Before Portlanders choose between the two candidates for an at-large seat on the school board, they’ll first have to decide which school board they’re talking about.
Is it the board that candidate Gene Landry describes, the one that has “a good handle on the budget,” where “everybody’s working as hard as they can” to put precious public funds to the most effective use?
Or is it the board Landry’s opponent, John Eder, describes, the one that “didn’t even put its fingerprints” on the current budget, the board that’s been “meeting less and less” and gets treated like “a lapdog” by an administration that’s taken many of the board’s responsibilities and given them to highly paid administrators, while cutting personnel in the classroom?
If you think Portland has Landry’s board, you don’t want Eder on it. If you think Eder’s take is closer to the truth, you should be pounding the pioneering Green Party pol’s campaign sign into your front yard — because if he doesn’t win, your schools are screwed.
Anyone remember 2007? That was the year the people of Portland found out their school district was on the rocks and leaking red ink because nobody was steering the fiscal ship. A half-million-dollar budget cut ordered by the city council was never executed; instead, the district hired over a dozen special ed teachers and handed out bigger raises than contracts stipulated. The school department blew close to a million dollars it didn’t have simply because expenditures weren’t being recorded when the accountant was out of the office.
Both the superintendent and the finance director resigned in the wake of that scandal, but the nine-member board was hardly blameless. Its members are elected to oversee both the school budget and the administrators who implement it. To say they were asleep at the wheel would be an understatement — they never left their cabins.
Eder thinks the current board is on course for another fiscal collision. “It’s this turn-key approach to the budget that got us in trouble the last time,” he told me during a phone interview this week. He thinks administrators have used the financial mess of ’07 as “an excuse to professionalize and make administrative jobs out of functions the school board should be doing.”
The board “needs to hold the administration accountable,” said Eder, a former state legislator and unsuccessful candidate for mayor three years ago, “not take its marching orders from the administration.”
Landry — who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large school board seat last year — thinks the committee “has really paid attention” to the budget in the years since the scandal. And he’s more comfortable with the idea of board members deferring to administrators when faced with complicated budgetary and policy decisions. “We’re not the experts in education, so you have to rely on the district,” he said over the phone.
Whether the current board is sufficiently critical of the administration is debatable, but a recent scandal proves they need to be. Last month, Superintendent Emmanuel “Manny” Caulk scrapped a plan he cooked up — apparently without the board’s knowledge — to launch an online education program run by a for-profit corporation and paid for with public money. Board members objected to being left in the dark and questioned the plan during a workshop, but Caulk only backed down after the mayor and the state education commissioner publicly raised concerns.
To their credit, Eder and Landry are both skeptical of the value of online education and the iPad approach to learning. Landry said a recent study found that students spend an overwhelming amount of their time with school-issued, ’net-connected devices engaged with “entertainment” and social media, rather than learning. Eder said he’s yet to see any evidence that laptops and tablets improve academic performance, and he suspects such programs are more about getting kids hooked on the products of “mega-corporations like Apple.”
Eder’s election to the board would make him the third member of this (officially) non-partisan body associated with the Green Independent Party. A decade ago, Greens held almost half the school board seats and often clashed with establishment Dems and administrators over budgetary, policy and procedural matters. Eder’s your man if you think it’s time to rock the boat again.
Landry, who presently has two kids in Portland’s public schools, is unlikely to be a rabble-rouser, but he’s certainly no fool. Portlanders who like the board they have now will be happy to have Landry aboard.