Some Portland city councilors say the school department is improperly supporting the efforts of a political advocacy group lobbying for council and voter approval of a $70 million bond to renovate four elementary schools.
The dust-up comes as community organizers are mounting a lobbying campaign to persuade the City Council to ask for voter approval of a full slate of renovations at Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools.
Advocates are organizing, raising money for coordinated postcard campaigns and holding rallies to make their case as an ad hoc committee of School Board and City Council members continues to examine how much money the schools need and how large a tax increase the city can afford. A public hearing about potential bond amounts will be held at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 19 in the council chambers.
Portland School Superintendent Xavier Botana provided advice to an advocacy group last month and granted it permission to distribute information to parents about the potential school bond by placing fliers in the backpacks of students who attend the affected schools, according to communications disclosed through a public records request.
“I would be happy to work with you on reviewing the draft (flier),” Botana said in a Dec. 10 email to Emily Figdor, a parent, political activist and co-founder of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, which is advocating for the full $70 million bond. “I would really want the (parent teacher organizations) to take the lead in getting information out rather than the district.”
Botana suggested edits, which were incorporated by Figdor. The final version of the flier, which lists problems at the schools, also states, in part: “City leaders are currently considering renovating your child’s school: You can help make it possible.”
It also provides contact information for Figdor. “If you have questions, want more information, or would like to get involved, please contact Emily Figdor at Protect Our Neighborhood Schools.”
Botana sent an email to the school principals, saying the goal was to engage school communities in “outreach to elected officials.” He informed principals that he had reviewed the flier and was comfortable with the contents as a way to “engage (PTO) members in the quest for the schools we all want.”
TROUBLED BY USE OF STUDENTS
Two city councilors who serve on the ad hoc committee expressed concern about the backpack flier. Even though the $70 million bond has been endorsed by the School Board, the councilors are concerned about using children to carry political messages and coordinate a campaign.
“It’s no different than sending home Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaign materials. For the superintendent to authorize that – I was disappointed,” said City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones. “I find this troubling because this is clearly using students as vehicles in a political campaign.”
Mavodones said he would prefer to put a smaller bond to voters to renovate two schools, to keep open the possibility of state funding for the others. He filed a public records request with the school department to determine how the flier was approved, since he believes it’s a violation of school policy.
District 5 City Councilor David Brenerman supports a $60 million to $70 million bond for all four schools, two of which are in his district, but also expressed concern about the schools’ involvement in the lobbying effort.
“The schools are very restrictive about what goes home with children through their backpacks,” Brenerman said. “I think we’re surprised that, even though this is a recommendation of the School Board, it doesn’t mean the schools should be used as a political campaign. It should be done outside the schools, and that’s coming from somebody who agrees with the bond issue.”
Botana did not respond to requests for comment last week, but did forward the public records provided to Mavodones.
School Board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow said she had just become aware of the backpack fliers and did not want to comment until she learned more. However, she noted that there are two relevant school policies at play.
The district’s flier distribution policy clearly allows parent teacher organizations to send information home with students. However, the commercialism policy states: “No materials used as propaganda for a political, sectarian, religious or partisan purpose shall be displayed or distributed in schools, on school grounds, or contained as paid advertising in school publications.”
SUPERINTENDENT’S ACTIONS DEFENDED
School Board member Sarah Thompson hadn’t seen the flier as of Thursday morning. She defended Botana’s decision, while also acknowledging that the board should have a discussion about how to handle such requests in the future, especially because the district cannot discriminate against any particular group.
“I trust Xavier’s decision-making,” said Thompson, noting that the superintendent has only been with the district for six months. “I think we should have a conversation about it, but I don’t fault him. (The campaign) is only going to gear up more from here.”
This isn’t the first time that backpack fliers and political advocacy have been an issue in the district.
In 2004, the School Board adopted a new requirement that backpack mailers by nonschool groups needed to contain a disclaimer indicating that the views “are not necessarily the views of the Portland Public Schools system.” That action was in response to Boy Scouts of America but applied to all groups, including baseball little leagues and 4-H groups.
The school bond flier didn’t contain that disclaimer.
Also in 2004, teachers faced scrutiny for discussing the negative impacts of a proposed cap on property tax increases and encouraging students to organize opposition to the statewide ballot measure.
City officials, meanwhile, came under fire in 2014 for posting information on its website about the controversial sale of Congress Square Park and the subsequent citizen referendum to reverse the sale and adopt stronger protections for city parks. Advocates for the referendum accused the city of using taxpayer-funded resources to try to sway the vote.
The most recent school bond fliers are just one example of the political organizing taking place around the impending school bond.
Last fall, the Portland Democratic City Committee, which is also led by Figdor, conducted a poll about issues that were coming before the council, and the poll showed support for a $70 million school bond.
When city officials gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for $800,000 in upgrades to Reiche, some elementary students showed up with signs calling on officials to do more. One little girl stood with a sign reading, “Don’t we deserve a 21st century school?”
ANOTHER POLITICAL ACTIVITY
In December, Reiche parent Joanna Frankel, a member of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, organized a “postcard avalanche” in an effort to win more support for the school bond. She said 300 cards were distributed to parents at the four schools.
A Dec. 20 post on the group’s Facebook page shows students signing the cards in the so-called Brickwork at the Reiche school. Although school policy prohibits the use of school grounds for political purposes, Frankel said the Brickwork is an area that connects the school to the community center, so it wasn’t necessarily using a school facility.
Although Frankel said she initially paid for the postcards, another Reiche parent, Steven Biel, started a GoFundMe page and raised over $600 to reimburse her. Biel, who is married to Figdor, is also a founder of a new advocacy group, Progressive Portland, which is supporting the full school bond and other progressive policies in the city.