Greg Belisle demanded an answer. Steve Buel refused to give him one.
It was Jan. 27, 2014, and Belisle was holding the gavel as co-chairman of the Portland Public Schools board. He and the other six board members were about to vote on a plan by Superintendent Carole Smith to stash $14 million in unexpected revenue in the school district’s piggy bank.
Most of the School Board was willing to go along. After years of tight budgets, the district could finally put away a little extra cash for emergencies.
A former teacher elected to the board in 2013, Buel thought the emergency was already at hand. He wanted to spend more money in classrooms immediately. “We could have put a certified librarian in every elementary school in the city of Portland with that money,” he told fellow board members.
That wasn’t the only problem with Smith’s plan, Buel argued. The board’s blind support of Smith typified deeper problems—the absence of hard questions, the
disregard for transparency, and the lack of frank discussions about the district’s educational failings.
When it came time to vote, Buel kept talking. Belisle lost his cool.
“Yes or no, Director Buel?” Belisle demanded.
Buel reached for a white paper bag.
“I’ve been trying to get along with the rest of the board,” he said. “I figured I might get in a little better if I brought my own rubber stamps.”
He then took two stamps out of the bag—one for “yes” and the other “no.” He stamped the resolution in front of him, then held it up for colleagues to admire.
“Anyone want to borrow my rubber stamp?”
Teachers cheered as Smith, seated next to Buel, forced a painful grin.
Buel is often rude, irritating and insulting. Yet he may be the school district’s best chance for a rescue from the eight-year slumber that has characterized Smith’s reign.
On May 19, Portland voters get a chance to shake up the PPS board and decide whether Buel going forward will have enough support around him to transform the district like he wants.
Rex Hagans, a retired planning director for Education Northwest, a research organization, describes Buel as smart, committed, organized and effective.
“He’s a very persistent and very consistent person in his philosophy, which is basically that you need to trust the professionals in the schools,” Hagans says. “You can’t quiet him. You can’t do it. It’s not going to
At an age when his peers are gliding into retirement, Buel, 70, still burns like a spiraling fireball. In passive-aggressive Portland, he’s just plain aggressive—an outlier on a School Board that’s about as buttoned up as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
Craggy and vinegary, Buel has a wide, crooked grin and white, side-swept hair. At 5-foot-7, he’s short but scrappy. He once tackled a man who trespassed and tried to expose himself at a middle school where Buel taught, holding the man down until help arrived.
He often attacks his fellow board members the same way: If he disagrees, Buel will knock their ideas to the ground as if they were an intruder.
Buel has a long history as an agitator on education issues. In the 1970s, he wrote articles on schools for Willamette Week, which was founded by his older brother, Ron. (The Buels haven’t had any affiliation with the newspaper since the early 1980s.)
Buel served on the PPS board once before, from 1979 to 1983, when he lost a bid for re-election. In 1983, a then-colleague on the board said Buel was like sandpaper, “he just scrapes on people.”
At times, Buel seems unaware of how irritating he can be, even to people who are likely to agree with his goals.
“Steve’s one of those people you listen to with one ear and ignore with the other,” says Zeke Smith, the superintendent’s chief of staff from 2007 to 2012. “He’s constantly launching grenades just to see how they explode.”
Even his allies notice his effect on others.
“He has some really good things that he’s bringing up,” says Andrew Davidson, a 2014 Grant
High School graduate and student representative to the board last year. “The board just marches on right past him.”
Buel has had a second, unexpected effect on the board: His impertinence has cracked open PPS leaders’ long-held reluctance to question the status quo and Smith’s decisions.
“He really has changed how the board operates,” says Davidson, who is now running for a full seat on the board. “They seem less afraid to ask questions now and challenge staff.”
Three incumbents who regularly fought with Buel—Ruth Adkins, Greg Belisle and Matt Morton—have all declined to run again in the May 19 School Board election. Adkins and Belisle said they wanted to spend more time with their families; Morton said he needed to focus on running his nonprofit, the Native American Youth and Family Center.
It also seems Buel has worn them down. Adds Tom Koehler, who also joined the board in 2013
with Buel: “There was a kind of cozy consensus before Steve and I got on the board. That no longer exists.”
The Buel-driven change in the board’s makeup could shift a majority against Smith. New candidates—such as Davidson, Paul Anthony and Mike Rosen—and incumbent Bobbie Regan have shown more willingness to work with Buel to challenge Smith to do more.
Buel, who often appears to be failing in his larger mission, could actually be the force that creates a School Board that brings more attention to the needs of students, teachers and parents—and perhaps new leadership at PPS.
Portland Public Schools is the largest district in the state, with 47,000 students, 3,200 teachers and a $535 million annual budget. Yet it’s run by an unlikely superintendent.
In 2007, Carole Smith had been chief of staff to then-Superintendent Vicki Phillips, who moved with such force and speed to close and merge schools she earned the nickname “Hurricane Vicki.” She lasted less than three years.
The PPS board named an interim superintendent and then, turning away nearly three dozen other local and national applicants, gave Smith the permanent job.
Smith’s previous management experience included running a small alternative school in North Portland. Her biggest asset eight years ago was that she was nice and that she seemed to listen well, two traits Phillips couldn’t claim to share.
Smith answers to the Portland Public Schools board, whose seven members volunteer their time. Historically, the board has been deferential to the PPS superintendent. But Smith has pushed through a number of controversial changes over the years, and the board often goes along with a minimum of questions.
Buel took notice.
He had lost a campaign for the board in 2005. After Smith’s hiring, Buel tried and failed to get appointed to the board in 2008, and lost another election bid in 2009.
Buel retired from teaching in 2010 and two years later helped found a small activist group called Oregon Save Our Schools. The group rails against standardized tests and top-down administration. It bird-dogs the Oregon Education Investment Board, the superboard that oversees all schools, colleges and
universities in Oregon. Buel rarely misses a meeting.
After he took down PPS board incumbent Martín González in 2013—with a hefty $12,000 check
from the Portland Association of Teachers union Buel didn’t wait long to start pushing his agenda and upsetting the board’s go-along-to-get-along attitude.
In an August 2013 meeting, one month after being sworn in, Buel refused to keep quiet when Belisle told him he couldn’t interrupt the board’s consideration of the business agenda to question Smith about a $35,000 tutoring contract.
He also demanded to know why PPS was spending $800,000 on outside attorneys when it had lawyers on staff. (The answers didn’t satisfy him.)
He then introduced three motions that—breaking with custom—had not been pre-approved by the board’s co-chairs.
The other board members tried to put him off. “I’m trying to make a point here,” Buel said. “We’re supposed to be making decisions in open meetings.”
Belisle relented, letting Buel put forward a motion requiring Smith to make sure the grass got cut in front of school buildings. Buel waved weeds he had plucked from the lawn at Vernon K-8 School in Northeast Portland.
“How’d you like to live next door to that?” Buel asked. “How do we expect our kids to take pride in our schools?”
Buel later said he knew his stunt was symbolic, but he wanted to put an end to board members’ passively waiting for the superintendent to put forward ideas.
The other members voted his proposal down.
Buel would soon get used to that.
In February 2014, Buel pushed a peanut ban at Beverly Cleary K-8 School’s Hollyrood campus
after learning that a single first-grader at that Northeast Portland school had a life-threatening peanut allergy. Board members rejected his proposal, agreeing a peanut ban could give the child a “false sense of security”—a line Buel traced to the peanut lobby hoping to tamp down growing peanut fears.
For the next several School Board meetings, Buel set a jar of Skippy peanut butter in front of him to protest his colleagues’ inaction.
“No one likes to be accused of killing children in public,” he says.
Buel’s persistence has put pressure on other board members regarding much weightier issues than peanut butter and weeds.
He was the only School Board member to attend contract talks regularly as PPS teachers and administrators negotiated a teachers contract in 2013 and 2014. As teachers neared a possible strike, student protesters interrupted a January 2014 meeting. Of those present, only Buel stayed to listen to their demands.
Buel voted against Smith’s glowing performance evaluation in May 2014 and rejected the superintendent’s 2014-15 budget because of the board’s unwillingness to allow more public discussion about it. (Buel claimed the board scheduled only eight seconds of budget debate for every million dollars spent.)
That August, he voted against a 28 percent pay raise for Smith, which brought her annual salary to $247,000. “It was too much money,” Buel says. “We gave a 2.3 percent raise to teachers, and a 28 percent raise to the superintendent? It doesn’t make much sense to me.”
Last October, he voted against board protocols that asked members to refrain from “personally criticizing another board member or district staff in public.” He passed out copies of the First Amendment and accused colleagues—including Morton, who is Native American and oversees a high school for native students—of quashing free speech.
“I would think Mr. Morton, who runs a school filled with children whose ancestors had their rights stripped from them for centuries, might be cognizant of protecting basic rights,” Buel said. “But I guess not, so vote away, but as for me, I am voting no.”
The majority voted yes. Koehler abstained, but not before Belisle chimed in.
“I just want to acknowledge that I felt co-opting another group’s oppression for personal gain, or to make someone’s point, especially someone from the
dominant culture, is quite inappropriate,” he said.
Buel’s off-the-cuff remarks often draw rebukes from critics. He says his words are misread. During a public budget forum with Spanish-speaking parents in April 2014, Morton noticed a note in front of Buel.
“Kick my chair if I nod off,” Buel had scribbled on a notepad. Morton—who often battles with
Buel—took a picture of the note with his phone. Morton says the note struck him as being at odds with Buel’s claims of devotion to transparency and inclusiveness. “It makes me wonder if his private
beliefs match his public displays,” Morton says.
Buel says he doesn’t remember writing the note, but says it would have had nothing to do with the fact the audience included Latino parents. “There’s no way for Matt Morton to know what I was thinking,” he says.
Charles McGee, co-founder of the Black Parent Initiative, calls Buel “the Joe Biden of Portland politics.” Buel, McGee says, often utters statements that give him pause. “At the same time, his heart is in the right place,” he says. “It doesn’t take away from the inappropriateness.”
At a board retreat in March 2014, Buel questioned the district’s recent practice of pulling teachers at low-income schools out of their classes for professional development training, frequently leaving their students with substitutes.
The next day, Morton, currently the only minority member on the board, sent an email to the other members in response to Buel. Morton said the training helped teachers—most of whom were white and middle-class—to provide more culturally relevant instruction.
“It is not cut and dried in the manner Matt suggests,” Buel shot back. “Much of our professional development has been spent around re-engineering adults’ attitudes instead of giving teachers the skills to deal with children who are of significantly different backgrounds than they are themselves.”
“If you believe ‘re-engineering adults’ attitudes’ is unnecessary,” Morton responded, “you may want to brush up on your critical race theory and develop a
firmer understanding of the elements of institutional racism.”
“Yeh, and you brush up on how to educate children,” Buel wrote back. “Screw you.”
“My style of communication you are so openly disgusted with is founded in my indigenous values,” Morton responded. “Based on your behavior I’m not at all surprised you don’t recognize key elements like kindness, respect and consensus.”
“Yeh, well, I’ll say it again,” Buel wrote. “Screw you, asshole.”
Buel’s outspokenness on the School Board may not have produced monumental policy change, but his willingness to challenge Superintendent Smith has created openings for other candidates who are also questioning the district’s direction.
“Steve’s raising some really important issues,” says Paul Anthony, who’s running to replace Morton in inner Northeast Portland. “He is inviting more dissent.”
Mike Rosen, who’s running unopposed to replace Greg Belisle, says Buel once described himself to Rosen as a “disrupter.”
“He’s the guy who throws the wrench into the gears,” Rosen says.
Buel, Rosen says, has been treated poorly by some members of the board, and that has made him angry and frustrated. “He’s just so completely isolated,” Rosen says. “If he had a group of people who were willing to work with him, it’s reasonable to expect he’d be part of constructive progress.”
Board members with whom Buel has clashed—Ruth Adkins, Pam Knowles and Belisle—declined to be interviewed.
“I appreciate that he’s pushing us out of our comfort zone,” says Bobbie Regan, an incumbent running for her fourth term. “He is pushing us, and I think in
the end, he’s going to make us a better board.”
Buel says a different board could make Smith more effective.
“If things switch over, and you get a different group, she’s said she’s very willing to work with the new board,” Buel says.
One of the biggest preoccupations of the school district’s administration and the board
today concerns which students go to which schools.
It’s an issue Buel dealt with when he served on the School Board in 1980. (See below.)
The district recently spent months tweaking its student transfer policy, a change that had at its heart a desire to alter the racial makeup of schools that were seen as too white or too black. It’s also why the board and Smith recently launched a process to redraw school boundaries—an effort to ensure all
neighborhood schools offer high-quality programs.
“We haven’t come that far,” says Rosen. “We just feel better about the way we talk about it.”
Except Steve Buel. He’s talking the same way, saying the same thing. The question now is, will anyone listen?
“There will always be some disagreements, and I think that’s a good thing,” says Bill Scott, who served with Buel on the School Board from 1979 to 1983. “I would continue to be skeptical of Steve’s skills in expressing those in a way that’s useful or helps the group move toward a consensus.”
Koehler has heard the same criticism of Buel. “For every good thing that he says, he also shoots himself in the foot,” Koehler says, though he holds out hope. “I expect going forward there will be less foot shooting and more statesmanlike behavior.”
Buel says he’s not only capable of change, he’s ready for it. “I was a disrupter because that was the only avenue I was given,” he says. “It will be imperative
for me to move from ‘disrupter’ to ‘builder.'”
He says his message has gotten through. “A lot of people understand the board isn’t working—that’s progress,” he says. “You don’t have to disrupt things
that are moving along smoothly.”
Buel’s History Lesson
Tensions in the Portland Public Schools over race and equity were shaped by tumultuous events at the district decades ago—and Steve Buel had a direct role in shaping them.
Buel, then 31 and a teacher in the Reedville School District, now part of Hillsboro, first sought election to the board in 1976. He lost, but then tried twice unsuccessfully to get appointed to vacancies.
He won outright in 1979. His opponent was Evie Crowell, an African-American who was then the only minority on the board.
Buel’s path to victory was smoothed by an endorsement from Herb Cawthorne, a black leader of the Community Coalition for School Integration, who told the Portland Observer that Crowell didn’t represent the African-American community’s interests.
Portland Public Schools was then led by Superintendent Robert Blanchard, a nationally recognized educator who had served more than a decade as superintendent.
The city’s white elite loved Blanchard, who was under tremendous pressure by minority leaders to reduce disparate discipline against black students and address the district’s two-tiered system of schooling for black and white children. The burden of integration fell to black families.
“Our kids were being bused all over creation,” says Ron Herndon, then leader of the Black United Front, a fiery protest group whose members commanded attention by standing on School Board members’ desks. “Our black teachers were not allowed to teach in predominately black schools, and there were very few black principals.”
Buel sided with the Black United Front.
“What the Black United Front was saying was, ‘We want to be equal, therefore we want our children’s schools to be as good as anybody else’s,'” Buel
recalls. “For me that was the connection—to be able to choose a good education in your own community, if you wanted. That choice wasn’t previously available to you in that way.”
In April 1980, the Portland School Board, without Blanchard’s support, adopted a desegregation policy that ended forced busing and allowed all children to attend neighborhood schools.
Buel played a crucial role. “He was more than willing to challenge the status quo,” Herndon says, “which was very uncommon for most people on the School Board.”
Three months later, the board voted 4-3 to fire Blanchard. The decision sparked dueling recall campaigns—one against the four who had fired Blanchard and one by the Black United Front against the three members who supported the superintendent.
“The community turned on every one of us,” Buel says. “I was getting bombarded.”
In November 1980, Blanchard died of a massive heart attack. His estate claimed on-the-job stress contributed to his death. A year later, the board voted to name the district’s headquarters after Blanchard. Buel abstained.
Anger over the Blanchard firing lingered into the next election. “[H]e has been a time-wasting obstructionist,” The Oregonian editorial board said of Buel when he sought re-election in 1983. “Even during the important school desegregation meetings, Buel, more than anyone else, was responsible for interminable attention to trivia, pointlessly prolonging meetings beyond rational patience. His four-year performance has been a disappointment both in terms of style and substance.”
Voters ousted Buel in favor of a former bank executive.
His departure was a relief to others. “Utterly difficult to work with,” is how Charlotte Beeman, who served with Buel on the board from 1981 to 1983, sums him up. “It appears that he hasn’t changed.” BETH SLOVIC.