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Smith leads education forum


Jefferson Smith, right, Representative elect for House District 45 greets a constituent at a forum held last month.
“Normally, a candidate raises money from contributors at close to the legal limit,” candidate Jefferson Smith told about 25 east Portlanders gathered at Fir Ridge School on a sunny April Saturday. “You buy attack ads that get enough people to dislike your opponent a little more than they dislike you. We encourage politicians to be merely levers for existing interest groups.”

Of course, the normal rules didn’t apply to Smith. In State House District 45, he had the rare good luck to be the only declared candidate in either party. So, of course, he could afford to sit home and relax.

Instead, he convened a public forum that brought together the superintendents of three Mid-county school districts, the high school principal of a fourth and state school Superintendent Susan Castillo.

“We need to be building power around the public interest,” Smith said. “I want to use the campaign process to learn. Education is obviously something we care deeply about. There’s no better way to invest our resources. The biggest things on our minds are education and crime.”

Right now, he said, Oregon ranks 44th among the states in funding for education, but fifth in money spent on prisons, “and that’s not a recipe to compete in the global economy. One of the best ways to reduce the number of people who go to prison is to increase the number who graduate from high school.”

Castillo began, “I’m so impressed with this meeting! Wow! You really care about education.” And, she said, that’s being better reflected in the state legislature. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re finally going in the right direction” in terms of state funding, she said.

“We have many challenges, but also many wonderful accomplishments.” Prompted by Smith to name her top priorities, Castillo said, “Continuing to have reinvestment in our schools, implementation of high school diploma requirements, and continuing to address the issue of equity.” This last, she said, was “a target we’ve never set before: success for all children.”

Terry Kneistler, superintendent of the Reynolds School District, said, “To those who paid (Multnomah County) income tax — thank you. We were able to have summer school, to do literary counseling like never before.”

Centennial Superintendent Bob McKean commented, “The I-Tax brought us up to the national average (in school spending), which gives you an idea of where we were. Hopefully we’re catching up.”

David Douglas High School Principal Randy Hutchinson said, “I appreciate the I-Tax, and our ability to pass a bond measure.” However, he added soon after, “Soon the wolf will be back at our door. We need to lobby for real life funding and stop passing unfunded mandates.”

Kneistler agreed, “Advanced graduation requirements are very noble provided there’s an implementation plan. There’s little doubt kids are coming to school unprepared, and we’re stuffing far too many kids into far too few rooms.”

Those present did respond to the goal to meet the needs of all students, not just the academically advanced. Hutchinson said that at David Douglas, “we’ve gone from a 16 percent poverty level to 70 percent. We have people from all over the world who all seem to be living in Mid-county. They speak 55 languages, and they all need to pass the sophomore state assessment test. Back in the good old days, without a high school diploma you could still get a job; these days if you drop out it’s very hard to find a job.”

McKean said, “We’re coming from a system of sifting and sorting students to one where we want all of them to succeed. Good skills can save them from the budget hole we’re about to fall into. In the 1950s, half dropped out; they weren’t the ‘good old days.’ Motivation is key. There’s always room for academically competitive high schools, but there’s a need for kids to find out how they connect to the real world.”

Hutchinson pointed out, “There’s not one college in this state that offers a vocational training program. We’re saying to professionals, ‘Why don’t you drop your $80-an-hour job and teach for $25?’ The shop programs in most high schools are gone. Kids going into the work force need a higher level of reading and math than someone going to college. The skills needed for technical work are considerably higher than they were in the past.”

Kneistler cited Reynolds Learning Academy, where there are programs leading to construction, engineering and architecture careers, built through a partnership with the trades in question. “There are kids who will be thrust into viable jobs upon graduation.”

In another direction, Parkrose Superintendent Karen Gray said that she had come from a town hall meeting on homelessness earlier in the day. “There are over 2,000 homeless kids in the county, and it is sad and scary,” she said. “It’s so important to connect kids to school, to connect them to adults who care about them whether they’re there or not. I hope for career technical programs that can connect kids to family wages, and give them a reason to be there. I hope for an effective way to break the cycle of alcohol, addiction and homelessness that we see.”

Castillo agreed, “We need to do more to invest in the workforce training. Kids need to be successful.” She also said that support for Head Start and full-day kindergarten was “absolutely essential” for future success.

Kneistler agreed, “Pre-K is essential because we don’t have the one parent at home that used to be part of the fabric of our society.” On the other hand, he said, “Head Start often can’t find the facilities to operate in high quality.” Funding in general is “inadequate because the corporate sector is not contributing their fair share.”

This led to a discussion of the school finance structure.

Jessica Pedersen, who recently moved from out of state into the David Douglas district, asked, “What’s Measure Five?” When enlightened, she asked if it could be repealed.

Castillo replied, “You can always get something on the ballot, but we know property taxes are one of the least favorite taxes. That’s not to say we can’t have the conversation.”

Another person present argued for a sales tax. McKean asked, “Is the fact that we don’t have a sales tax the reason Vancouver exists?”

Many of those who came pledged to work on some of the issues named.
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