School-funding pros go for the bucks again

Jennifer Anderson
January 10, 2006

It’s crunch time for Cynthia Guyer, but she’s been in this spot before. As head of the nonprofit Portland Schools Foundation, Guyer has helped spearhead five campaigns for school funding in Portland since 1996 and now is trying to nail down a new measure that voters will consider in the May primary election.
While dozens of elected, school and business leaders are participating in the discussions, the foundation has been doing much of the big-picture work, commissioning polls, organizing meetings and preparing to put up money — large sums of money — to help pass the measure. The foundation is also working closely with Help Out Public Education, a volunteer parents group that will work on the campaign.
Even before the details of the proposed funding measure have been cemented, parent activists this week were preparing to roll out their campaign. About 40 members of HOPE met Sunday to discuss getting the word out through a Web site, bumper stickers, lawns signs, articles in the PTA newsletters, leaflets and the annual Portland Public Schools fair Thursday at the Oregon Convention Center.
They also discussed forming a political action committee to raise money for the campaign, and developing a simple and clear message to convince voters to support school funding.
Organizers must come up with a measure — most likely a citywide income tax to present to the City Council within weeks, so the council can refer it to the May ballot. After months of meetings, they expect to release the details of their proposal to the public Thursday, said Nancy Hamilton, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Potter. She said she expects a council vote to be set for Feb. 1. Without a replacement for the Multnomah County income tax this year, the schools will face a $90 million shortfall with no other funding in sight.
“This is a very decisive year for the city in terms of quality public education,” Guyer said. “This May election will be critical.”
Not everyone supports the foundation’s methods. One critic is Jason Williams, executive director of the Taxpayers Association of Oregon, a political action committee that supports measures and candidates in support of lower taxes.
“Looking to tax is not the answer, but rather reform,” he said. “As long as they’re not going to change the problems in education, we’re going to oppose another tax grab. … You won’t fix the enrollment problem by taxing families more and giving them extra reasons to leave the city.”

It started with a march

In her soft-spoken, mild-mannered but no-nonsense way, Guyer — whose experience includes work with nonprofits, youth groups and rural communities — shuns the spotlight. She downplays her role as executive director of the foundation and credits its 25-member board for the group’s success in the past decade. The board is a virtual who’s who of the city’s business, civic and education leaders, with former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton and Azumano Travel President Sho Dozono as founding members, along with Guyer.
Also on the board are Jill Powers Kirk, Oregon Business Council vice president; Sandra McDonough, Portland Business Alliance president; Kerry Barnett, Regence Group vice president; Peter Bragdon, Columbia Sportswear Co. vice president; Julia Brim Edwards, Nike Inc.’s deputy director of state and public affairs; Tony Hopson Sr., Self Enhancement Inc. president; and Peter Cookson Jr., dean of the graduate school of education and counseling at Lewis & Clark College; among others.
“It’s all of us,” Guyer says modestly.
With the motto “Whatever It Takes,” the foundation already is credited with raising $360 million for Portland schools in the past 10 years and is called one of the best nonprofit school organizations in the country by national observers.
“The Portland Schools Foundation has been a real leader among its peers,” said Wendy Puriefoy, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Education Network, which runs a network of 90 similar school foundations. “Portland, like every other major city, is rebuilding the kind of education system everybody’s going to need. That takes a lot of stamina. It takes the leadership in the community, where I think the Portland Schools Foundation plays a critical role.”
For instance, Puriefoy said, she has never heard of another group raising $10 million in six weeks. But the foundation did just that as its first event on June 1, 1996, when it organized the March for Our Schools, which rallied 30,000 from all over Oregon people to walk from the Rose Quarter to downtown.
Dozono remembers how that day came to be. The school funding situation in 1996 was much like it is today, he remembers.
“I got up early in the morning one day and thought, We need to do something. I called a meeting at breakfast one Saturday with (then Superintendent) Jack Bierwirth, Ron and Cynthia. We came up with marching through the city of Portland to show how important education was to the city and state,” he said.
That commenced a six-week effort that involved gaining dozens of corporate sponsors, including Nike, Wells Fargo & Co. and the Michael Jordan Foundation.
“We just wanted to show the community not only how individual teachers and parents and grandparents support the schools — we had corporate sponsors as well,” Dozono said, recalling schoolchildren marching with large banners and four current and former governors making speeches for school funding.
“We marched across the finish line and stood there the entire time until the last marcher came across the end,” he said. “It was just a tremendous experience for me to see how many people came out. We know there were 30,000 people because we used up all the shirts (from Nike).”
Puriefoy and others say the foundation also was critical in recruiting Superintendent Vicki Phillips and helping attract a $10 million gift to Portland schools from the prestigious Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Campaigns take lots of cash

The foundation also has been successful at the ballot box. It was the single largest contributor to the successful campaign that created the temporary income tax surcharge that supports schools in Multnomah County. The foundation also was the single largest contributor to the campaign that defeated a subsequent ballot measure that would have repealed the so-called I-tax. In both cases, the foundation contributed $180,000 to each of the successful campaigns — huge amounts in Oregon politics.
Some have questioned how the nonprofit foundation has been allowed to spend money on political campaigns. In fact, nonprofits are allowed to spend up to 20 percent of their budget supporting ballot measures but are not allowed to endorse individual candidates. Although the foundation’s contributions were large, they represent less than 3.5 percent of its $5 million annual budget.
Marla Ucelli, director of district redesign for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, says she thinks it’s increasingly vital for school foundations to play an active role in local politics.
“Most organizations that want to be relevant in today’s financial climate need to be willing to muck around in issues like tax levies and legal considerations of various kinds,” she said. “They really need to be willing to get into broad-based money issues. They can’t just sit on the sidelines.”

Grants go straight to schools

The foundation also has contributed millions of dollars directly to school programs. For example, last year alone, the foundation provided $1.5 million for everything from music and arts to math and science offerings and from English as-a-second-language programs to initiatives aimed at increased parental involvement.
John Ball Elementary in North Portland received $54,800 from the foundation, which it will use to train teachers before it moves to the New Columbia housing complex this fall, and for a family resource room in the new building.
The room will offer parents free use of computers, a food bank, community classroom space and a small coat closet for recycled coats — everything Principal Tamala Newsome has wanted to offer for a long time.
“We want to change the environment, make it so good that it will draw you in,” Newsome said. “Parents are our partners. We can’t do this job without them.”
The donations are not without their critics, however. The most vocal is Steve Buel, a Vancouver, Wash., teacher who previously taught for 10 years at Lane Middle School in Southeast Portland and unsuccessfully ran for the Portland school board. Buel charges that the foundation distributes its funds inequitably, with the poor schools getting less money.
Another critic, retired Portland Principal Mike Berbout, agrees. He says part of the problem is that it’s easier for more affluent schools to submit successful applications for the grants.
“A lot of the affluent schools have a lot of professional people and a lot of money and they have a lot of skills,” Berbout said, noting that as principal, he would have to put together a committee of teachers to work on the grants over a couple of days and then find relief time for them.
But in fact the schools that received the most from the foundation in grants last year were Jefferson High School ($100,000), Roosevelt High School ($99,995) and Ockley Green Middle School ($76,000), all schools that receive federal funding for having 40 percent or more students on free or reduced lunch.
Beth Madison, principal at George Middle School in North Portland, agrees the grants are balanced. Her school received a total of $22,172 in foundation grants last year, while the year before, her grant requests were rejected.
“Because we’re a high-minority, low-income and high-performing school, we’re fairly successful in bringing in funding for training and curriculum, but when it comes to getting funding for physical plant improvements, that’s much more difficult,” she said. “The use of unrestricted funds is really a big bonus.”
But even Madison concedes the foundation’s grants aren’t easy to apply for.
“Last year they didn’t fund either of my proposals,” she said. “When I look at why that is, I think it was a weak proposal. Not solid enough, not well-thought through enough. When I thought about it this year, I really got to think about tailoring my request to what will make a difference.”

Insiders’ influence debated

Buel and Berbout have another problem with the foundation: They say that the “movers and shakers” on the foundation board have undue influence over the Portland school board.
“You don’t get anything done in Portland without working with those people,” Buel said. As for another shot at the school board, he said: “I would never do it again. It was just a waste of my time. All I could do was try and change people’s opinions. But win the election, no way. You can’t go against their money and power. It’s a voting bloc.”
Paul Hill, director of the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs in Seattle, deals with the foundation regularly and says its role has been one of clear independence from the school board.
“In some cases, (other cities’ school foundations) have become a claque, a rooting section for whatever the district does,” he said. “But in others it’s become a source of in-depth information and a thoughtful and critical-friend relationship. The latter is rare, but the best ones are like that.”
He cites Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Portland as among the best in the country.

New name expected in spring

With so many areas of activity, the foundation this year will change its name to better reflect its mission.
“When people think, ‘foundation,’ most people think raising money, giving grants,” Guyer said. “The name doesn’t exactly connote the full depth and breadth of what we’ve been doing.”
The foundation’s board plans to unveil the new name to the public in the spring. It’s hired brand strategist guru Chris Riley, formerly of Wieden & Kennedy, to work on the name on a pro bono basis. It’s also retained a Portland design firm for a new logo.
Whatever the new name, supporters hope to spend the next 10 years effecting change both in and outside of Portland. “Their challenge will be, Can they convince the Legislature and marshal the voters throughout the state to speak to the leadership and say 10 years of disinvestment in education has got to stop,” said Dozono, now an emeritus member of the board. “Hopefully, 10 years from now we’ll be celebrating success for schools all over the state.”

An iron will, a heart of gold

While Guyer hates to take center stage in the work that’s been done, her name has been synonymous with the foundation’s success. “There’s nobody who cares more,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “She actually listens to people. She has an iron will, a real resolve, but doesn’t do it in a way that’s threatening at all. … She’s a decent, smart, hardworking, dedicated person.”
Hill, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said Guyer’s biggest strengths are her passion and drive. “There are other people in the country as impressive as Cynthia but no one more impressive,” he said. “This combination of deep dedication to public education and the refusal to let that dissolve into happy talk. She really is a friend, but perfectly willing to be a critical friend.”
Guyer’s background is diverse, beginning with her childhood in New Delhi, where her father was a member of the United Nations assigned to Pakistan and India and her mother was a civil rights activist.
The oldest of six children, Guyer moved to New York at age 6, studied ballet and had the opportunity at age 12 to become a world-class ballerina. She declined, wanting a “more diverse, flexible life.” So she headed west, graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a major in “rural poverty in Appalachia,” and worked with nonprofits for several years helping rural communities in eastern Tennessee and Georgia.
In the 1980s Guyer did policy and organizing work in Washington, D.C., and Boston. She and husband Jeff Malachowsky, who works in national campaign finance reform, moved to Portland in 1984 and live in the Alameda neighborhood and have two children, 18 and 13. The older graduated from Grant High School last year and the younger is at Beaumont Middle School.
Before coming to the foundation, Guyer was in charge of 10 states for the Youth Project, traveling two weeks of every month from her base in Portland. Travel-weary and worried about the post-Measure 5 changes at her daughter’s elementary school, she answered the call for an executive director during the foundation’s national search.
The past 10 years have been a roller coaster, Guyer said. Lately, she is harried from back-to-back meetings but confident about the future, with Phillips at the helm of the district, a new school board in place and community leaders dedicated to finding a solution.
Guyer stays on task by always keeping the big picture in mind. “People have legitimate questions about the investment we’re asking of them,” she said. “But we haven’t lost one (election) in Portland. The community really values quality public education and the role of a vibrant public education for quality of life.”