Trouble at Benson Tech

by Steve Buel, September 15th, 2007

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Steve Buel (not to be confused with me, whose name also happens to be Steve). For more on this story, see today’s Oregonian.

Something is amiss at Benson Tech. Benson has the reputation of being one of the best technological high schools in the country. Surely, you would think, the school board would want to protect and hone this reputation, particularly in a city where there is such widespread criticism of the way it educates its lower economic neighborhood students. But that does not seem to be the case.

When I was a teacher at Lane Middle School in the far out SE, which was loaded with struggling students, Benson High School was one of the bright spots in the future education of many of these kids. It was a legitimate first step in getting out of poverty and making something of themselves. It was also a great path for those kids who wanted an avenue to success outside of a purely academic road.

But you just couldn’t up and go to Benson. You had to earn it. You needed a teachers recommendation and enough academic skills to write an essay stating why you wanted to go there. This did two things. It helped weed out the kids who were not interested in putting in the effort required in Benson’s programs and put pressure on the kids to do well in middle school. A great help in teaching kids what it takes to get along in the world.

But the school district, in their infantile wisdom, eliminated these requirements and also has refused to fund Benson at the level necessary to maintain all the programs it had developed and to upgrade the school and its programs in the manner such an outstanding school deserves.

Yes, it costs more to have a school such as Benson in your district but it is worth it to make sure you have genuine opportunities for the students Benson helps. Of course, there are undoubtedly few Benson kids from parents in Stand for Children (SFC) or the Portland Schools Foundation (PFS), who run Portland Public Schools and control the board, so I guess it is not surprising this is the direction the district has gone.

But you have to ask yourself what is really amiss. This district treats its lower economic neighborhood students like they are outsiders, and it has demonstrated this over and over. Is this just another example of what is happening in PPS and America today, the rich and powerful making sure they are taken care of first and foremost, more nonsense from SFC and PSF, or is something else at work here?

I think it is legitimate to explore if institutionalized racism is rearing its ugly head again. I hope not.

Steve Buel is in his 41st year of teaching, presently in the Evergreen School District in Vancouver. He is a former PPS school board member and has followed PPS politics since 1975.

School Choice vs. Neighborhood Shools

by Steve, September 13th, 2007

Former PPS school board member Steve Buel notes in comments on this blog that all school board members elected in the last two elections promised to “strengthen neighborhood schools”. Indeed, “preserving strong neighborhood schools” is not just a campaign pledge of board members, but a stated policy of Portland Public Schools. Buel asks the critical question: “How are they doing?”

The answer: Not very well, Steve.

The trouble is, this policy is consistently and thoroughly undermined by another policy of PPS, “School Choice” (note the capitalization). Open transfers, allowing students to transfer from any school to any school (space allowing) drain tens of millions of dollars out of our poorest neighborhoods each year. This is not only devastating to the learning environment, it also has a profound impact on property values.

Over a year ago, the Flynn-Blackmer audit (230KB PDF) pointed out (in no uncertain terms) that the transfer policy is at odds with strengthening neighborhood schools and decreasing racial isolation. It has significantly set back both of those district policies. In light of this conflict, Flynn and Blackmer “urge[d] the Board to clarify the purpose of the school choice system.”

The board has pushed this back repeatedly, and now, over a year since the audit was released, they have scheduled their first discussion of the issue for this October.

I too am dying to know “the purpose of the school choice system.” I’ve repeatedly heard it justified as a way to keep middle class families in Portland, but recent demographic changes put the lie to that rationale. So, school board members, what is the purpose of our radical open transfer policy?

I’m working hard to get the school board to consider this not only from the educational perspective, but also as a matter of public investment policy. The PPS board controls an annual budget of nearly half a billion dollars. Can a city with progressive bona fides like Portland tolerate the kind of leadership that that divests nearly $40 million a year from its poorest neighborhoods?

A significant subtext to the story is that the current board seems unwilling to listen to past board members like Buel or Sue Hagmeier, or take cues from the Beaverton school district, which has managed its budget in a notably more equitable manner. There they are, sole experts in the field, inventing this great new thing called the wheel.

This funding inequity story has already been picked up by reporters Beth Slovic at Willamette Week and Jennifer Anderson at the Portland Tribune. Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond is late to the party, but hopefully will pick up the story soon.

Welcome, Portland Tribune Readers

by Steve, September 11th, 2007

Jennifer Anderson wrote a good piece in today’s Tribune about Humboldt Elementary, and how well it is doing, despite Portland Public Schools’ radical transfer policy.

You might be looking for this map, showing how this policy is robbing tens of millions of dollars a year from Portland’s poorest neighborhoods and reinvesting it in the richest. Or you might be interested in the archives of my research and writing on public schools.

Six Years, $2120 + Three Percent?

by Steve, September 10th, 2007

That’s how I read the maintenance workers’ contract (762 KB PDF) to be voted on by the Portland Public Schools board of education tonight.

The members of the District Council of Unions (DCU) have been without a contract for three years. It looks like they’ve finally squeezed a token raise out of the district, with one-time payments of $1000 and $1120 this year and next, followed by a 1% increase in ’09 and a 2% increase in ’10. Am I reading that right?

If so, the district gave a little over their “final offer” of exactly nothing from earlier this year, and the unions gave a lot.

But to be honest, I’m in the dark on this. None of Portland’s non-union papers does much coverage of collective bargaining negotiations (unless someone is kicking the union out — they’re all over that), so I have no clue if or when this deal was actually struck, if DCU’s rank and file have approved it, or what. It’s being voted on by the board tonight as part of the business agenda, so I assume this has already been offered to the DCU. I’ll let you know what I find out. If you know details, I’d be happy to hear them!

Updated: Headline should read “Seven Years, $2120 + Three Percent?” The contract has been ratified by the rank and file and approved by the board tonight. It is a four-year contract, amounting to about 7%. Considering the DCU has been without a new contract for three years, that’s about 1% a year.

Updated 9/11/07 10:30 p.m.: I almost forgot to mention, Dan Ryan was very gracious after the vote, and thanked the DCU members who testified at the July meeting. He said it really made a difference. Thanks, Dan, for listening to these guys. (I don’t think there were any DCU members were present.)

Food Front Workers Say “Union No!”

by Steve, September 6th, 2007

Wow. Food Front staff actually voted to dump their union.

I’m not surprised as much as disappointed. When I worked there ten years ago, apathy was very high. Many, many employees dragged their feet on joining the union when they were hired (something they could be fired for under the terms of the UFCW Local 555 contract). When I started there, fresh on the heels of a failed Local 555 organizing campaign at Nature’s fresh! Northwest, I took the initiative to try and get folks a little fired up about their union. I organized an election for shop steward. I served as assistant shop steward. I worked with the rep from Local 555 to engage the rank and file and educate them about their rights and responsibilities under their contract.

It was amazing to me that many folks didn’t appreciate the benefit of having collective bargaining in the workplace, especially after we had worked so hard to get representation at Nature’s.

In general, things seemed to work pretty well under contract at Food Front, though many still complained about dues (which local 555 set considerably lower than dues for their mainstream grocery workers). Rank and file staff had access to a real grievance process, which was used in one instance to remove a manager who had harassed women workers with impunity before the contract.

The initial contract was not especially great in terms of pay scale. For whatever reason, the generally non-union natural foods industry has always managed to undercut the wages of the mainstream, unionized grocery stores by a significant margin. So the folks who negotiated the original contract just wanted to get their foot in the door. Hey, they got guaranteed step raises, at least, instead of the ass-kiss-ocracy that was in place before. They figured in two years, we’d have another crack at pay scale.

But management didn’t see it that way. Wages stayed low. Folks moved on (myself included). Without committed people keeping the union engaged, and with turnover at the shop as well as at Local 555, the union started to take this one tiny shop for granted.

So I’m not surprised things fell apart. UFCW Local 555 represents 18,000 workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington; Food Front probably has no more than 50 represented workers (28 voted in the decertification election, which was 20-8 in favor).

I haven’t set foot in Food Front for years. I’m pretty sure some of the same folks are still working there; some of them must be going on 20 years or more. It’s not my place to tell them how to run things, but it’s a shame they couldn’t work it out with UFCW. Then again, maybe the UFCW wasn’t the best choice when they first certified.

Some staff say they will look for another, smaller union to represent them, but now they have to wait a year. I have my doubts, though, given the attitude expressed by employee Stephanie Hawkins about Local 555. “They’re big business. The co-op is the antithesis to that.”

That’s standard anti-union canard. It’s the old “two bosses” lie management likes to trot out when they want to discourage staff from organizing.

The union, of course, is a democratically governed, nonprofit organization which operates for the benefit of its members. The co-op, while not corporate-owned, is not employee-owned either. It is run for profit, and for the benefit of its member owners, not the workers. In my experience working for both corporations and consumer co-ops, both need union representation to give workers a democratic voice in the workplace. Maybe even more in co-ops, where wages are lower, there is less training and fewer standards, and arbitrary discrimination and promotions are the norm.

Hey, while we’re talking about it, anybody want to take a crack at organizing New Season’s? I know all Rohter’s moves. Let me dig up that article I wrote for the Alliance back in ’97 and the newsletter we distributed to all the workers at all the Nature’s locations….

Vicki Phillips has them Wowed at Education Week

by Steve, September 5th, 2007

Try not to gag when you read this. Ed Week’s Eric Robelen didn’t have to look any farther than the good ol’ Portland Business Alliance to kick off the hagiography.

“Vicki is very focused on creating opportunities for all kids, and reaching out to less advantaged populations,” said Sandra McDonough, who heads the Portland Business Alliance, which advocates for the city’s business community. “It’s in her DNA.”

Robelen did manage to get a couple sound bites from Portland Association of Teachers president Jeff Miller, who called Phillips’ approach “trendy and shallow” and dinged her for “lip service” to the idea of collaboration without any follow through. He also put in a call to Portland Schools Alliance president Martin Gonzalez who took Phillips to task for not taking public input seriously and not sticking around to finish what she started.

But not a word from the Neighborhood Schools Alliance, the most important and visible grass roots group to rise up in opposition to Phillips’ devastating policies, which often exacerbated the very problems they were supposed to solve.

Robelen had no problem finding someone from the much less visible (and much less challenging) Community and Parents for Public Schools, the group that founded the annual school choice fair. President Doug Wells calls Phillips “action-oriented” (ooh!) and “found her style refreshing” (ah!). He also notes “some found it challenging.” (Those of us who live in the red zone found it especially “challenging”.)

Robelen seems bent on assuring his readers that Phillips is actually quite mainstream. First he quotes Eugene Hickok, former deputy U.S. secretary of education under President Bush, who naturally doesn’t think she goes far enough: “I don’t think she’s a dramatically different thinker.”

Then he turns to Jeanne Allen, president of the charter school advocacy group Center for Education Reform, who also doesn’t find Phillips’ privatization efforts bold enough: “She’s pretty much ‘in the box’ and representing a conventional way of thinking.”

Lost in all of this (as it was in Portland), is that Vicki Phillips is an ideologue, who fits perfectly with the Gates Foundation’s market-oriented schools reform agenda. The biggest tool in her shed is “School Choice”, and with this hammer in hand, every problem that she sees looks an awful lot like a nail.

She bludgeoned the hell out of Portland Public Schools with it, and left a segregated, two-tiered school system in her wake. Too bad Education Week couldn’t sniff out the real story here.

Living With the Vicki Phillips Legacy

by Steve, September 5th, 2007

One of the most puzzling things about Vicki Phillips’ agenda at Portland Public Schools was the way her policies either contradicted or competed with one another. “School Choice” (note the capitalization) was a held so dearly, that it may have cost the district $1.1 million in federal grant money.

With open transfers causing massive divestment in North and Northeast Portland, school closures were inevitable. Unfortunately, one of the schools on Vicki’s chopping block was Applegate Elementary, which was one recipient of a $5.2 million US Department of Education grant awarded to help desegregate the Jefferson cluster.

Without the efforts of Lynn Schore, a Neighborhood Schools Alliance activist, PPS would have happily swept this under the carpet. But Lynn was dogged in filing and following up on the Freedom of Information Act request that brought this to light.

Schore’s work has exposed yet again that an open transfer policy is at odds with other district goals, such as strong neighborhood schools and ending racial segregation. The sad fact is that even with Phillips gone, we’re stuck with a strong “School Choice” bias in our administration and, evidently, on the board (the degree to which we will discover as they take up the issue this fall).

PPS seems quick to dismiss this loss of money as a problem. “When the buildings closed, the need was reduced,” Willamette Week quotes an unamed PPS spokesperson as saying.

There’s a lot more to this story, and hopefully we’ll get more of it in the weeks to come. How was the rest of the grant spent, for example? Will this stick to Vicki Phillips, or did she cover her ass? If she covered her ass, who will take the fall? Stay tuned, folks, this could get interesting.

PPS Divestment by Cluster

by Steve, September 3rd, 2007

Thanks to reader Zarwen, who pointed out that my ZIP code map was a little fuzzy around the edges. This prompted me to spend some time collating the PPS attendance data by cluster. The result is a more accurate (if not substantially different) view of how Portland Public Schools’ open transfer policy has created a two-tiered school system by unevenly distributing state general fund money around the city.

The pattern is the same: massive divestment in working class and poor neighborhoods, with those funds reinvested in the hottest real estate markets of Portland.

(Click on image for full-size view.)

I’ve based this on the exact same as the ZIP code map, but I’ve reorganized the data by cluster instead of ZIP. Have a look at the reorganized spread sheet if you’re as nuts for numbers as me.

Methodology for this map is the same as for the ZIP code map. That is, for each school, I subtract the number of PPS students in the attendance area from the number of students at the school and multiply the result by that school’s budget per student. I then totaled these numbers for each cluster. For the sake of this map, I’ve included Benson in the Cleveland cluster, since it is physically within the attendance area.

So no new conclusions here, folks, but hopefully a more accurate view of what I’ve been talking about. The next time somebody talks to you about “failing schools” in our poverty-affected neighborhoods, you might want to point out that you get what you pay for.

Edited to say: Hey, happy Labor Day! I hope you got a paid holiday, and if not, I hope you got time and a half or a comp day. If not, well, damn, I’m really sorry. Anyway, here’s to all us working folks who create all the wealth in the world and keep the economy humming. Cheers!

Following the Money: the Big Picture

by Steve, September 2nd, 2007

Folks have asked me to enhance my neighborhood divestment map with demographic data and the locations of schools. Great ideas I intend to work on as I have time.

But I want to keep looking at another important angle for a bit. At the macro level, a level removed from the complicated business of actually educating the unwashed masses (a.k.a. tomorrow’s tax payers), it’s all about economics. Specifically real estate.

Our school board is vested with the power to distribute state general fund money. As I’ve clearly shown, they currently take tens of millions of dollars a year out of our poorest neighborhoods and lavish it on neighborhoods with some of the most expensive real estate in town. Any real estate broker will tell you that one of the critical elements in pricing and selling a house is neighborhood schools. (Even with open transfers, it’s rare to see a real estate listing that doesn’t mention schools.)

The bottom line, intended or not, is that PPS policy is enhancing property values in our richest neighborhoods and holding down values in working class and poor neighborhoods.

Everyone who owns property in Portland has a dog in this fight, even if they don’t have school-aged children.

So, who’s got the most interest in keeping the existing transfer policy? Those who own property in the green zone, with or without children in school.

(Click image for a larger view, including a key to school board members)

Here’s my map with school board members superimposed over the zones they live in and represent. No surprise that David Wynde and Bobbie Regan are mostly in the green. They were among Vicki Phillips’ strongest supporters, and seem to have bought in to her corporate grant-funded, market-based schools agenda more than anybody. Now that we see graphically how this policy benefits their net worth, it’s really no surprise they’ve been so unfailing in their support of it.

Most other board members have small pieces of green in their zone (with the notable exception of Dan Ryan), but the vast majority of green falls in Wynde’s and Regan’s zones.

What I’d like to see is the other board members making some noise about this. In the most cynical sense, shouldn’t they be trying to bring home some bacon, too?

Honestly, this is a fundamental issue of economic fairness. Beyond the school board’s duty to educate our children, they have an ethical responsibility to distribute state tax revenue in a way that provides the most benefit to the most people. Current PPS policy clearly benefits owners of property in the hottest real estate markets in Portland to the detriment of the rest of us.

Make no mistake, this is about class. How can a “progressive” city like Portland allow this to continue? I know folks who live in the green zone don’t have much interest in changing things, but what about everybody else? Will we continue to let the board steal this economic benefit from us without so much as a peep?