide that and hold him accountable."
It's hard to understate the value that a professional government budget expert would bring to the board — particularly one who understands that his role is not to decide where the money goes, but to pay attention.
"I hope I know enough that I can ask the right questions," he said.
We're convinced he can.
We briefly considered not making an endorsement in the race. Not because the quality of the candidates is so poor, but because they both offer so much.
In the end, we settled on Michelle DePass, whose broad personal and professional experience give her the edge over Shanice Clarke.
DePass is one of those Portlanders well-known to policy-makers and community activists but largely invisible to the public; which explains her stellar roster of endorsements.
Her behind-the-scenes work includes mid-management posts at the Portland's parks and housing bureaus, and at Metro. Her mother and grandmother both taught in PPS. She has a passion for education and says she's gained insights as a single mom navigating the school bureaucracy.
DePass and Clarke share similar assessments of the challenges facing the district and strategies to meet them. Both are smart and articulate.
They both are concerned that poor and minority students lag behind others in the classroom and that teachers often are left without support staff when dealing with disruptive students or those who have special needs.
They agree that the bond measure shortfall has damaged the public's trust, and each understands that regaining it will require the board to demand more accountability from Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and the new leadership team he has installed.
Clarke, at 27, already has racked up an impressive resume. The Jamaican immigrant currently is the program coordinator for Portland State University's Pan-African Commons, a job that puts her in touch with a diverse group of young adults and the challenges they face.
She's also served on the board of OPAL, an environmental justice nonprofit and worked on the group's initiative to increase options for Portlanders dependent on public transportation.
That background in education would translate well to a seat on the board, and should she not get there this round, we'd encourage Clarke to stay engaged with the district in other ways.
For now, we think DePass is the slightly better choice. Her long personal history with the district, combined with her experience in large bureaucracies and small community-based nonprofits will allow her to make an immediate impact on a board that will need it.
Our picks for Zone 3 and Zone 7.