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Our Opinion: Munson a good fit for PPS board

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In a battle of two good candidates, the need for a fresh perspective gives Jamila Singleton Munson the edge over Rita Moore

TRIBUNE PHOTO: BETH SLOVIC - Jamila Singleton MunsonEndorsements: Portland Public Schools Board

Zone 4: Jamila Singleton Munson

The good news for Portland voters is that no matter which school board candidate in Zone 4 gets the most votes, the district will emerge as a winner.

The bad news is that they can pick only one of them.

In fact, the choice between Rita Moore and Jamila Singleton Munson was so tough we took an extra week to talk to their supporters, education advocates and other observers. We found compelling arguments on behalf of each of them.

The case for Rita Moore is simple.

Over the past 15 years this single mom has volunteered on various Portland Public Schools committees, boards and panels all aimed at improving the education of kids.

The budget? She's studied it. Enrollment and transfer policies? She helped shape them. The needed capital improvements? She was on the 2012 bond campaign committee.

Along the way, she's earned a reputation as a straight-talking team player who brings a sharp, clinical approach to problems.

Moore, a 64-year-old policy analyst, got the endorsement of the teachers union, several prominent school activists and three current board members, including Steve Buel, who holds this seat now.

So, why are we giving our nod to someone who can't match Moore's local schools experience?

Because at this point, the district administration and board, buffeted by scandal and bad PR, cannot continue on a business-as-usual path. The administration will get some new ideas from incoming superintendent, Donyall Dickey, who hails from Atlanta. We believe Munson, similarly, would bring a different approach to the board.

There are two gripes about Munson. We find neither convincing.

The first is that she's hostile to organized labor. That jab comes because of her support of public charter schools (which can hire nonunion teachers) and her job as director of Teach for America's summer teaching program.

Oregonians are likely not familiar with the national organization because it has no presence here. But over the past 17 years, the nonprofit has offered more than 50,000 college grads a five-week crash course in teaching and then placed them in low-income schools across the country.

Along the way, it's earned the ire of the national teachers union, which has complained that it replaces experienced teachers with low-salary newbies lacking classroom experience.

We won't wade into that debate, but the effort to stick an anti-union label on Munson, or characterize her as Oregon's Betsy DeVos, is off-base.

The second criticism of Munson did give us pause. The 37-year-old Grant High grad left Portland for a while, but returned in 2011 and since then hasn't joined a single committee or advisory board associated with the school district. And now she wants to jump right to the school board?

When questioned about that, Munson said she's a professional educator who's been focused on a demanding job that benefits low-income schools throughout the country. And, she conceded, the anti-union whispers didn't make her feel all that welcome in Portland school circles.

What's more, Munson has served on a statewide work group looking at college readiness and co-founded a Portland nonprofit devoted to fighting racial injustice. Both offer lessons for the school district.

Still, there's a risk that her unfamiliarity with the details of Portland school policy will hamper her effectiveness.

In our view, that's outweighed by the benefit of having a trained education expert who hasn't been caught up in internal district politics. That's particularly the case since the leading candidates in the other two contests all have extensive experience in district policies.

We're also mindful that Munson, if elected, would be the only African-American on the seven-member board, which oversees policies for a district where minority students make up 44 percent of the enrollment. It would be foolish not to acknowledge that her experience as a student of color coming through the district is an important asset. And, at 37, Munson would bring a Gen-X perspective to a board dominated by baby boomers.

Despite losing the union endorsement, Munson, like Moore, is backed by three of the current board members and 10 former board members, as well as Mayor Ted Wheeler and a half-dozen other prominent local elected officials. So, if she is a stalking horse for union-busters or charter-school zealots, she's fooled a lot of smart people.

If the board were in need of a good-hearted, well-spoken education advocate who knows the nuts and bolts of Portland Public Schools, Moore would be our choice. But there are plenty of experienced hands on the board.

We think it's time for some new ideas. Munson would bring them — and other attributes — to the board.

In a tough call, she gets our endorsement.