Parkrose School District Board Chair Sara Kirby hopes to continue her service for four more years by being reelected in the May 2019 election. Sara has a unique perspective as someone who used to teach about the environment and climate change in almost every middle school and high school in the Portland metro area. She’s been a board member since 2016, and her second-grader Jack and kindergartener Gemma attend Prescott Elementary. Sara welcomed me to her home in the Parkrose neighborhood for a chat. This got long so once you’re done reading, check out Part 2.
Bryan: What inspired you to get involved on the board?
Sara: My son Jack was going to turn 5 in a couple months, and I thought well we’ve lived here for 8 years, and I just didn’t know a lot about the school district. I knew that school was different than it was when I was a kid and when my husband was a kid. On Facebook I saw this notice for a board member to be appointed, and I thought, “I want to know more. I like to make information-based decisions. I can do that because in my job at Metro, I’m a project manager, and I do a lot of meeting facilitation, collaborative decision-making making, and project management.” I thought, “Okay I can understand what the role and the function is here, and I can A) serve during this time, but I can also learn a lot and help the district.”
It was like drinking from a firehose, and I got more information than I ever wanted. It was different than I had expected because I had never previously had any aspirations to do it, but it was just the right moment when my kid was going to kindergarten. I wanted to know what’s going on since I’d heard how things are different, how for the last decade districts across Oregon had to cut school days. I read the state news, so I was wondering what was really going on and were the issue systemic to Oregon or were they related to Parkrose?
What else have you learned since joining the board?
What I discovered is Parkrose is a solid district. This is a place where I want to keep my kids. I think we have an amazing staff and good processes, but since the 2008 recession, our budget has been cut over 20% for a 10-year period, which because school districts employ staff, that’s our main expenditure. That means we cut 20% of our staff and we’ve lost over 30 instructional days for kids and pay for staff. Even over that period, our graduation rate has gone up. I can’t remember exactly what it is, but it’s like 15%. We’re seeing better outcomes for kids and better outcomes for all kids. We have awesome staff, good programs and processes in place, but at a skeletal level where the work loads are really high for staff that goes all the way from the superintendent down to the education assistant or custodian. They’re super dedicated, and that drives me to keep my kids here and keep my family here and work as hard as I can as a board member to get what we really need because there’s not enough. There’s a lot that we don’t have, but it’s not because of things that the district is just not choosing to do.
What would it mean if the Student Success Act passes?
It would mean a lot. It would mean we get to hire staff into positions. We could bring back programs like PE. We would get to further invest in AVID, invest in more social/emotional supports at the middle school, more counselors. We have one counselor for 750 middle school students. The kids need more and the staff needs more. It would mean we get to repair what we’ve cut from our district from over the years, and we would get to invest into new and cool things.
What is Parkrose’s most unique attribute?
I think in some ways it’s our size. It’s a little place in a big city and region. We’re both visible and invisible. Half the people I talk to if I’m at work or anywhere else and I talk about where I live, they don’t even necessarily realize that it’s part of Portland. So our size is an attribute in that it’s a distinct place and that we have residents who have lived here for decades, so there’s a lot of community knowledge and story over the years. I’ve met people who’ve lived here for years and they’re still around and it’s kind of fun to talk to them about how “that was so-and-so’s house.” When we moved in, there was a gal named Rose who was 93, and she was the original owner of this 1945 house. I would go and drink wine on her porch. She was just the coolest lady. I think that’s what Parkrose has that other communities don’t.
What are Parkrose’s unique challenges?
We have a higher poverty school district. Last night we had a budget meeting, and the statistic I saw was that we’re at a 73% high poverty rate for the school district, for kids that come to school. Kids that kids that grow up in poverty or are exposed to childhood trauma have higher needs when they come to school. So with less staff and less dollars, it’s more of challenge to serve kids with higher needs.
Our size. What we can’t do is have efficiencies of scale, so that it makes it more challenging to serve students in the special ed space because we might have to do more outside placements. David Douglas has about 10,000 students, Reynolds 12,000, even Centennial about 6,000, and we are right about 3,000 kids, so we are a super flat school district. We have four elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and I think we’ve got about a dozen, dozen-and-a-half administrators. Everyone is wearing a lot of hats, and I think that makes it more challenging to serve the diverse needs of the community as a really small organization without an ability to scale-up and provide all the different tiers of support that you need in a special education service.
What are you most proud of in your time on the school board?
The thing that I’m proud of us doing collectively is hiring our current Superintendent Michael Lopes-Serrao, and that was about a year ago.
As an individual, I’m most proud of my advocacy skills. I don’t actually like talking to new people or speaking in front of people that much, but as a member of the board, what I recognized is that the problem was not Parkrose, the problem was that we systemically and over three decades have not gotten the funding we need to serve kids. I took that really seriously, and I’ve been down to Salem 3 or 4 times to testify and lobby legislators. If Barbara Smith Warner or Michael Dembrow come, they’re our representative and senator in this area, I go to their town halls, I’m having coffee with them, meeting with them, so that they know the Parkrose story and they, frankly, know that we’re here. They definitely do, and now those legislators recognize me. Just a couple weeks ago, I was testifying in front of the Joint Ways and Means committee when they were doing their budget roadshow at PCC, and I was lucky enough to get called up. And my testimony made the local news. They highlighted some snippets I said. Then in September when I testified in the Joint Committee on Student Success, that made an OPB article. That is not a thing I ever saw myself doing when I was initially thinking, “I want to serve my school and be a school board member.” It’s really uncomfortable, and I take a lot of pride in doing it well and building those relationships.
Continue reading Sara’s interview.