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Mid-county leaders reflect on past, future


David Douglas Superintendent Barbara Rommel reflects on 2009 and looks forward to 2010.
Jerry Danna, co-owner of four Elmer's Restaurants, thinks decisions made this year will affect all of us for the next 10. Danna sees a dark cloud over general spending.
Bob Brown, owner of Bob Brown Tire Center, said although the Great Recession hasn't seriously impacted his business, many of his customers have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
Two mid-Multnomah County school district superintendents, three business leaders and two social service agency executive directors reflected last month on what the last year has meant and what challenges the new year brings. Not surprisingly, the economy, finances, jobs, health care, ballot measures and the Portland Plan process were prominent in their thoughts.

David Douglas School District Superintendent Barbara Rommel had an interesting 2009 red-letter day - the inauguration of President Barack Obama. “The federal government has tried to be involved with education over the last few years,” she said. “Under the Bush Administration, the No Child Left Behind (Act) had a positive purpose, but it had negative consequences in its administration. Despite the fact that we were in a depression, there was increased funding through stimulus programs for the Department of Education. That allowed us to provide a full day of kindergarten at no charge. Had we not had the stimulus money, we would not have been able to do that. The bad news is that the funding is limited, so there's not enough for next year.

“David Douglas continues to grow. Our enrollment now is higher than it's ever been in history. I wish I could be more hopeful about the year ahead. The way the economy of the state is going, with unemployment high, we will have to have some reductions. If Ballot Measures 66 and 67 fail, the reductions will be even more extreme.”

Rommel was involved in the creation of the East Portland Action Plan. At a Portland Plan workshop at David Douglas High School in November, she canceled a school board meeting scheduled for the same night so members could take part in the planning exercise.

“The facility issue (in the school district) is a very serious concern,” she said. “We need more classroom space, especially since our enrollment continues to grow. It makes sense to spread new development across the city instead of concentrating it in a few areas. I'm impressed by the involvement of the citizens from this area. Only by being involved and using their voting power will the people of this area be heard.”

Reflecting back, Parkrose School District Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray said, “One of the most significant events last year was that we cut 12 percent of our budget. Class size increased - not alarmingly, but some. We used federal ARRA (American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) funds to hire literacy coaches. We chose people who were already in the classroom, so we saved jobs. We also hired Christine Blouke to help us to become more technologically proficient and to communicate more effectively in public. Sacramento School won a bronze medal in the William F. Clinton Foundation and American Cancer Association's Healthier Generations Alliance kids competition. Our sports program was thoroughly impressive (in state championships). Our volleyball team made the finals. Our girls water polo team was first and our boys team second. Our dance team placed second for the sixth year in a row. It's a big deal considering our small size. Go Broncos!”

Less impressively, “Shaver School was 'in correction' for the second year in a row. We did not meet federal standards for adequate yearly progress in special education, reading and math.” She noted that 90 percent of the school's population qualifies for free or reduced lunches, and 50 percent come from households in which English is not the first language.

Looking ahead, Fischer Gray said, “There'll be more budget cuts this year. I hope Measures 66 and 67 pass; if not, we'll be looking at even deeper cuts.” In that event, the district stands to lose $1.8 million from a budget of $35 million. “A lot of us will be looking at losing school days; we have nothing else to cut.” The district is planning to float a major bond measure in 2011.

Fischer Gray, like Rommel, served on the EPAP advisory committee and attended the Portland Plan session at David Douglas High School. “The work is critical, especially as it relates to implementing the East Portland (Action) Plan,” she said. In addition, she sits on the mayor's education council. “We're really working to reduce the dropout rate.”

East Portland business leaders and social service providers agree on one thing: the biggest issue last year was the economy, and the biggest issue in the year ahead is what to do about it. They disagree on what the course of action should be. The business people may not agree with Franklin D. Roosevelt's most famous quote: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But they do agree that fear has become a powerful negative issue for them.

Bob Brown of Bob Brown Tire Center in Parkrose said, “Without a doubt, the biggest issue facing us has been the economy. We weren't affected so badly, but a lot of our customers were hit hard. We only see many of them every two or three years, but we know that's true. It will be an issue in the years ahead. We're holding our own so far.”

Jerry Danna, co-owner of four Elmer's Restaurants said, “The most critical issue for us has been to stay in business. We've been very cautious about not doing any spending we don't absolutely have to do.

“Generally there's a dark cloud about how the general public will spend their money. It's a question of whether people can stay in business and whether many wage earners out there will continue to have a job,” Danna continued. “In the coming year the government - state, federal and local - has to recognize we're facing these issues. The decisions they make next year will affect us for the next 10 years.”

For Parkrose Hardware owner Bryan Ableidinger, the top issues were “the economy, unemployment and uncertainty about what the government will be doing and how it will affect us. People generally are very skeptical and very concerned about what the government is doing, so people are holding back on spending. People are not proceeding with projects they would normally do and that they have the money for. The result is hurting business and costing jobs.”

In the coming year he sees “more of the same. Not many people agree that current policies will cause a recovery anytime soon. We're throwing money in every direction for no particular purpose. Bank loans are almost impossible to get because banks are reserving money for their top executives, and there's very little left to lend. I would like the government to throw out the current health care proposal and work on a bipartisan package. Does the health care system need reforming? Yes. Is this the way to do it? No.”

Judy Alley, executive director of the nonprofit SnowCap Community Charities in east county said, “The great recession is the thing that has had the greatest impact on us. There are long lines of people (needing help) waiting for me to unlock the door in the morning, longer than at any time in my 20 years here. Next year we need to reach out to each other to make ourselves stronger. I may have something my neighbor needs, but I can't help if I don't know what that is. Our whole community has to come together.” More specifically, she calls for “more land to grow food to make us more locally self-sufficient.”

Jean DeMaster, executive director of the nonprofit Human Solutions and a veteran homeless advocate, says, “For me, the biggest issue was having Barack Obama elected president. He was a grassroots candidate for people trying to take back their country. For us at Human Solutions, it was trying to get funding for health care and housing.” And for the future? “It comes back to the same two issues. We have to get the health care bill passed. We need more money for health care and affordable housing. We have to have the funds actually used, not swallowed in red tape or diverted to useless projects. And we have to see Measures 66 and 67 pass.”
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