Spanning the Region: A Survey of Bridges in the Metroscape

 

Bridges get us where we need to go. They also have character that contributes to a sense of place. Here we profile a selection of bridges in the Portland Metro area to understand the history and logistics of each bridge. When was the bridge built, how was it funded, who maintains it? The bridges we selected reflect the area’s wide variations in bridge style and management. Some of the bridges are county owned; others are run by a state or city transportation department. The bridges range in age, but all are inspected every twenty-four months. A bridge’s story offers important lessons as we consider the need for seismic retrofit and replacing aging structures. By grounding ourselves in a bridge’s past and present, we can spur ideas for addressing our future transportation needs.

Lewis and Clark Bridge

Lewis & Clark Bridge. Photo by Cacaphony, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Longview Bridge (later renamed the Lewis and Clark Bridge) was built in 1929 by Wesley Vandercook, chief engineer for Robert Long, a lumberman and founder of Longview, Washington, in an investment partnership with W. D. Comer of Seattle. It was designed by Joseph Strauss of Golden Gate Bridge fame. Costs of the bridge were originally estimated at $2.7 million (in 1929 dollars) but ballooned to $5.8 million, in part due to revisions made in response to significant opposition from Portland interests who felt the bridge would detract from Portland’s potential. Opponents of the bridge demanded a high span so river traffic would not be blocked. While the bridge originally required approval from the War Department, opposition convinced the government to require approval from the Secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture as well.

Spanning the Columbia River, the bridge connects Longview, Washington, to Rainier, Oregon, (Columbia County) and had the longest cantilevered span of any bridge in North America at the time it was constructed. The bridge opened in 1930 with great fanfare. President Hoover turned a telegraphic key in Washington, DC, which triggered a knife to drop and cut a chain of daffodils that crossed the bridge as a ceremonial ribbon.1 The governors then shared a handshake to underscore the significance of the bridge. 

The bridge was paid for by tolls that were set at eighty cents per car. However, the bridge’s opening coincided with the start of the Great Depression, causing it to fall drastically short of Vandercook’s hopes for use and corresponding revenue. By the end of World War II, the bridge was experiencing greater traffic, but still generating insufficient funds to pay for looming repair costs. The bridge’s owners asked Oregon and Washington to purchase the bridge. While initially hesitant, the State of Washington eventually purchased the structure. It set tolls at one dollar per car, and within 10 years reduced the toll to fifty cents in response to higher than expected bridge traffic.2 By 1965, the bridge had raised $3.8 million in revenue through tolls, which covered the nearly $3.7 million authorized to purchase and refurbish the bridge in 1947. Subsequently, with bonds fully repaid, the state lifted the toll.

In 1980, Washington renamed the bridge the Lewis and Clark Bridge to commemorate the famous expedition. The bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

By 2003, the state decided to replace the bridge deck to extend the bridge’s lifespan. Changes were also made to improve water runoff and widen the bridge for safety and ease of access. The nearly $34 million cost of the improvement was split between the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation. The bridge was open during construction except at night and during four weekends, and the project was completed ahead of schedule.3 The steel members were painted in 2013, and no preservation projects were planned for the next ten years.4 As of 2011, the bridge has experienced average daily traffic of 20,606 vehicles.

Gales Creek Road Bridge

Gales Creek Bridge. Photo by Michael Goff.

The Gales Creek Bridge, built in 1934, carries a segment of Highway 8 over Gales Creek just south of the post office in unincorporated Gales Creek, Oregon. The bridge is owned by Washington County and sees average daily traffic of 1,568 vehicles. 

In 2016, when signs of decay prompted concerns of structural deficiency, a project was undertaken (with projected completion in spring 2017) to restore structural integrity, add storm water facilities, and widen the bridge, including widening the shoulder for cyclists. Although the bridge’s early history is not well documented, recent events have been recorded through community participation and a page on the county website devoted to bridge improvement efforts.5

The $2.9 million cost of design and construction for the improvements is being funded through Washington County’s Major Streets Transportation Improvement Program (MSTIP), which is funded through county property taxes. MSTIP projects are selected by the Board of County Commissioners in a process that allows for local funding and decision making with the potential to leverage other local, state and federal funds. 

Oregon City Bridge

Oregon City Bridge viewed from the river in 2013. Photo by Steve Morgan.

This bridge was built in 1922 by the Oregon Department of Transportation, for $300,000. ODOT continues to own and manage the bridge, which connects Oregon City and West Linn in Clackamas County. While it originally replaced a pedestrian suspension bridge, today it carries average daily traffic of 13,500 vehicles. The bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been praised by the Oregon State Highway Commission as the most artistic-looking large bridge in the state.6 It is one of a series of concrete-arch highway bridges designed by Conde McCullough throughout the state. It is noteworthy for the gunite casing that was chosen to protect the bridge’s paint from corrosion by sulfur dioxide fumes from nearby paper factories.

The narrow two-lane bridge has been a challenge for large vehicles. In 2009, structural concerns led to a weight restriction on vehicles over fourteen tons, and TriMet discontinued using the bridge.7 From mid2010 to 2012, the bridge was closed for an expansive $14.9 million improvement project that repaired or replaced the deck, joints, rails, lighting, and protective coating and added steel seismic cables. Nearly 90 percent of the funding came from the federal government while the state contributed 10 percent. The project addressed major structural concerns, but was unable to address concerns about capacity. 

Fifth Plain Creek Bridge

Placing the deck for the new Fifth Plain Creek Bridge. Source: Clark County

Built in 1933, the Fifth Plain Creek Bridge carries average daily traffic of 1,285 vehicles (the least traffic of the bridges we profiled). The bridge was notable as the last Clark County-owned bridge with wooden supports, and was the only bridge in the county to be deemed structurally deficient.8 Until recently, four wooden pilings held up NE 88th Street across Fifth Plain Creek. But after signs that the supports were rotting, Clark County replaced the bridge. 

The $1.9 million project was funded by a mix of county and federal funds.9 Clark County contributed 20 percent and 80 percent came from the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway (FHWA) Bridge Program. In the approval of grant funding, the FHWA noted the bridge’s multiple seismic deficiencies and high truck volume despite a low weight limit as a motive for the project’s funding. The grant supported a vision for a “modern single-span concrete structure” to replace the old bridge. The project was completed without substantial complications and opened to the public in January 2016. The new bridge generated uncommon fanfare, with the rebuild featured at ODOT’s Bridge Design Conference.10

St Johns Bridge

A view of the St Johns Bridge from Cathedral Park. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before construction of the St. Johns Bridge in 1931, the river was traversed by a ferry established in 1852 by James John, the founder of the city of St. Johns. Today, the St. Johns Bridge is seen as one of Portland’s most iconic structures. It was designed for Multnomah County by David Steinman, the famed bridge architect. At the time of its construction, it was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River. The original construction cost $4.2 million, and was paid for through a construction bond.

The bridge’s construction process was almost as interesting as its architecture.11 St. Johns was an independent town until it was annexed by Portland in 1915. At the time of the bridge’s construction, many neighborhoods in Portland were interested in bringing a bridge to their community. These other neighborhoods were home to more affluent and better connected residents than the blue-collar factory workers of St. John’s. To win support for their bridge, and the construction bond used to fund it, the residents of Linnton and St. Johns formed the Peninsula Bridge Committee. The committee went to every school and grange in Multnomah County to put on vaudeville acts portraying their need for a bridge to replace the ferry service. The campaign was successful, leading county voters to approve a $4.25 million bond in 1928.

In 1975, Multnomah County asked the state to take ownership of the bridge due to growing maintenance costs and no clear funding stream for needed repairs. Today the bridge stands as a high volume bridge with average traffic of 20,700 vehicles each day. The last substantial repair for the bridge came in 2003 with a multiyear project to build a new drainage system, rebuild the metal rails, replace the lights, and waterproof the main cables. By the time it was completed in 2005, the project cost the Oregon Department of Transportation $42 million. Through its extensive and distinguished history, the bridge has become a source of community pride and identity for the St. Johns neighborhood. 

Conclusion

The bridges we’ve looked at have varied in size and scale. While larger projects, and even the relatively small Fifth Plain Creek Bridge, required state and federal funding, some notably did not. The Gales Creek Road Bridge was funded through county
property tax. Even the St. Johns Bridge was originally funded through a county bond. Of all the bridges constructed, only the Lewis and Clark Bridge had tolls as a major component of its funding. As conversations continue for the inevitable replacement Columbia River Crossing project, and needed retrofits to existing bridges, perhaps these stories can inspire us to find funding solutions moving forward.

Andrés Oswill is graduating Master of Urban and Regional Planning Student specializing in implementing equity through Housing and Land Use. His background is in policy crafting and is the Youth Commissioner on Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission. He grew up in the Bay Area in California before studying Politics, and Women and Gender Studies, at Willamette University in Salem, OR.




6 Reasons to Relax about Portland’s Recent Sell-offs

 

There’s been a spate of stories in the news lately of locally-owned companies in the Portland metro region being sold to outsiders. Among the more flavorful sell-offs have been Dave’s Killer Bread, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, and Little Big Burger. The transactions have also included deals to sell two of Oregon’s largest publicly-traded companies: Precision Cast Parts and StanCorp Financial Group. A bank, a hotel, a sunglasses designer, a solar panels manufacturer and a handful of tech firms have also been sold. Enough of these deals have involved well-known and muchloved companies that a lot of little stories which might normally have passed under the radar have become a big story. Suddenly acquisitions and mergers are big news, not just in the business pages but all over the place.

And you can’t have missed the collective groan that has been audible across a city that famously embraces and patronizes and takes great pride in its locallyowned businesses. For many Portlanders, the news of these sell-offs has come as a personal blow, and many feel genuinely wounded by what they perceive as a broken pact. When we support local businesses by buying their goods, patronizing their establishments and using their services, we take interest in them and begin feeling guardianship, like a parent watching a favorite daughter grow up. So when that child elopes with a stranger, we feel a parent’s sense of loss and abandonment, even without knowing whether the guy is an angel or a jerk. Perhaps that’s why there is such a bitter tone to much of the grievance-airing in the press, the blogosphere and social media about these recent sell-offs.

So why has the sale of these local companies caught the public imagination and stirred up such strong feelings? Perhaps because they have added ballast to a growing sense that Portland and its peculiar culture is somehow under threat, that Portland is losing its Portlandness. One blogger, the artist Carye Bye, in a piece called “Portland, I love you, but you’re forcing me out,” writes that she arrived during “Portland’s magic hour, a golden era of affordability and creativity that started in the late 1990s and lasted through the first decade of the new millennium.” But since then, she continues, the explosion of newcomers, rising rents, gentrification, loss of character, and demolition of old houses has driven her to look for a new home. These kinds of laments are everywhere, in a city whose image of itself is being challenged by change, by growth, and by the evidence of its own success. 

Well take consolation, for the wound is not mortal. Portland is indeed facing some very serious problems as it grows, but the loss of local businesses is most assuredly not one of them. Here we’ve gathered some thoughts on these recent sell-offs from some friends who follow such things with trained eyes, and we offer them as a balm to the city’s aggrieved locavores.

#1 Worry: Portland is losing its local businesses. It’s not. The few local companies that have been sold are all staying here, though their ownership has changed. And more importantly, many, many other local businesses are still here, and their numbers are growing. This is important because it’s been shown that high concentrations of small, locally-owned businesses and chains make regions more stable, more resilient and more resistant to economic shocks. Those rust-belt cities in the Midwest, for example, which depended on a very small number of very large employers, completely tanked when the automotive industry declined, and many, like Detroit and Flint, haven’t yet recovered. Portland, on the other hand, snapped back fairly quickly from the last recession, and many stake its recovery on its hearty smorgasbord of locally-owned companies.

The gut feeling that Portland is extraordinarily rich in local businesses, compared to other metro regions, is hard to back up with reliable figures on locallyowned businesses, which are notoriously difficult to dig up. The US Census Bureau gives us numbers of “private non-farm establishments” (50,859), of “firms” (155,828), and of one-person businesses with no employees (159,188) in Portland Metro, but doesn’t distinguish between those owned locally or by outsiders. A quick search on the Portland State University library’s “Reference USA” database turns up 109,827 as the number of businesses that are based in Portland, but it’s not clear if this is really our magic number of Portland’s local businesses. 

But if figures are elusive, an encouraging picture of the health of Portland’s local business culture can be gleaned from several studies. A Biz2Credit study in 2014 listed the Portland metro area as having the second highest average revenue in the US for businesses with less than 250 employees, or under $10 million average revenue. A much-read blog-post by Douglas Wolk in October 2014 entitled “Keeping Portland Weird” expanded on that study: “The culture of the city, the study found, supports and celebrates all things local, small and handmade, and the economics and politics of the city have warded off cookie-cutter strip malls and big-box plazas.” A July 2015 survey by the online marketing firm Yodle found that 93 percent of the Portlanders got better service from independent local businesses than big chains, and that local businesses account for 58 percent of consumers’ total business use in Portland.

Dave Garten is a businessman and educator who teaches at Portland State University’s School of Business Administration. He’s been observing, teaching about and taking part in Portland’s business world for years, and he’s not worried at all about these recent company selloffs. “Companies are bought and sold all the time, investors come from here and there. Mergers and acquisitions are not new to Portland, and they typically come in economic cycles. We’re in a boom time now, and so it’s natural to see more acquisitions happening with this growth. Whether these acquisitions are judged as being good or bad depends on your criteria.” Garten also points out that Portland is not all little fish being swallowed by big fish, and that many local companies—particularly in the tech sector—are buying up companies outside Portland all the time.

The city’s start-up business community is more vibrant now than it’s ever been, and Portland is becoming what the online Portland Business Journal calls “an epicenter of maker brands that are building iconic products.” A good example of this is Portland Made, a collective of 126 makers, artisans, and manufacturers that operate independently but support each other with education, marketing, a shared resource hub, and a brand that promotes their products locally and nationally. Another PSU professor, in the School of Urban Studies and Planning, Charles Heying, studied this collective in 2014 and found that the group employs 1,024 people and generates revenues of $258 million, with 62 percent of its sales in Portland and the surrounding region.

#2 Worry: Portland is becoming a less welcoming place for local businesses. It’s not. In fact the opposite is true. Portland is more welcoming to local businesses than ever, and the fact that so many startups here are becoming acquisition bait is proof positive. One person who understands that welcome from the inside is John Haines. He directs Mercy Corps Northwest, whose program to support low-income entrepreneurs to start businesses, with training programs, mentoring, and micro-loans, has helped launch some 15,000 local businesses, from bakeries to bike repair shops to multi-million dollar biomass stove manufacturers. Ask John whether Portland is nurturing to local businesses and his answer is, “Absolutely. Oh there is competition, but the small business climate in Portland is robust and ripe and growing.” 

But what makes it so? “We have land-use planning from 1972, and Senate Bill 100 that contained urban growth and created quality of life. And we’ve had progressive mayors and politicians twenty or thirty years ago who created the circumstances that have continually improved and make for a positive atmosphere for small local businesses. We’re a product of our own early vision and success for land use planning, transportation, proximity to farms. Yes, rents are rising,” John concedes, “but they’re still lower than in San Francisco or Seattle. And yes, lots of people are moving here, but I also moved here, and like all the others, I like the mountains and clean air, the apples, wine, hazelnuts, and salmon.”

Haines adds that many outside tech companies are also smelling those hazelnuts and relocating their innovation and coding to Portland, for quality of life reasons, and the “incubation centers” they are setting up are bringing in lots of highpaying jobs.

It’s important to remember, too, that for every company that rises to the top of the class and gets bought, there are thousands of others that carry on making things, serving needs, employing people, and contributing in more modest ways to the local economy, without necessarily getting big. As an October 7, 2015 post
on Slate about the Stumptown acquisition put it, “If nothing else, those crying into their mugs at Stumptown’s sale can console themselves with the knowledge that the coffee business is cyclical: what’s artisanal today will be corporate tomorrow, clearing the field for the next Peet’s or Stumptown to take its place.” The same might be said for what Charles Heying calls the “hippy capitalist” companies from the 1970s that went corporate, like Tom’s of Maine, Bert’s Bees, Ben and Jerry’s, and Celestial Seasonings Tea. Think of all their spiritual granddaughter products that now fill the shelves of the New Seasons Markets, many of them made right here in Portland.

#3 Worry: Growing means selling out. Part of the discomfort with these acquisitions springs from a profound reticence about growth, and Dave Garten has some consoling words on that bugaboo as well. “When a young, successful company has a great asset, buyers don’t usually dismantle those assets. They’re not buying that company to dismantle it, they’re buying it to learn and expand upon it and bring to it their resources—which could be distribution channels, could be all kinds of things —as part of the deal. Their goal is usually to help that company grow. My view is that there is no reason to fear growth.”

If a business is really trying to do something good, or to conduct its businesses in ethical ways, as many in Portland companies do, it follows that they could do more good if they had scale. Garten is involved with two local companies in Portland and both are “mission-driven”—one makes biofuels from used cooking oil, and the other is organic produce. “It would thrill me if Sequential Biofuels could be twice as large; the company’s mission to do good would remain, and we would be able to save twice as much carbon in the atmosphere. But in this tight little community, there is almost a paranoia about getting larger. What you’ll keep hearing is They’re going corporate! I see it as a cultural issue.” 

That said, it’s important to remember that a lot of Portland’s local entrepreneurs never did aspire to grow beyond a certain point—like acupuncture clinics, yoga studios, small-scale manufacturers or retail stores. As John Haines puts it, “These small businesses add a certain scale that is not about growth, but just about being successful enough to maintain a lifestyle, to raise a family, and to employ a handful of people. That’s all that many Portland entrepreneurs aspire to, but that’s a lot.”

#4 Worry: Portland’s workers are losing out. Acquisitions do certainly affect workers, the work environment and the relationship between management and workers. Nobody would deny that working for a woman whose kids go to the same school as yours is a different kettle of fish than working for a faceless corporation based in far-away Saint Louis. The ones that get the headlines are usually the layoffs and consolidations, but so far, there haven’t been many of those in Portland. When the Heathman Hotel in downtown Portland was bought by the Maryland-based LaSalle Hotel Properties last year, there were some layoffs of longtime staffers and some justifiable grousing ensued. But for the most part, press statements from most of the companies on our list of recent acquisitions portend more local jobs and minimal meddling with existing management. One encouraging example Dave Garten reminds us of is Kettle Chips, the Salembased natural potato chip company that was purchased by a British equity firm eight years ago. “In that case, the buyer understood that the ethos was really part of what Kettle Chips was all about. And they brought their business expertise to really expand the company into a global brand, without throwing anyone out. And the business has done really well: there is still really good employment in the company’s solar-powered factory in Salem, still investment in the community and still lots of philanthropic community programs.”

#5 Worry: Things go downhill when decision-making moves out. When one company is bought by another, the decision-making invariably changes, even if the old management team is kept on. Sometimes they retain a lot of control over the company and sometimes not. The worry is that when the people controlling a company no longer live in that place or have a personal stake there, they may make decisions that are good for profits, but bad for the workers, bad for the locality or bad for the company’s mission or values.

“I think we wring our hands over these beloved companies no longer having the same character,” John Haines notes, “when the owner is no longer the guy you see in the coffee shop or the pub. But these acquisitions are all reflections on the kinds of innovation that is emerging out of Portland. So I don’t have much trouble with it.” As many see it, the magic that is bringing these investment dollars into Portland is the movement towards businesses that can grow at the same time they keep their heart and soul. Haines cites the example of Precision Castparts, which was bought by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate in August 2015 for a whopping $37 billion. “That huge acquisition has an entirely different dimension, but as in the other acquisitions by Berkshire Hathaway, the management, structure, operations and employment of that successful, well-run company will not be touched.” 

Perhaps the best example of a company keeping its soul even after being acquired is Dave’s Killer Bread, the Milwaukiebased organic bread company which was bought by Flower Foods (the same company that makes Wonder Bread!) in August 2015. Everyone around Portland may be moaning “We’ve lost Dave’s Killer Bread!” But as John Haines sees it, “We still have it, but Denver will now get Dave’s Killer Bread, and Austin will get Dave’s Killer Bread, and that’s better for everybody.” Haines also points out that the company has maintained its commitment to hiring ex-convicts, and by taking the brand to a much larger distribution, they’ll be expanding their operations in Milwaukie and employing many more people. “I see that overall as an enhancement of their brand and of the supply chain of raw materials that are likely to come from Oregon.”

#6 Worry: Portland is losing its local philanthropy. Another fear is that when prominent local businesses are bought by companies whose headquarters are elsewhere, Portland’s share of the philanthropic feast will dwindle, since companies tend to focus their giving on causes and institutions in the city where their headquarters are based. But so far, most are claiming their good works in Portland will continue, and if promises have any currency, then the city’s losses may be minimal. Like so many of these things, it depends on the company and only time will tell whether they make good their promises.

Dave’s Killer Bread has announced that it will continue to give away 300,000 loaves of bread each year to shelters and non-profits and has set up a foundation to help people with criminal backgrounds make a fresh start. StanCorp Financial Group, which was bought by a Japanese insurance company for $5 billion in July 2015, has long been one of the city’s blue-chip corporate philanthropists, giving millions each year to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Portland State University, the Portland Art Museum, Portland Opera, and Portland Center Stage. StanCorp leaders have said that the sale “won’t change the company’s philanthropic tune” and that its Standard Charitable Foundation will remain headquartered in Oregon, where it will “proudly continue our commitments to our communities.”

But another reason to relax on this point is that the lion’s share of business donations in a city often comes not from the big companies at all, but from the small ones, and Portland’s small ones remain as plentiful and as generous as ever. The donations and sponsorships of big companies with deep pockets might make a louder bang, but turn out to be much lower—per worker—than small companies. A study by the Oregon State Government’s Small Business Administration in the 1990s found that small businesses donate about twice as much per employee to charitable organizations as larger businesses do. Even back then, cash donations and in-kind contributions averaged $789 per employee in companies with fewer than 100 employees, and $334 per employee at firms with more than 500 employees.

Thomas Kerr is an architect and writer who recently moved to Portland after working in Asia for 25 years, first in Pune India, and then in Bangkok with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.




Values & Beliefs

 

The Portland–Vancouver metropolitan area comprises a large and diverse, yet economically and socially integrated region. As we’ve discussed in two previous issues of Metroscape, commuting patterns, intra-regional migration, linkages among companies, and similarities in economic experience bind us together and make a case for regional collaboration regarding a number of economic and social policy issues.

However, policy makers may wonder whether regional collaboration comes with a cost—a devolution of decision making to a power structure at a greater distance from the voters and their values and beliefs. Elected leaders may wonder whether the values and beliefs of their local constituents can be sufficiently aligned with those of other jurisdictions in order to find a compromise that allows for collaboration without sacrificing the unique character, preferences, tastes, and vision of each unique community. (Martin and Long 2014)

The results of a recent survey make the case that voters across the region value many of the same things; therefore, regional collaboration can be achieved without compromises in values. Nevertheless, these results also suggest that there may be differences in how we reach our goals—the mechanisms that might be used to achieve the vision for the future that we collectively share. The hard work of collaboration takes place in crafting solutions that drive us toward a common vision for the future, while maintaining the sense of distinctiveness that generates pride in our local communities.

In 2014, a group of organizations  in Southwest Washington (Community Foundation of Southwest Washington, Washington State University Vancouver, Clark College, Northwest Health Foundation, AHA!, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Columbian, and the United Way of the Columbia Willamette) led an effort to engage residents in a dialogue about the community’s future. The first step was to understand the basic values and beliefs of the community. One of the objectives of the project was to allow for comparisons to the Oregon side of the metropolitan region.

This was accomplished by engaging DHM Research, the same firm that designed and implemented the Oregon Values and Beliefs survey, most recently completed in 2013. The partners selected a series of questions identical, or very similar, to that asked of Oregon voters, allowing comparison between the two states. The charts and discussion below are based on the results of the 2014 survey in Southwest Washington compared to the 2013 Oregon Values and Beliefs survey. 

The Southwest Washington survey involved 673 people who answered questions by phone and online. The Oregon Values and Beliefs survey results are based on responses from 709 people from the three metropolitan counties (Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington). The Southwest Washington survey’s margin of error is +/- 3.8 percent. In some of the charts below, we show the margin of error in order to remind the reader to be careful about drawing conclusions about differences between the two groups, particularly where the estimate is within the margin of error.

SURVEY RESULTS

Why do we value our community?

The first question of the survey asks “What do you value about living in your community?”  The most common response to this open-ended question among respondents in both Washington and Oregon was the friendliness or neighborliness of the community. Allowing for the margin of error, there is no significant difference between the percentage of respondents in either survey who noted friendliness or neighborliness as an important part of what they value in their community. Oregonians were, however, more likely to cite scenic beauty and weather as important parts of what they value about Oregon, while respondents in Northwest Washington were more likely to value safety, a small community, and a quiet and peaceful community.

 

What are our most important priorities for local government?

The survey also asked respondents to name “the most important issue that you want your local government officials to do something about.” The open-ended responses, shown in Figure 2, demonstrate very few statistical differences between Oregonian and Washingtonian respondents within the metropolitan region. Our populations are similarly concerned with the economy and jobs, road infrastructure, and government leadership and corruption. If a slight difference could be drawn between the two regions, it appears Washingtonians would like government to take action on crime and drug abuse, while Oregonians more urgently want their local government to “do something” about government spending and taxation. As we’ll see below, the “something” that Oregonians want done might differ from the action that Washingtonians are looking for.

 

Do we put greater priority on the economy or the environment?

Another question asked respondents to decide which of two statements they are more likely to agree with. Statement A was “Economic Growth should be given priority even if the environment suffers to some extent,” and Statement B stated “Protection of the environment should be given more priority, even at the risk of slowing economic growth.” As shown in Figure 3, 38 percent of the Southwest Washington respondents agreed with Statement A, while 30 percent of those in Northwest Oregon agreed. However, a greater percentage of both groups agreed with Statement B; 54 percent of Southwest Washingtonians, compared to 62 percent of Northwest Oregonians. Thus, even accounting for the margins of error, metropolitan Oregonians are statistically less likely to favor Statement A and more likely to favor Statement B. Interestingly, though, among those who strongly favored Statement B, the differences between Oregon and Washington are not statistically significant.

Should we invest in roads or transit?

A different question asked respondents to rank another set of priorities: investing in roads for cars or investing in public transit. Statement A stated “We should invest more in roads for cars.” Statement B declared “We should invest more in public transit.” As shown in Figure 4, both groups leaned more toward Statement B. However, for Southwest Washington, the differences between A and B are not statistically significant, while those in Northwest Oregon clearly favor Statement B, even accounting for the margin of error.

The results from a similar question showed little statistically significant difference between Oregon and Washington respondents. Figure 5 shows the results of a question asking respondents to say whether the following statement was strongly desirable, somewhat desirable, somewhat undesirable, or strongly undesirable: “[We should] shift some funding for road and highway construction toward public transportation, such as better bus service and high-speed rail projects.” The percentages separating the two groups for each category of response are not large enough to be statistically significant. However, in both cases, the differences between desirable and undesirable were significantly different—both Oregon and Washington favoring a shift toward spending more for public transportation.

Climate change is one issue that did reveal differences between Southwest Washingtonians and Northwest Oregonians. Figure 6 shows how the two groups responded to the following two statements:

Statement A, “Climate change requires us to change our way of life, such as driving less or living more simply.”

Statement B, “If climate change becomes a problem, we can deal with it later.”

While both groups were more likely to agree with Statement A than Statement B, Oregonians were much more likely to agree that climate change requires changes in our lifestyles.

Attitudes Toward Taxes and Spending

Attitudes toward taxes and spending also showed minor differences between the two populations of respondents. The only statistically significant difference shown in Figure 7 was in response to the statement, “We don’t spend enough on public services, and we should increase some taxes.” Northwest Oregonians were more likely to agree with that statement than were those in Southwest Washington. This response parallels the results in Figure 2, and indicates that within the metropolitan area, Oregonians were more willing to support tax increases and more likely to endorse local government spending on public programs than were Washingtonians.

Attitudes about Economic Development and Business

The survey also inquired about attitudes regarding government policies toward economic development and business. Respondents were asked about a set of actions that government might take and whether they were strongly desirable, somewhat desirable, neutral, somewhat undesirable, or strongly undesirable. The two actions we report on in Figure 8 are “Build and communicate a pro-business attitude in local and state government” and “Build and communicate a pro-environment attitude in local and state government. ”Fifty-nine percent of respondents in Southwest Washington supported the “pro-business” position, compared to 52 percent of respondents in Northwest Oregon. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in Southwest Washington also supported the  “pro-environment” statement, compared to 64 percent among Northwest Oregonians. Once again, the differences are too small to be statistically significant. Among both groups of respondents, both a pro-business and pro-environment attitude are considered desirable, despite the fact that the positions may be in conflict with one another.

Observations and Conclusions

The survey results shown here reveal a great deal of similarity in the values and beliefs between respondents from Southwest Washington and respondents from Northwest Oregon, from what is valued in their community to the importance of diversity. The results also reveal, however, some differences in attitudes related to taxation and investment in government programs, which may play a role in how local governments respond to pressing policy issues, including that of transportation, where both groups support shifting attention and funding toward mass transit and away from roads. There was also a difference of opinion in how Southwest Washingtonians and Northwest Oregonians approach the issue of climate change, with those in Oregon more willing to live more simply and change their lifestyle to address this policy issue. That said, the similarity between the values and beliefs of these two populations on issues as contentious as economic development and protection of the environment is unsurprising, given the region’s significant social and economic connections.

These survey results suggest that although regional collaboration requires diligence in crating solutions that help us reach a common vision for our region’s future, we need not fear that our communities’ values are so far apart that the task is impossible.

Sheila Martin is Director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies and the Population Research Center at Portland State University. She directs the Institute’s community-oriented research and service activities.

Carolyn Long is an Associate Professor of the School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at WSU Vancouver.

 




The Balancing Act: A Look at Dynamic School District Boundaries

 

How do school districts throughout the Portland region respond to changes in student populations that cause overcrowding or under enrollment? In this article, we explore some of the key trends in school enrollment, describe the challenges faced by some of the districts in the region, and describe how different districts address those challenges.

1. Introduction: Why do districts need to adjust boundaries?
Mary Peveto, a parent of a child at Chapman elementary school in northwest Portland, took the microphone at a community meeting at West Sylvan Middle School on November 16, 2015. “Last year, my daughter was one of 48 children who were placed in a basement room with two teachers.” Citing disruptions and chaos, she expressed disappointment that the district’s proposed changes to the Chapman boundary would, in her opinion, do very little to reduce the overcrowding at the school.

Meanwhile, in Northeast Portland, parents of children at Scott Elementary School are bemoaning the lack of programs for the middle-school-aged students. Because Scott is a small K-8 school, there were only 112 students in the sixth through eighth grades last year, the number of electives that can be offered is limited. Nevertheless, the school building, which offers both a Spanish immersion program and a neighborhood program, is overcrowded with too few classrooms to accommodate the number of teachers required by the funding formula. Nicole Iroz Elardo, a Scott School parent, notes that the neighborhood program is limited to one “strand,” or classroom, per grade, which severely limits learning options: “Providing a robust two-class-per-grade program without reducing resources elsewhere, such as music or reading specialists, will require no less than forty-two neighborhood students in each grade from day one of the 2018–19 school year. Portland Public Schools should be aiming for 500 students minimum at Scott School.”

Two years earlier, across the region in Oak Grove, the North Clackamas School Board voted to close Concord Elementary due to costly seismic upgrades. The district’s budget shortfalls and the school’s shrinking enrollment made it difficult to justify the expense. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “The process that led to closing Concord was very emotional,” says Tiffany Sherman, Chief of Staff of North Clackamas School District, who was Assistant Superintendent for Education at the time. “Everyone has a stake in the outcome, and they know what it will mean for their family.” Moving forward, the district is facing rapid growth on their east side. In 2016, voters passed a bond measure that will allow North Clackamas to build and open a new elementary school and a new high school. Opening and filling these new buildings will require changes to existing boundaries for many of the other schools in the district. According to Sherman, “A district boundary realignment process should ensure strong neighborhood schools that reflect the demographics of the overall community. Every school must provide each student academically rich and consistent opportunities for learning.”

*Select School Districts are included to represent districts with recent boundary changes and a mix of geography and size in the Portland Metro Region.
These examples illustrate several situations that may lead to an enrollment rebalancing effort. Under enrollment can also be a big problem for school districts. A shrinking school population can mean that schools obtain less funding, limiting the programs that can be offered to students. This can lead to a situation that may be considered unfair if some district students have access to classes, programs, and resources that others do not. And a partially empty building represents a waste of the district’s facilities, particularly if there are other schools that are overcrowded.

Districts employ a variety of tools to address over- and under-enrollment situations. Those tools include

● adjusting policies that allow students to transfer to/from a neighborhood school to a different school, either within or outside the district;
● creating or expanding programs that offer alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools (sometimes called choice or magnet schools);
● expanding alternative programs that serve students who meet certain criteria and aren’t well-served in traditional school settings, for example, programs for talented and gifted students;
● changing school attendance areas (also known as school boundaries);
● offering, expanding, or moving programs such as those for special education students or dual-language immersion;
● adding capacity through facilities changes such as building portable classrooms or converting other space to classrooms;
● restructuring delivery of instruction, for example, changing grade configuration, staggering school hours, or sending students to off-site programs for part of the school day; and
● building new schools or closing an existing school.

These tools can be used individually, but are usually used in some combination. For example, as schools become overcrowded or under enrolled, a boundary change might be combined with a change in transfer policy. The need to use these tools arises, in part, due to our tradition of neighborhood schools and using a student’s address to determine what school they will attend. There are alternatives to this method of assigning students, which we will address later, but, first, let’s discuss how schools in the metro area typically deal with the need to balance enrollment.

2. Objectives of enrollment balancing: Right-sized schools and program equity

What is a right-sized school?

The definition of school capacity is fluid. Generally, schools are considered over enrolled if they do not have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of students.

Funding for each school is often determined by the number of students attending, which determines the quantity of teachers, which determines the number of classrooms needed. The calculation is more complex when you consider other factors, like the presence of special needs or English language learners who require extra classrooms, or at least meeting spaces, to accommodate the specialized programs.
Schools can increase their capacity by renting or purchasing portable classrooms or reallocating non-classroom spaces, such as cafeterias and library space, to classrooms. Converting these spaces to classrooms causes other problems, such as multiple lunch periods, cramped library quarters, or a lack of assembly space.

Schools that have too few students also face important challenges. Because money follows students, a school that has too few students will not be able to offer electives and other enrichments that larger schools can fund. Such budget pressures may force a change in the structure of a building, for example, requiring larger classes.

New school or program options might also cause a school to become out of balance. An extremely popular magnet or immersion program might draw students into or out of a school disproportionately. Policies related to transfers, including transfers into the district, can be used to offset some of these shifts by making it more or less difficult to attend a school other than the neighborhood school.

The way in which buildings are used can also change the student capacity of a facility. For example, a shift to a more science- or arts-based curriculum might require more lab or performance spaces, thereby squeezing classrooms.

Changes in staffing ratios can also change the capacity of a facility. Washington State’s Class Size Reduction Measure, Initiative 1351, requires reducing class sizes, especially in the lower grades. Efforts to reduce class sizes require more classrooms.

School Facilities Planning

To stay ahead of enrollment changes, schools typically forecast school enrollment by school attendance area, taking into account factors such as the birth rates, in and out-migration, and expected new housing developments in the area. The Population Research Center at Portland State University works with many school districts to perform these forecasts.

School enrollment forecasts help school districts anticipate the need for new capacity (or excess capacity), but that doesn’t mean that adapting schools to meet that need is easy. According to Judy Brennan, Director of Enrollment Planning for Portland Public Schools, adjustments are made every year to accommodate small changes in enrollment. Many of these changes are not even noticed by the students or their parents, like a small facility or program change.
But when rapid growth or decline or big shifts in program preference occur, schools may become sufficiently out of balance to require larger and more difficult changes. And according to all the officials we interviewed, changing boundaries, closing schools, and building new schools are incredibly challenging in their own ways.

Changing School Boundaries

Boundary realignment processes are usually based upon a set of board policies that govern the rules for determining what children attend which schools. Some school boards also adopt goals for boundary changes at the start of a process. Then they will often convey those goals to an advisory committee and allow that committee to work with school district staff to develop recommendations for the superintendent or directly for the board. Finally, the board will consider the recommendation and either make its own changes to the recommendations or adopt them as proposed.
As school officials change school boundaries, they often employ many of the other available enrollment balancing tools to make the numbers work. For example, a school board might change their transfer policies or they might change the feeder patterns that determine which elementary schools feed into middle and high schools.

Despite their efforts to balance the interests of multiple stakeholders, school leaders rarely complete a boundary change process without a great deal of contention. “Boundary adjustment processes are acutely painful,” says Robert McCracken, Facilities Planning Coordinator of the Beaverton School District. “There is a great deal of disruption, and parents believe that they have a right to attend the school that their address was assigned to when they moved into their house.” In response to these complaints, districts often allow grandfathering of existing school assignments for students who would otherwise be reassigned. This means the boundary changes don’t have a very big impact until the grandfathered students graduate.

Building New Schools

Changing boundaries can only do so much to address overcrowding. With the steep rise in school enrollment for many districts, the only solution is to build new schools. And often, the barriers to building new schools can be daunting. The most difficult barrier, of course, is finding the money.
In Oregon and Washington, local school districts largely fund school construction and renovation with local, voter-approved bonds. In addition, school districts may impose a construction excise tax on construction projects that result in a new structure or additional square footage in an existing structure. In some cases, the state provides a small amount of matching funds through the Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching Program. In Washington, a statewide school construction assistance program (SCAP) provides partial funding for school construction and renovation. Funded from revenues on state forest land, the SCAP will partner with local districts to supplement local bond funding for school construction and renovation.

But passing bonds and obtaining state match can be difficult. While Portland, Vancouver, Camas, Beaverton, North Clackamas, Lake Oswego, and other districts have recently held successful bond measure elections, voters have rejected bond measures in other districts in the region, most recently in Molalla, Corbett, Battle Ground, and Centennial. And some Washington school officials find the state matching fund process limits their ability to plan efficiently when enrollment growth is projected. Doreen McKercher, Camas School District’s Communications Director, and Linda Gellings, Battle Ground School District’s Director of Business and Risk Management, both express frustration with the timing of this process. Because they must demonstrate that schools are already overcrowded, funding can’t help them get ahead of enrollment increases.

3. What if students were assigned to schools based on other factors aside from their address?

When we discuss school boundaries and balancing school enrollment, we are generally talking about neighborhood schools. But there are other systems for determining where students attend school.

Some districts have used a process of individual school assignment to balance enrollment. That is, rather than a student being assigned to a school determined directly by their address, some other set of criteria is used to determine which school a student might attend. These criteria might include distance from the school, school capacity, and the student (and parental) preference.

Portland Public Schools has expressed interest in a version of individual school assignment, called the “Soft Neighborhood Model.” This model, which is still being tested with actual student data, would eschew hard boundaries in favor of a system of student assignment that would take into consideration the capacity of school buildings as well as the distances between students’ homes and schools. Siblings are grouped together; thus families are assigned to one of several nearby schools. The system would prevent the phenomenon of under-enrolled schools next to over-enrolled schools by equalizing enrollment per classroom, per grade, and across schools within the schools’ capacity constraints.

The creators of this model, Brooke Cowan and Matt Marjanović, believe the Soft Neighborhood Model will promote greater equity by breaking the link between a student’s address and their school. They believe the system quells the urge to crowd close to a “good school” driving up rents and property values and gentrifying lower income students out. At the same time, they believe, the Soft Neighborhood model promotes neighborhoods and family connectivity. Neighbors who live close to each other are all going to the same set of schools, rather than being separated by a hard boundary. The idea also promotes stability and consistency because boundaries don’t constantly have to be tweaked each time enrollments are a little different than predicted. Matt notes, “Despite the illusion of stability, hard boundaries create unstable systems. The Soft Neighborhood Model eliminates the boundaries while preserving the desirable traits of traditional neighborhood schools.”

Many details about how the Soft Neighborhood Model might be implemented have yet to be discussed. But the idea is catching on among parents and school leaders who are weary from the political battles of boundary change. Portland Public Schools is working with Dr. Cowan and Dr. Marjanović to provide them the data they need to conduct a full simulation of the effect of the model over several years of implementation.

4. Race, socioeconomics and school boundaries

Some of the tension around our discussion of school boundary changes stems from national and local history of school segregation, desegregation and resegregation. Last year, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that detailed its findings about racial and income segregation in the nation’s schools over time. The GAO found that, nationwide, the number of K-12 public schools with high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students (rather than being racially mixed) grew from 9 percent in 2000–2001 to 16 percent in 2013–2014. Also troubling was the difference in student access to courses such as advance math, physics, and advanced placement courses.

While the average number of exploratory courses offered in PPS middle schools is sixteen, many K-8 schools in north and northeast Portland have so few students in the middle grades that they offer many fewer, and those that offer the fewest electives are also schools with high minority populations, such as Lee elementary, with a school population that is 70 percent students of color, and Martin Luther King. Jr., with 88 percent students of color, based on the 2015–2016 report card. PPS has taken steps to provide the resources needed to improve program equity during the interim period prior to the implementation of boundary changes.

But advocates maintain that the middle schools need to open to improve equity. Jason Trombley, co-chair of PPS’s District-wide Boundary Review Advisory Committee (DBRAC), warns that delaying can have adverse lifelong impacts on students of color. “Maintaining low-enrolled K-8 schools located in low-income communities or African American communities limits access to academic programs and electives to our students of color. These programs, such as career and technical education and exploratory courses are the foundational courses they need to succeed in the future, especially in an era where we are working to improve success in college and career.”

Conclusion

“Balancing enrollment is ultimately about student success,” says Pam Kislak, co-chair of DBRAC. “Beyond the number of students attending the school, we also need to consider multiple complicating factors, such as avoiding concentrating poverty.” Our desire to provide all students with quality schools, a comfortable, welcoming environment and strong academic offerings collides with our financial and physical constraints. Director Scott Bailey expresses that, for Portland Public Schools, “balancing enrollment can be challenging even when school districts are on top of their game. In the case of Portland Public Schools, we’re trying to redraw boundaries after decades of neglect, while at the same time addressing equity issues by reconfiguring schools and expanding dual-language immersion programs. Gentrification and increasing housing segregation have not made our task any easier. There are a lot of moving parts, with very limited funding to deal with facilities issues that come up.”

As schools throughout the region continue to struggle with striking the right balance, they will need to pursue innovative solutions while balancing stakeholder interests. The balancing act continues.

Madison Levy hails from the rolling hills of Kentucky, and lives in NE Portland with her wife, three Star Wars LEGO sets, and several house plants. She found her way into planning through a passion for local government, love of data management, and a desire to create equitable public spaces. Madison’s work as a researcher and as a leader in her program has recently been acknowledge by APA, APTA, and WTS.

Sheila Martin is Director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies and the Population Research Center at Portland State University. She directs the Institute’s community-oriented research and service activities.