Local school board elections start to take shape

Nine people pose for a picture while standing on an outdoors track.

When the dust settles after school board elections this May, the composition of the Portland school board—pictured here in 2021 with the former student representative and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero—will look different.

School boards around the Portland metro area are poised for shake-ups this spring, with some long-serving members stepping down in the Portland, Beaverton, Hillsboro and North Clackamas districts.

The departures come as school boards—historically a wonky, under-the-radar forum for decision-making on superintendent hires, budgets and buildings — have emerged nationally as a staging ground for contentious battles. School board members have been in the crosshairs over pandemic-era policies on masking, vaccination and re-opening and, more recently, over how race, gender and sexuality are taught in schools.

Locally, some districts have switched to online-only formats for school board meetings, citing safety concerns.

So far, with about a week to go before the candidate filing deadline, there are a handful of districts where races have drawn single candidates or even none at all, including Molalla, West Linn-Wilsonville, Reynolds, Lake Oswego, Centennial and Tigard-Tualatin. Other districts have all slots filled with contested races, including Canby, Sherwood, Gresham-Barlow and Banks.

Some of the year’s most contentious — and potentially expensive — races could come in the North Clackamas district, where three incumbents are not seeking re-election and all four seats have drawn candidates with ideologically opposed views.

In Portland, former board chair Amy Kohnstamm won’t seek re-election, after eight years on the board. Board member Eilidh Lowery is also stepping down, in her case after one four-year term. Obligations to her work as a pastor in the Methodist church make it difficult for her to continue, she said. Both women said they also want to make room for new voices on the seven-member board.

Veteran school board member Julia Brim-Edwards is running for a vacant seat on the Multnomah County Commission but said that, win or lose, she plans to continue serving out the remainder of her school board term.

“There is still work I am committed to at Portland Public Schools, including advancing middle school equity for East and North Portland schools and referring and passing a local option levy in 2023 to fund more than 800 teachers,” among other priorities, Brim-Edwards told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Portland’s two other incumbents, current board chair Andrew Scott and former board chair Michelle DePass, are both running for re-election, in what will be their second terms.

So far, neither Scott nor DePass has drawn a challenger. Former teacher Eddie Wang is the sole person so far to file for Lowery’s Zone 6 seat in Southeast Portland, while Derrick Peterson, a retired Multnomah County Sheriff’s captain who lost his race for sheriff in 2022, is so far running unopposed for Kohnstamm’s Zone 2/Northwest Portland position.

The deadline to file is March 16, and the election is on May 17. Candidates must live within their zone but are elected districtwide.

Kohnstamm said that when she arrived on the school board in 2015, “the district was hanging by a thread, at least in terms of the central office,” after a string of superintendent shake-ups and other central office departures.

“We did not have the right people in the right places,” Kohnstamm said. “It was a lot of very foundational work that needed to be done. [Now] I can look at almost every aspect of the organization and see functional systems and strong leaders.”

She highlighted two other core achievements during her time on the board: ongoing curriculum adoption and related teacher trainings across all subjects and grades, a change to a previous grab-bag approach that meant variations from school to school and the district’s adoption of a new funding formula that sends more money to its highest-need schools.

The next board will have its hands full, Kohnstamm added: “One area I remain concerned about is special education. It’s so challenging for our educators, and such a hard time with the labor market. Those kids deserve so much support in their school environments and it has been hard to deliver.”

Kohnstamm was the sole member of the school board to vote against the district’s plans to return students to school in a hybrid format in the spring of 2021 after a year of building closures, because she felt the proposal gave short shrift to middle and high school students, who were only able to return to school buildings for a couple of hours each week.

“It broke my heart. I knew it was not defensible from a public health perspective,” Kohnstamm said. “We were an outlier, and our kids paid the price.”

Lowery singled out increasing arts education opportunities and getting overdose reversal drugs into middle and high schools as highlights of her tenure. The latter, she said, marked a sea-change in how the district deals with substance abuse issues among students.

“Now, if a student comes forward asking for help, punishment isn’t the forefront of the conversation,” she said. “We are treating students more compassionately in an effort to help them and I think it makes a difference for our kids, especially in the middle of an opioid crisis.”

The next iteration of the board will need to grapple with a long-simmering middle school redesign plan, she added. “We are a mess at that age. It’s such a development quagmire. Our system does not work for those children and we know it. We need to look at those practices and create a better model.”

Three people are leaving the Beaverton school board: Eric Simpson and Becky Tymchuk, both of whom are wrapping up eight years on the panel, and current board chair Tom Colett, who has been on the board for six years. Tymchuk’s seat has drawn three contenders so far, including Justice Rajee, the director of the Reimagine Oregon project, which advocates for social justice and racial equity, Jeff Myers, a regular critic of the district’s curriculum adoptions and Amy Webb Cabrera, who works at the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Hillsboro is losing eight-year board member Lisa Allen. So far, just one candidate has filed to run for her position: Ivette Pantoja, a former Hillsboro city council candidate who is a graduate of the Emerge program, which trains Democratic women to run for office.