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Oregonian: Black community activists host school board candidates during NE Portland forum

Candidates for Portland’s school board answered questions about equity, baseball and more during a forum at the Maranatha Church on Saturday. The event was hosted by Black Voices United and centered on issues central to the city’s black community.

Community activist Sam Thompson moderated the event, asking candidates their thoughts on standardized testing, state ethnic studies requirements and how they’d advocate for black kids.

There was little, if any, disagreement among candidates.

Most said they’d push for community involvement for major projects, in particular citing the district’s ongoing visioning process and the disparate rates of discipline for black boys.

Michelle DePass, the community engagement and policy coordinator for the director of the Portland Housing Bureau running to replace Paul Anthony in Zone 2, said the district has to reorient its language about equity to specifically address how it falls short for them. She also said the district should hire more black teachers.

Deb Mayer, an education advocate who has regularly testified at school board meetings and is challenging incumbent Amy Kohnstamm for her seat, proposed a program that brought mentors, or “grandmothers,” into classrooms to keep children on task.

Andrew Scott, deputy chief operating officer at Metro running unopposed for the seat representing Southwest Portland, said he would look to the community. As a white man, he said, it was his responsibility to listen to people impacted by district policies.

“The community engagement around this issue is going to be the answer,” he said. “I don’t have the answer.”

Scott is running to replace Julie Esparza Brown, a Portland State University education professor representing Zone 1 who’s currently the only person of color on the board. She declined to run for a second term.

When Thompson asked candidates how they’d address what he called the “preschool-to-prison pipeline,” all brought up restorative justice.

Clark said the district should provide wraparound supports for black students struggling in class.

Robert Schultz, an event coordinator running in a contested race to replace Zone 7 representative Mike Rosen, suggested having community members enter the classroom and either mentor or share their experiences with students.

“When’s the last time a black pastor was asked, ‘Hey, can you come read to our kindergarten class?’” Schultz said. “What about bringing ex-cons to the classroom to speak? They could tell the kids, ‘Hey, you need to pay attention, and let’s read together.’ I don’t think that’s explored enough in our society.”

By the end of the event, Thompson and event coordinators were calling him “Brother Schultz.”

“He’s trying to get invited to the barbecue,” Thompson said to chuckles across the room as Schultz gave his closing statement, where he venerated DePass and Clark as candidates he wouldn’t run against.

Thompson also asked candidates about previous conversations to sell the district’s central administration building to a group looking to lure Major League Baseball to Portland.

DePass balked at the idea of selling the district’s valuable waterfront property for $80 million, as baseball officials originally proposed.

“I don’t know if selling the building for baseball is the right thing to do,” she said. “I love baseball. But not there.”

All but three of the people running active campaigns for the four seats on the Portland school board up for election in May showed up to the event. Kohnstamm, the only incumbent running for a second term, was at a school board retreat during the event.

Wes Soderback, a perennial candidate for office who’s running to unseat her, was also absent from the forum. And Eilidh Lowery, who is running against Schultz for the Zone 7 seat, was out of town.

Two candidates, Jeff Sosne and Carlos Jermaine Richard, dropped out of their respective races, but their names will still appear on the ballot.

--Eder Campuzano | 503-221-4344

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