A June 26 meeting marked the end of an era for the Tigard-Tualatin School Board. It was the last meeting which Barry Albertson attended as a board member, after serving on the board for 16 years.
"Barry has been an amazing public ambassador for our school district," said Susan Stark Haydon, the district's director of community relations, at the meeting. "He has been unmistakable in his yellow fleece jacket attending sports events, concerts, drama productions and explaining bond proposals to motorists waiting to buy gas in King City."
Stark Haydon was hardly the first over the years to comment on Albertson's heavy involvement in district events, his passion for policy and conversation, or his trademark pale yellow fleece, which he wears all fall and winter long. At a district candidate forum before the May election, moderator Dan Murphy of Broadway Rose quipped, "Who will be the one to wear the yellow jacket next year?"
"It made me stand out like a sore thumb," Albertson said about the yellow jacket, which he has been wearing since his early days on the board. "People got to recognize me, mostly because of the yellow coat. They knew I was there, they knew I was supporting their kids, and they got the green light to talk to me about whatever they wanted."
A close start
If it hadn't been for 27 votes cast in 2001, Albertson might never have been on the Tigard-Tualatin School Board.
Even before running for school board, education had always been important to Albertson. Both his parents were National Merit Scholars in high school, but they graduated in 1933 — the height of the Great Depression — and were unable to afford college.
"They pushed both my sister and I relentlessly to get as much (education) as we could," Albertson said. "Don't ever stop — that was the ticket to success."
Alberton and his wife and kids moved to Oregon from Bethesda, Md., in the 1990s. He and his wife are both physicians — Albertson works as the clinical research director at the Fanno Creek Clinic — and they picked their home on Bull Mountain specifically because they'd heard good things about the Tigard-Tualatin School District.
Albertson didn't have any plans to run for the school board, however, until his friends Caroline Neunzert and Mark Chism convinced him to run with them in 2001 (they weren't an official block, Albertson said, but they were all friends running for different positions on the board). At the time, the board was in the process of selecting a new superintendent.
"The feeling was that the board wasn't communicating with the public nearly enough or in the detail that the public wanted about the new superintendent and what that person should have as qualifications," Albertson said. "It was that that pushed me into it."
The trio all won their respective races — though Albertson by a decidedly smaller margin than Neunzert and Chism. In fact, when Albertson tuned into the results with his wife on election night, he first saw that he was behind his opponent, incumbent Merrily Haas, by about 150 votes.
"I was disappointed," he said. "But I knew the handwriting was on the wall to beat an incumbent."
Albertson went out and collected all his candidate lawn signs, which happened to be yellow. But when he and his wife checked the results again right before going to bed, he was ahead by 27 votes — a count that stayed true.
'The guy in the yellow jacket'
During one conversation that lasted about 90 minutes, Albertson brought up three different conversations he had with students, faculty members and district community members at his local Safeway, "among the fruits and vegetables." It's a detail that reflects his high-profile, and highly visible, status in the district.
Because Albertson works a full-time job, he tended to fulfill his school board duties on nights and weekends, meaning he attended a lot of sporting events, school plays and concerts. His yellow jacket made him instantly recognizable to students and parents alike.
"Barry has always had the role of being the public relations guy on the board," said the board's vice chair, Jill Zurschmeide, who served on the board with Albertson for 10 years. "As long as I've known him, he's been the guy in the yellow jacket who goes to the theater events and the sporting events, who interacts with the community a lot. It's the role that he likes."
In addition to putting a recognizable face on the board, Albertson also brought what Stark Haydon called an "anti-status quo approach to school board service."
"He always questions everything that the district is doing," Zurschmeide said. "A lot of times, he asks the really deep, community-relations questions. The community will want to know what we're doing about the bond. He asks the question, so that the community will know the question's being asked."
Albertson admits to being opinionated — he's written dozens of columns for The Times over the years, and said that he is, "definitely not a politician. Being trained as a scientist, I tend to tell people what I think and why, and any decent politician will not do that."
He said that one of the most rewarding experiences he had as board member were the many occasions he visited or substitute taught a Tigard or Tualatin High class (Albertson got his teaching license after joining the board), and a student told him something that changed his view about a relevant topic.
"You hear about things at school board meetings, but the kids will really tell you what's going on," Albertson said. "I think I've gained the trust of the kids. And if they think I'm completely off base, I want them to tell me that."
Last year, he wrote a column in The Times suggesting that year-round school and a fifth year of high school would be positive changes for the district to consider. A high school class he visited soon after took to those ideas, "like screen doors on a submarine," Albertson said.
"A lot of them really plan on and bank on the jobs they have in summer," he said. "If they were in school and couldn't count on those full-time jobs, it would wreck their economic forecast for saving for college or a car… that's what I want kids to tell me."
School board members are not paid for their contributions to the district — at least, not in the traditional sense. But Albertson said his annual "pay day" comes every June, when Tigard High and Tualatin High hold graduation ceremonies.
"For those kids that finish and hopefully they're on their way to doing whatever they want to do, that's the big bonus," he said. "That's the big paycheck for me."
Albertson is now having a graduation-like moment of his own, as he is no longer a school board member as of July 1.
"My first flip answer is, board meetings are going to be a lot shorter," Zurschmeide said when asked what the board will be like in Albertson's absence.
Albertson said he did enjoy delving into each topic and going "until the cows come home" at evening board meetings — which sometimes meant past midnight.
So what will Albertson do with his new free time? He will stay on at the Fanno Creek Clinic, and he and his wife recently bought a new home in Sherwood that sits on a five-acre plot, which he said they look forward to landscaping themselves
"That's our therapy, and that's what we like to do," he said. "We may not be professionals, but we enjoy it."
A few friends have suggested Albertson run for the state Legislature, but he joked that he'd, "last about five minutes up there."
He doesn't plan to attend board meetings, so as to give the new board members the chance to make their own decisions. Sharon Fox will take Albertson's seat on the board, and Karen Emerson will replace board member Dana Terhune.
"The new board members have their work cut out for them," Albertson said, referring to the 2016 district bond construction projects that are beginning to get underway.
"But it's not supposed to be easy."