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Lisa Loving of The Skanner News
Published: 24 April 2012

The Portland Public Schools Board voted Monday night to close one of the district's only schools focusing on science, math and engineering – and the only all-girls public school in the state.

The panel also voted to close Humboldt Elementary – after years of proposing to shutter it -- and send its students to Boise-Eliot.

Facing $27.5 million in state cuts, combined with federal budget cuts and a tax base crippled by the economic downturn, district officials said the Harriet Tubman Young Women's Leadership Academy didn't have enough students to warrant keeping the doors open.

Parents countered that the five-year-old school never had a chance to grow beyond its 224 students because the district had threatened to close it so many times.

Board members Matt Morton and Martin Gonzales voted against the Tubman closure.

"It was really sad and it confirmed the concerns that the whole thing was a done deal," said prospective Tubman parent Sonya Gregg. "When you only have 20 days to make it happen there's only so much you can do."

Gregg confirmed that her daughter will now attend George Middle School, their neighborhood school in St. Johns.

"We have our local middle school and we'll make the best of it," she said. "This sounded too good to be true."

  While mayoral candidate Charlie Hales' staff missed the deadline for replying to The Skanner News' request for comment on the Tubman STEM school closure, the candidate did send a letter Monday to the Portland Schools Board in support of keeping Tubman open. Here it is:
Dear School Board members,
I'm writing to strongly urge the board of education not to cut one of our city's most important educational programs, the Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy for Young Women.
This unique program, focusing young women on college prep for a future in math, science and more – is a vital element of a complete educational system in Portland.  It provides many girls with an opportunity to which they would otherwise not have access.
In my opinion, this is the very type of program that keeps Portland on track to meet expectations of higher graduation rates, and a higher success rate for students gaining access to higher education.
I would urge the school board to retain this vital program and if further budget reductions are needed that they come from administration and central office, instead of a one-of-a-kind educational program that would be hard to re-create once it has been disassembled through harsh budget cuts.
Thank you for your attention,
Charlie Hales

 District officials fast-tracked the Tubman closure vote, pulling it out of the general budget package, which will be voted on May 14.

The district said it sped up the closure to help girls' families find new schools more quickly, but Tubman families say it was to discourage them from fighting to keep the school open – as they have twice before.

Jyothi Pulla, a Tubman mom and powerhouse behind the effort to save the school, said this week that parents had contacted Gov. John Kitzhaber's office to file a complaint but that they didn't learn about that option until days before Monday's vote.

"Yes, some of us have filed complaints, but it was hard to get a whole lot of parents on one day," she said. "We did not know until Saturday night, that that was what we were supposed to do."

Repeated calls from The Skanner News for comment from Gov. John Kitzhaber's office on the school closure went unreturned. Kitzhaber last month rolled out a new education plan requiring districts to sign achievement contracts with the state specifying the student achievement they are striving for, but critics say the plan offers no guaranteed state funding to meet those goals.

Pulla posted frequently about Tubman's organizing effort on the Oregon Assembly for Black Affairs listserv, asking for support and advice from the community that has watched school closure fights play out for decades.

"We did everything they asked us to do in the short amount of time, found staffing alternatives to take the cuts, offered to help with enrollment, raised $110,000, but they are rolling ahead," she wrote Monday. "I know many of you have fought these fights over the years and know a whole lot more than an outsider like me would know, but it doesn't make any sense to me, any which way I look at it."

While several candidates for office have spoken this season on the need for STEM education (science, technology, education and math), of the top three mayoral candidates, only one returned The Skanner News' request for comment on the closure: Jefferson Smith. (See text of Charlie Hales' letter to the school board above)

"Tubman is part of Portland," Smith said. "The school has shown success educating our next generation of leaders in STEM fields, and we need to work with families and community leaders to develop a solution -- instead of coming in with a decision seemingly already made.

"I am heartened to hear that community members are stepping in and offering to help build the school's enrollment base, and we need to give Tubman a chance to leverage that assistance," Smith said. "If we're going to bring equity to our city, we have to make sure our budgets match our priorities."

At a "study session" two weeks ago State Sen. Chip Shields, Rep. Lew Frederick and Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz all appealed to members of the school board not to close Tubman, offering new resources and warning that closure of STEM-focused schools will hurt the local economy.

But it all boils down to money – and the state and federal governments' defunding of public schools in a down economy.

"In short, it rolls down hill," says Portland Public Schools spokesman Matt Shelby. "Inadequate state funding translates into budget cuts at the district which translates into staffing cuts at schools," he said. "For schools that already have too few staff, that means closures and/or consolidations.

"We're where the rubber meets the road and because of that, we are seen as the district that keeps taking things away."

Pulla said Tuesday on the OABA listserv that the Tubman families are organizing a "Tubman day," and that the students have created a Youtube channel called the Tubman News Network (TNN)  to continue agitating for the school, and for a more inclusive district budgeting process.

She shared a letter she said she'd mailed to school board members after their vote Monday night.

"From the time of the announcement to the vote today, we had 20 days," she wrote. "The process with which this whole thing was pushed through, without a dialogue with the stakeholders, violates the basic principles of democracy.

"You started dismantling Tubman long before the board vote tonight, and may move on to the next order of business tomorrow, but the young women at Harriet Tubman will continue to speak out, until they find an answer to the question, what would it have taken to keep Tubman alive?"

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