Now that we’ve elected three new members, what does a school board actually do?

By Marissa Yang Bertucci

Driving around Portland this May, you saw more school board campaign signs perched in front yards than November presidential election yard signs. Still, when pressed about the role of our new board members, many voters have a limited understanding of what board members actually have the power to do.

For instance, the special election on May 16th included a ballot measure to increase funding to Portland Public Schools by $790 million, notably to fix dire safety problems like lead in the water, unsafe levels of radon, and asbestos. At my school in Portland, without sufficient district funding to address asbestos, our (amazing!) custodial staff has been wandering the hallways, meticulously laying down duct tape where the floor tiles were loose and letting up asbestos. Just take a second to think about that.

After lots of waffling and inaction, this bond had voters wondering: uh, what’s been up with the board on this? The main critics of that bond said things like, “Yeah, we need that funding, but I don’t trust the PPS school board to manage the money effectively.” Thankfully, voters decided to pass the bond because the overwhelming need supersedes the potential downsides of minor mismanagement. But the skepticism is legit.

So what’s up with school boards…in general?

A school board is an elected body tasked with establishing the vision for a school district; according to the National School Board Association, “The school board represents the public’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance for what the public schools need and what the community wants.” Ideally, this means that the school board is listening to what the community thinks the students should be learning, figuring out policies that affect the structure of public education. They’re supposed to balance the needs of the community, district staff like teachers and principals, and students. The board hires the superintendent and is the final authority in district policy changes, like budgets, calendars, and curriculum.

School board members are typically unpaid or paid very little. The Jacksonville Time-Union reported that “less than 2 percent of all U.S. school districts pay board members more than $20,000.” In Los Angeles, board members are paid $24,000 a year, and in Chicago, Houston, and right here in Portland, Oregon, board members are unpaid volunteers.

“Our best hope is that these candidates deliver on their promises to help right an unstable ship here in the district.”

Portland’s school board, a panel of seven elected for four-year terms, has been the subject of a fair amount of controversy lately. When we had five thousand snow days this past winter, who voted on how many additional days to tack onto the end of the school year? Board.

When Portland Public Schools student activists rallied for a dress code that didn’t lopsidedly penalize girls and students of color, who ultimately approved the changes, resulting in one of the freest dress codes in the country? Board.

In 2016, when amazing student of color activists from APANO argued that Portland Public School would see more academic buy-in and better graduation rates if they would honor the histories of communities of color with ethnic studies courses, who did they lobby? Who heard their testimonies and ultimately passed the resolution to mandate offering at least one ethnic studies course at each Portland high school? Board.

Who sometimes disagrees so bitterly that the longest-standing PPS board member, Pam Knowles, announced she wouldn’t work with them anymore, saying that personal agendas and overstepping had created “a divisive environment that preys on fear, not trust or collaboration”? Board.

Who must have known about shortcuts in health and safety maintenance for years and allowed previous superintendents and district staff to let students drink from water fountains with ineffective filters? Board.

Who can’t seem to hire a damn superintendent for next year? Booooaaaard.

Portland Public Schools’ board of education has certainly been through the wringer in the public eye with scandal after scandal. Scott Bailey, who just won his May 16th bid for PPS school board position from zone 5, offered this scathing critique of the PPS board’s weak track record for implementing policy changes successfully: “This is a district that too often thinks a PowerPoint is a plan.”

In addition to Scott Bailey, we elected Rita Moore to zone 4, and Julia Brim-Edwards to zone 6.

Our best hope is that these candidates deliver on their promises to help right an unstable ship here in the district. On the horizon in Portland, notably, is a shift away from K-8 schools to allow for more room in K-5 schools and separate middle schools. Some K-8 schools have fewer than 100 students at the junior high level, so they just can’t offer the same richness of programming that 6–8th grade middle schools can, like band, ceramics, or multiple foreign languages.

“Some schools that appear to have ‘desegregated’ are only more multicultural because white families are gentrifying black families out of neighborhoods.”

Questions about redrawing boundaries to shift who has access to schools can be traced back to arguably the most influential mention of school boards in United States history: the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that schools could not be segregated and that separate is hella not equal. The school board in Topeka, Kansas at the time still allowed their elementary schools to be segregated in accordance with a Kansas law that allowed cities with populations over 15,000 the right to segregate schools.

Schools across the nation tried bussing their students across previous neighborhood lines, or redrawing those school lines altogether. But national trends in the 1980s saw schools were resegregating, often because those neighborhoods were segregated due to housing discrimination and other indirect but still quite racially-based forms of segregation. Indeed, Ronald Brownstein with the Atlantic cited a study that revealed, “[Three]-fourths of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics attend schools where a majority of the students qualify as low-income.”

We see that in Portland big time—some schools that appear to have “desegregated” are only more multicultural because white families are gentrifying black families out of neighborhoods. A Seattle education think tank, the Center for Reinventing Public Education, found that black students in Portland were four times as likely as white students to attend a public school scoring in the city’s bottom 20% in math—only Miami and Seattle showed worse public school racial equity through that particular assessment.

Under previous superintendent Carole Smith’s guidance, in spring of 2016, the board started to consider boundary changes that would hopefully alleviate crowding and other equity concerns. Since then, several boundary changes have been approved, mostly to balance middle schools out. Time will tell us if these changes will benefit our students of color equitably.

Can a humble school board fix lead in the water, neighborhood resource imbalances, and racist test scores? It’s with great hope and trepidation that we welcome our school board of half-newbies on for what’s sure to be a wild ride.


Header photo credit: ThoseGuys119 via photopin (license).

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