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Underdog activist makes bid for PPS school board seat

Mike Rosen, a Portland Public Schools parent, watchdog and volunteer of 15 years, announced to the Tribune this week that he’s running for the Portland School Board in May.

His candidacy — plus up to three potentially new board members in other races — has the potential to bring a major power shift to the seven-member board.

A new dynamic could significantly alter the culture of the board, as well as the policy and budget decisions the board makes for the next four years.

All board members are volunteers and represent the geographic zone in which they live.

Rosen, 54, whose children graduated from and attend Cleveland High School, is running for the Zone 7 position in Southeast Portland.

The incumbent, Greg Belisle, has not declared whether he’ll run for re-election, and did not return an email from the Tribune by press time.

Either way, Rosen says he has a strong base of supporters from his advocacy work over the years, and has been talking with people during the past six weeks to hear about what they expect from their school board. He knows he’ll have to raise a lot of money to beat an incumbent, and will start fundraising in the coming weeks.

On many issues, Rosen says, the public — and he — believes the board must be more aligned with “student-focused” decision making. He says he’d work to make the board more transparent, accountable and independent from PPS’ central administration.

“I really feel like the school board is tone deaf,” says Rosen, cofounder of a grassroots group called the Portland Parents Coalition. “They’ve lost touch with what the community expects.”

Rosen is referring in this case to the board’s controversial decision in August to approve a 28 percent pay raise for Superintendent Carole Smith.

The board voted 5-2 in favor of the raise, prompting a Facebook petition a few days later that collected 500 signatures in protest. They called the raise “shameful” in light of struggling families across the district.

Smith, who has led PPS for seven years, now earns $247,000.

Rosen says he would have joined board members Steve Buel and Tom Koehler in rejecting the pay bump, since he doesn’t believe the board paid enough attention to performance measures.

“If (Smith) meets them or exceeds (the standards), then her raise is commensurate to that, like anyone else,” Rosen says.

Besides the salary bump itself, Rosen says, the action alienated many in the community at a time when the district can’t afford that to happen.

“The blowback they got for her raise was pretty significant,” he says.

Where’s the will?

Portland’s high school graduation rate has been the district’s top priority, yet Rosen questions why the district still does not offer a full school day for all high school students.

Last year, Rosen and other parents of high schoolers formed a group called the Portland Parents Coalition to fight PPS’ practice of mandating “late arrivals,” “early releases,” and two-hour-long breaks because the schools weren’t staffed to offer instruction for the entire school day.

“Barely 50 percent of the high school population goes to school full-time,” he says. “There aren’t enough teachers assigned.”

District leaders have pointed to the teachers union’s contract language, but Rosen says he’s tired of laying the blame elsewhere.

“We have enough money in PPS to do this,” he says. “The will doesn’t exist.”

Historically, the Portland Association of Teachers has had a tenuous relationship with the district. In February, the 2,900-member union narrowly averted a strike after 10 months of tense contract negotiations.

“I see much more potential for the PAT to be an effective partner with the district,” Rosen says.

Rosen and other cynics especially rolled their eyes at PPS’ announcement last January and again in the fall that it found a total of $37 million in the budget. Yet there was no “meaningful discussion” in the community about how to get dollars into the classroom, Rosen says.

“With a recovering economy and boost in state education funds ... they have the means to budget more efficiently and provide these services, including school days,” he says. “Their excuse is they have to open the contract. Stop using teachers as an excuse for their ineffective management of their resources. It’s just a contrivance.”

History of involvement

In 2003, when his children were in grade school, Rosen became a team leader for the nonprofit Stand for Children’s neighborhood chapter, Sellwood-Moreland. He then became the Portland chapter chairperson for the organization.

With a PhD in environmental science and engineering and a bachelor of arts in chemistry, he moved to Portland 25 years ago from his native New York to work in environmental engineering.

Since 2003, he’s been the watershed division manager for the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.

For 10 years, Rosen worked to mobilize parents to school funding rallies, lobby for smaller class sizes, and to close the achievement gap.

“I’ve canvassed, phone banked, testified, rallied, organized and lobbied to improve our schools and secure more funding for our schools,” he says.

In 2003, Rosen also joined forces with the city’s most

active school advocates, who called themselves Help Out Public Education.

They helped pass the Multnomah County tax measure, which provided $128 million annually for three years for a full school year and smaller class sizes.

Throughout his statewide advocacy, he’s been a PTA president, site council chair and classroom volunteer at Llewellyn Elementary School, volunteer at Sellwood Middle School and Cleveland High, and PTA legislative chair at Cleveland.

In the past few years, Rosen helped get out the vote for both of the PPS bond measures — the one that failed in 2011 and the $482 million bond measure that passed in 2012 after being restructured.

“The public wasn’t on board with the district on the first bond measure,” he says. The second time around, Superintendent Smith “spent a lot of time in the community, listening to them.”

After the win, Rosen complained that the bond’s oversight committee was not large enough and representative of the community. He feels his requests were ignored, but he’s monitoring the bond projects closely.

He knows the school board must have the public’s trust in hand in 2016 when the bond renewal vote comes up.

“Will (voters) step up?” he says. “The need exists. That’s where transparency comes in.”

In his free time, Rosen is a huge comic book fan and enjoys biking and kayaking with his family.

On Twitter @jenmomanderson

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