When Harriet Tubman Middle School in Northeast Portland reopened in 2018, Portland Public Schools spent millions to alleviate air quality issues related to the school’s proximity to Interstate 5. .
Three years later, those concerns intensify as conversations about extending I-5 to the Rose Quarter intensify.
So earlier this year, the Portland Public School Board promised partner with local and state leaders to “understand the environmental and health impacts of the highway”. But if state leaders go ahead with the highway extension, the board wants them to “accept responsibility for the damage they have caused and mitigate past and potential future damage.” to the health of the students and staff of Harriet Tubman High School ”.
Part of that means paying over $ 100 million to move Tubman to a “safe and healthy place in historic Albina.”
In order to direct this money to Portland Public, heads of state want to know where Tubman’s students will go. The district has two options: buy a new site for Tubman or move to an existing school, an option that would require renovations – and potential relocation for a school community. But before PPS chooses the latter, some parents and other school members want to have a say.
This conversation began last week, at three meetings to talk about “the future of Harriet Tubman Middle School.” One was virtual, and two were in person – one at Tubman, another at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, one of the four schools that feed Tubman.
For King’s parents, including Tiffany Robinson, the meeting notice raised concerns that their campus was among the options for Tubman’s new location.
“I don’t understand why we continue to be a target,” said Robinson, who is also the PTA chairman at King. “I don’t know what other schools they have in mind, but I just think those schools have to be intact.”
At the time, no face-to-face meetings were scheduled at Sabin, Irvington or Boise-Eliot / Humbolt, the other three elementary schools that power Tubman – a fact King’s parents noted with concern. District officials have since scheduled meetings in Sabin, Boise-Eliot and Irvington for January 5-6. The district has not made any decision regarding a possible resettlement site.
The neighborhood message
Last Thursday, lunch tables at King filled with parents, staff and a few students, eager to hear the district’s plans. State Senator Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who represents the area, and PPS board member Gary Hollands were in attendance, along with a handful of district officials.
Families listened to the council’s preview of the resettlement process. The district is considering city-owned property, as well as district-owned land in the Albina neighborhood. These seven district properties include King, Sabin Elementary, Irvington Elementary, Boise-Eliot / Humboldt Elementary, Tubman Middle School, Jefferson High School and the District Office, on Northeast Broadway.
District officials present at the meeting – Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia, Director of Operations Dan Jung and Director of Government Relations Courtney Westling – said they were considering all properties. Julia Brim-Edwards, a board member, who was part of the district team to discuss the potential impact of the I-5 widening with state leaders, said qu ‘there were “less than three” properties the district was considering.
Responding to questions from King’s principal Teresa Seidel, Jung said the district office building and Jefferson High campus are unlikely options for Tubman.
Jung also pointed out that elementary schools are at about “60% utilization.” The impact on current school populations is also noted in the district-to-state draft proposal. “Enrollment forecasts suggest that capacity building in the catchment area may support the student body after moving Harriet Tubman to another building in the Albina neighborhood,” according to the proposal.
After the presentation of the neighborhood, parents, students and some members of staff took turns at the microphone. They asked district leaders specific questions about fairness and council decision-making. They also urged authorities to remove King from the race.
“I love this school, please don’t close it,” said one student.
A few parents have suggested alternative sites for Tubman, some on PPS grounds and some not. They included Whitaker, a college closed years ago to contain dangerous levels of radon, Jefferson High School, the former Concordia University site (which district officials say is outside the Tubman catchment area) and the Self Enhancement Inc. building ( which does not belong to PPS).
“We call this house”
Parents and students also spoke about the generations of families who dated King, his heritage and his reputation among members of Portland’s black community.
Robinson has strong ties to King. Her father dated King and was there when the school was renamed from Highland Elementary to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary. She also worked at the school before becoming president of the PTA. One of her children dated King, and another is there now in second grade.
“We call this home,” Robinson said.
“… My father said, ‘Going to my grandchildren in the schools I went to when I was younger is just a dream, because a lot has changed. “
While district officials stressed that no decision has been made, the historical and current context has led the King families to be skeptical of the district.
Several families pointed out the poor record of the district and even the City of Portland in supporting black families – including the initial development of I-5 that shattered the community of Albina and gentrification that grows even more. black Portlanders out of town.
“I don’t think they should be using our predominantly African American schools to try and fix some type of highway and add some type of highway to our areas where we have already been gentrified up to the Gresham area, Robinson said.
Environmental concerns related to Tubman’s proximity to I-5 were discussed for years, even when the school reopened in 2018.
“I don’t think King should have to suffer from the expansion of the freeway,” King PTA vice president Tyler Brown said.
A former student of Tubman, a youth organizer for climate justice with the Sunrise movement, asked officials at Thursday’s meeting to pressure the Oregon Department of Transportation to conduct a study of more in-depth environmental impact on the motorway project.
District officials have acknowledged that change is difficult no matter what, but that they will seek more feedback from the community before the board makes a decision on a new site for Tubman.
“No decision will be made until February,” Garcia told families on Thursday. In a follow-up message to families who attended the meetings last week, Garcia reiterated his point.
“As with any move and rebuild of a school, we have a long decision and planning schedule that spans years; and as we reported this week, these community sessions are the first in a long series, ”he wrote.
At the same time, the district faces an “extremely urgent” timetable to request funds from the state for the relocation. According to the district draft proposal for the state, cost estimates for a relocation range from $ 114 million to $ 168 million. Although the proposal has yet to be sent to state officials, the district plans to argue for the money in the short session of the legislature in February.
But there appears to be a lag in the amount of information the state needs to know before the February session.
Brim-Edwards said the state wanted to know the proposed site for the location before handing over the money.
“It would be difficult for them to appropriate the money … without a site,” she said.
But if the district wants more community involvement before making a decision, the vacation presents a timing issue. The district will not continue its community engagement until Jan. 5, giving PPS leaders only four weeks to engage communities to close one school and possibly move another.
At Thursday’s meeting, Frederick, the state senator, also said that while Oregon has funds to spend on this relocation, it would be “difficult” for PPS to complete the project’s implementation in a time also short.
As conversations continue, King’s students, families and staff have pledged to keep their school as is, pledging to push the district to choose another site.
“We will fight like you have never seen it before,” said a member of staff.