09 Aug

Measure 5 at 25: We barely remember the schools we’ve lost

Every June, we get a message about the current reach of our local schools.

And it’s not even from graduation.

“Look at the Rose Festival parade,” says Larry Dashiell, senior director of school performance at the Portland school district. “We used to have Portland Public Schools bands in the parade. We don’t have that now.”

Now, in fact, it’s hard to see local school bands anywhere.

In 2015, exactly 25 years after the passage of the tax-cutting Measure 5 in 1990, it’s not easy to see everything that’s changed in our schools. Just like at the Rose parade, you don’t see what’s not there.

But after a quarter-century of cuts, and various stop-and-go local financing efforts to fill in gaps, our idea of an appropriate public education has changed dramatically – and apparently, permanently. On a year-to-year basis the bleeding can seem controlled, but a seventh-grader or a parent parachuted in from 1990 might not recognize much – except maybe some library collections.
With current class sizes, at least they wouldn’t be lonely.

“Prior to Measure 5, our class sizes were around 20 to 25,” recalls Carl Mead, deputy superintendent of Beaverton schools. “Post Measure 5, it was not uncommon to have class sizes starting at 30, and rising from there.” A substantial local option levy passed two years ago has gotten elementary classes back down, but high school classes can still run to 35 or 36.

In Portland, reports Dashiell, class sizes that were once around 22 are now more likely to be in the upper 20s, with some over 30.

Generally, it comes to more kids studying fewer subjects.

Both districts offer fewer language options; Beaverton now has what Mead calls a “smattering” of French and German to go with Spanish, and in Portland it’s now hard to find the German, Russian and Latin once widely available. There’s another shortfall – a vanishing of offerings like wood shop, metal shop, electrical shop and drafting.

We’ve lost things besides class listings. “If you have 35 kids sitting in a language class that once had 22,” points out Mead, “it’s taking your ability to support them.”

By high school, reduction has become a pattern, with fading of art, music and phys ed throughout elementary schools. Then there’s the dwindling of counselors in schools; until Beaverton passed its local levy, schools had half-time counselors, with caseloads in four figures.

Other options have faded as well. Dashiell started as a high school speech teacher; when speech classes disappeared, along with high school speech teams, he was driven into administration. The bands no longer visible at the Rose Parade have been joined in oblivion by school orchestras and choirs.

Surviving activities are now likely to carry a price tag. Playing Beaverton sports costs $225 a season; Portland teams, $200. There is support for low-income students; Portland students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch pay $35. Still, a family with an athletic teenager – or worse, more than one – could face a bill comparable to a Blazers ticket package.

And aside from the official teacher-student ratios and programs gone missing, schools have significantly fewer adults – assistant principals, counselors, office staff, librarians, teaching aides – dealing with students. Again, nobody sees what’s not there, but students have a different experience than in 1990.

Not all of this, of course, is directly due to Measure 5; we’ve also had years of a bone-rattling Great Recession that has sliced school programs in states that never heard of property tax limitation. We’ve also had PERS bills coming due, although we were cutting away long before that situation became acute.

There have also been heroic efforts by local taxpayers and fund-raisers to stem the bleeding. Multnomah County residents paid an income tax for three years, while teachers – as their union leaders will point out reflexively – taught for two weeks for free. Both Portland and Beaverton voters have passed sizable local option levies, making a major difference – in a state where some districts now have four-day school weeks.

Local school foundations have been a help, but also a complication, as some schools struggle to raise four figures while others have parents who can auction off weeks at their vacation homes.
But since 1990, every school looks different, even if fewer people might now notice.

“When you think about 25 years,” says Mead, “you’ve got a whole new group of parents. There’s a new standard of the level of support that schools get.”

In fact, we now put a whole different standard for schools on parade.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/9/15.

09 Aug

Race is all Hillary’s to win — or lose

The Democratic presidential campaign is all about one person.

Nobody but Hillary Clinton could win the Democratic nomination – although it is barely possible that she could lose it.

If anybody else is nominated, it would be less because of a brilliant campaign on the other candidate’s part than a massive meltdown on hers.

And while meltdowns do happen, in this case an awful lot would have to melt.

As of now, Hillary Clinton has an average 40-point polling lead over her nearest competitor, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. Every Democratic governor, senator or congressman who has endorsed anybody – that’s more than 150 party leaders – has endorsed Clinton. She’s raised $68 million, has staff in every state, and is highly popular with women and non-white voters vital in Democratic primaries.

Against that, reporters eager for a story report that some Democrats are unhappy. Of course, that statement is redundant.

Maybe congressional investigators will uncover secret emails between Clinton and Muammar Khadafy, or Joseph Stalin. Maybe the Clinton Foundation will be revealed as a front for Chinese gambling interests, or worse, Comcast. Maybe Bill Clinton will endorse Bernie Sanders – although that might not actually hurt Hillary that much.

Maybe Hillary Clinton will somehow come apart.

But either way, the Democratic campaign can only be all about her.

NOTE: this commentary appeared on KGW-TV 8/8/15.

08 Aug

Hillary has shown Oregon her toughness before

Seven years ago, when Hillary Clinton was last in Oregon running for president, an interviewer remarked that she’d gone from frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic nomination to a determined underdog campaign against Barack Obama.

In a tightly secured classroom of South Eugene High School, Clinton grinned, “Ain’t life grand?”

Fourteen years before, Clinton had come to Oregon to campaign for another fading cause, her health care overhaul, then dying a gurgling death in Congress. Still, she energetically advocated it before thousands in Pioneer Courthouse Square – leading a chant of “Pass It Now!” that seemed unlikely to sway a distant Congress – and dispatched four busloads of supporters to places with minimal interest in welcoming them.

Hillary Clinton may not always win, but it takes a lot to make her give up.

Wednesday, she’s in Oregon under somewhat more encouraging circumstances, here for a $2,700-a-pop fund-raiser – as Jeb Bush demonstrated last week, that’s why White House hopefuls come here, to a state that may soon officially redefine itself as a presidential candidate ATM – at a time when she dominates the national Democratic polls. Bernie Sanders may be rising in Iowa like a particularly assertive species of hybrid corn, and this week reporters are determinedly blowing on the faint embers of a Biden campaign, but Clinton’s polling numbers still make her the biggest non-incumbent favorite for a Democratic nomination since Andrew Jackson in 1828.

And Jackson never came to a fund-raiser in Portland.

Even after months of bumpy media coverage, and the quadrennial stories about Iowa and New Hampshire voters solemnly telling reporters they really weren’t ready to make up their minds, the most recent surveys of polls still show her leading Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by an average of 40 points. (Adding Joe Biden to the polls doesn’t change things much.) Every Democratic governor, senator or congressman who has endorsed anybody has endorsed her, including Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader and a majority of both caucuses. Her boundless list of celebrity endorsements extends from Magic Johnson to Lady Gaga.\

Moreover, Clinton has been very diligent – as always – in cultivating the key demographics that turn out in Democratic primaries. Last weekend at the convention of the National Urban League, she directly took on Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise” slogan minutes before Bush spoke, declaring, “They can’t rise if the minimum wage is too low to live on. You cannot seriously talk about the right to rise and support laws that deny the right to vote.”

(On the subject of voting, Clinton has also gone out of her way to praise the automatic voter registration from DMV rolls enacted by the Oregon legislature this spring, calling it a national model in contrast to many states’ going in the opposite, more restrictive direction. Oregonians may soon have to show ID not to vote.)

Sunday, Clinton endorsed President Obama’s ambitious new environmental initiative before it was even formally released, calling it, “a significant step forward in meeting the urgent threat of climate change.”

Monday, responding to the Republican congressional move to cut all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, Clinton released a video declaring, “If this feels like a full-on assault on women’s health, that’s because it is. When politicians talk about defunding Planned Parenthood, they’re talking about blocking millions of women, men and young people from live-saving preventive care.” She went on to attack Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry by name for their policies on the issue.

In Oregon, possibly the most pro-choice state in the country and the home of large numbers of tree-hugging Democratic primary voters, these could be politically fortress-like positions. On the other hand, Portland is likely to produce a sizable progressive turnout for Sanders’ first appearance here next Sunday – a Memorial Coliseum rally, not a big-ticket fund-raiser.
In this case, the stadium is the message.

With Clinton and Sanders both here within five days, Oregon is getting pre-campaign attention rare for any small state not named New Hampshire. With the state primary not until mid-May and the convention delegation not that sizable, the focus is unlikely to persist; in most presidential years, the Oregon primary is less part of the race than part of the victory lap.
Clinton is likely to be here either way.

“Part of what you have to do in campaigning for the toughest job in the world,” she said in an interview before the Oregon primary in 2008, “is show resilience, and that’s what I’ve done.”

And life is grand.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 8/5/15.

04 Aug

Wyden approaches Iran nuclear deal from many different directions

Barack Obama called Ron Wyden Thursday.

The Oregon senator, like many others, has a policy of not discussing conversations with the president. But at a time when the issue of Congress upholding or rejecting the anti-nuclear treaty with Iran is all over Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail, it’s not hard to imagine what came up.

Sometime in about 50 days – which Congress will spend mostly on its August recess – the Senate and House will vote on the treaty. In all likelihood, both houses, controlled by Republicans, will reject it, Obama will veto the rejection, and it becomes a matter of enough Democrats standing with the president to prevent a two-thirds override of his veto.

It seems like something for a president and a senior senator to talk about, especially when it’s coming up a lot in other places.

“We’re getting a lot of calls at the office” – besides the ones from the White House – “and a lot of questions at town meetings,” said Wyden last week, which doesn’t even count a TV ad campaign against the agreement blasting across national television.

“People ask about it in the grocery store,” he reports. “I’ll be out and about in August listening to people, and I think I’ll get a pretty good cross-section of Oregon’s views.”

Plus occasional calls from the president, although Wyden carefully says, “I wouldn’t characterize it as pressure.”

The Oregon senator starts out with the same clear position that everybody else in Congress does.

“A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable,” he says. “Iran has a long history of providing support for bad actors in the region.”

But he also comes at it from some particular positions of his own.

“I’ve got a long history of supporting diplomatic intervention,” Wyden points out. “I voted against going to war with Iraq. I was very supportive early of cutting off support for the war in Afghanistan.”

But listening to rhetoric from Iran, and especially from its Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, about wiping Israel off the map reminds Wyden of another part of his record.

“My family came to America in the 1930s, and not everybody got out,” Wyden remembers. “We lost some at Theresienstadt,” the Nazi death camp in Czechoslovakia. It causes Wyden to listen to Khameini “on the basis of my family’s experience.

“Supporters of the treaty will say (Khameini’s comments are) just for domestic politics. But it doesn’t sound like he’s just mouthing off.”

The image became more prominent in the argument last week when GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, charged that with the deal, Obama “will take the Israelis and march them to the doors of the oven.”

Even the Israelis objected to that.

The Israelis, of course, also object to a lot of things about the treaty. The treaty could, presumably, leave Iran in a position to become a nuclear power in 10 or 12 or 15 years – although as former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas said in Portland last week, “In the absence of an agreement, Iran would have become nuclear within months.”

There are also objections that the end of sanctions would provide billions for Iran to continue to make trouble – although the rejection of the deal might cause some of the other negotiators, such as China, Russia and the Europeans, to jump off the sanctions wagon.

Wyden has some other questions, such as the news last week that side agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Commission had not yet been read by Secretary of State John Kerry.

So far, the congressional divisions seem largely partisan, with just about all Republicans sounding opposed, and some Democrats coming out in support. Last month, Oregon’s junior senator Jeff Merkley called the agreement “a significant milestone in the effort to preclude Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon,” while he pledged to “be deeply engaged in examining the details in preparation for the upcoming review by Congress.”

Wyden gets another view from his position as second-ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, which involves both questions on the enforceability of the agreement, and relations with unhappy Israelis after the agreement went into effect.

“On the intelligence committee,” he says, “you go twice a week into a room that almost feels like it’s locked, and you get reminded that it’s a dangerous world.”

Unfortunately, you can never quite know what will or won’t make it more dangerous.

It seems like something worth discussing with the president.

And that Wyden, and other Senate Democrats, will get lots more opportunities to chat.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/2/15.

04 Aug

In a classified ad for Portland baseball, billionaire wanted

Dear billionaire,

I’m sorry to address you so impersonally, but Forbes magazine says there are more than 400 of you in the United States, so it’s hard to write you individually. No disrespect intended; I’m a big fan, and I’m writing on behalf of one of the politest cities in the country – well, unless you’re a Republican presidential candidate.

(You could probably stop reading now, Mr. Trump.)

But seriously, you’d find us really polite and friendly. If two Maseratis arrive at a four-way stop in Portland at the same time, it can take forever for them to decide who goes first.

That’s the kind of place we are – the place where you now have the chance to become a major league baseball owner.

And really, it won’t cost much more than a 250-foot yacht.

The idea came up at this year’s All-Star game, when new baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said he was interested in expansion, and listed Portland among his top possibilities. We’re not saying we’ve ready to start printing tickets – as people say after losing an Oscar, it’s a thrill just to be nominated – but the possibility is now out there.

True, we don’t have a stadium, or an obvious place to put one. But if we had a billionaire owner, all that might fall into place. (We’ve had some experience with local billionaires, and we tend to get along just fine. We make a point of it.) I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be some lively public hearings, and maybe some street theatre on the issue, but we could work it out.

We might even get you declared a local improvement district. Certainly, we could get you a tax break by having the outfield designated as a bioswale.

A major league team and a stadium in Portland could have all kinds of options nobody else has imagined. You could have the first stadium with parking for thousands of bicycles – which would also help you get project approval from the City Council.

(Bike lanes on the basepaths would probably be going too far.)

And forget hot dogs and crackerjacks. Throughout the stadium, at every entrance to the field, we could have food carts. It wouldn’t be just a ballpark; we’re talking a three-level cart pod. For the first time in baseball history, someone could hit a foul ball into a bowl of Belize chicken stew.

A Portland major league team would challenge other ways major league baseball operates. In a system stuck for decades with just afternoon games and night games, the Portland Tree Huggers could express our culture with weekend brunch games.

Scheduled for 11 a.m., but always running late, the games would feature Bloody Mary vendors, and along with the starting lineups, managers would post that day’s specials. We could assure you a line running out the stadium door; Portlanders are accustomed to lining up for brunch.
There would, of course, be a rule against hitting umpires with poached eggs.

And for later in the week, we could move up the time of night games to make them Happy Hour games, starting at five, with discounts on ballpark quiche. On the field, we’d have doubles for the price of singles.

With the right bartenders, we could lead the league.

Don’t worry about selling naming rights to the stadium. The Blazers and the Timbers have both easily sold naming rights to health care providers, and the whole alternative medicine field – very big here – is completely untouched.

And we’d be a much better place for you to own a team than the other U.S. cities mentioned by the commissioner. In Charlotte, N.C., you’d never be bigger than Michael Jordan. In Las Vegas, you’d never be bigger than Blue Man Group, or even Wayne Newton. In northern New Jersey … you don’t want to go to northern New Jersey.

But here, you’d be loved. (It’s our policy.) And as our other teams have shown, you don’t even have to win to be loved. Just show up, and you’re grand marshal of the Grand Floral Parade, we’re prepared to be flexible on parking, and Portlanders will cheer when they see you on the JumboTron.
Try that in northern New Jersey.

(It would help if you’d say you really wouldn’t want to own a team in Seattle.)

So call baseball commissioner Manfred (212-931-7800), and say you’re interested in an expansion team in Portland. When money talks, the commissioner listens.

Then call me, and we’ll talk about details.

Or at least we’ll have brunch.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 7/29/15.