A feud is brewing between Portland Public Schools and the Oregon Department of Transportation over whether the state should pay to build a new Harriet Tubman Middle School.
That school is adjacent to Interstate 5, a stretch of which is the subject of a proposed freeway widening project that would require a steeply vertical, unused slice of the school's property. Studies have shown that because of fumes from cars passing so closely by on what is the most bottlenecked stretch of highway in all of Oregon, the air quality at Tubman is poor.
To our editorial board, the option is obvious. The school district and ODOT ought to shake hands, split the cost right down the middle, and get going on finding an Albina site for a new school as quickly as possible.
This isn't a case of one agency advocating for kids and the other serving as the villain. This is a case of two agencies who've been more or less OK with putting a historically Black school under a pollution umbrella and leaving it there for decades.
The school was built in 1952, and the freeway construction began soon after. The freeway split the historically Black neighborhood of Albina, displacing many residents and businesses, and disrupting that neighborhood's economic vitality and social structure for decades. Michelle DePass, the current chair of the school board, knows this all too well. DePass, who is aligned — correctly, we say — with the Albina Vision project, grew up in the neighborhood and said she could recall the ripple effects of the construction of the I-5 freeway that cut through the Black neighborhoods. That decision is why ODOT should reach into its coffers for half the funds for a new school.
But the district isn't off the hook. School officials have suspected for decades that the air was foul at that school yet left the school standing where it was. They've known for sure since the district hired Portland State University to study the air quality at the site. PSU experts found the school had elevated levels of traffic-related air pollution, sometimes exceeding pollution levels measured in nearby neighborhoods. On some days, students have been advised not to go outside due to elevated pollution levels. Tubman reopened in 2018 with air filtration systems in place and air quality sensors in the building to monitor pollution levels from the freeway.
School Board Director Gary Hollands all but admitted to the district's decades-long failure in a recent statement: "If this was on (Portland's much whiter) west side, and they had a pollution issue, our kids wouldn't have been there that long."
Yes, Director Hollands. You're quite correct. On the west side, PPS never would have waited this long.
It's hard to see this as anything other than the most textbook case of systemic racism. In the 1950s, the state of Oregon tore a Black neighborhood asunder, leaving a school looming over the tailpipes of hundreds of thousands of cars. Then, for the next seven decades, the school district let that inequity stand.
Now it's time for both the district and ODOT to stand together, admit that both should have acted differently and sooner, and begin a fast-track plan to locate a new site within Albina, and to get a new school built away from the highway.
Indifference and inaction poorly served generations of students at Tubman.
Today, and together, these two agencies can begin to right a historic wrong.
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