On Monday, October 17, a few concerned parents came to the business meeting of the Portland Public School Board of Education to ask that they turn away the military’s offer to take 5th graders out of school to a military base. We’ve been asking them very politely for several years, even though they have given us almost no notice of their intentions to vote on this military program called Starbase—and for the third year in a row they gave us less than one day’s notice, apparently hoping for minimal public turnout.
This year we saw two new faces on the board, Matt Morton and Greg Belisle. We certainly missed the presence of Dilafruz Williams, who brought the spirit of the Gandhian principles of truth, transparency and trust to this decision-making body.
As a new parent to this system I am appalled. I thought Portland, of all cities, would be beyond these sort of childish tactics to sneak recruiting into our schools—our elementary schools!—unnoticed. I have since been rudely awakened. The level to which PPS Board has stooped in order to avoid public outcry on this issue has just amazed me. Last year they hid the agenda item, bringing it up much earlier in the year than previous years and then voted it in for a two-year contract; which still makes me wonder why they had to vote again this year, but I guess they are required to confirm that they still want the second year.
Hidden Agendas and Hidden Meetings
Several of us receive every agenda notice from the board. Yet on the agendas received not once is Starbase mentioned. Apparently the board has changed its process. According to Greg Belisle:
“…we changed that format. We now have two work sessions per month held in the upstairs conference room but we wanted them televised so more of the public could see the discussion. We have created a public comment section at the beginning of both work sessions and public comment before business items are voted on. The materials had been available at the meeting. This last week, the Board requested our materials be posted on the website before our work sessions and Board meetings to increase public awareness of what was to be discussed. Materials are still available at the work sessions and meetings. The October 10th Board book that has been posted since last Friday on the District website includes all the items Board members were provided in advance of the meeting, including the Starbase contract as part of the business agenda (page 47 on my Adobe Reader.)”
Not Enough Time…
So in the future it’s up to the public to attend every work session and read every page of the “work session” agendas in order to know what’s coming up. Also, note that they posted the information on Friday for a Monday meeting. This doesn’t give much time for a concerned public to notify members of their organizations that they should turn out, nor for the spokespeople to prepare cogent three-minute comments.
Four of us arrived at 4:30 p.m. for this 5 p.m. meeting. It took 15 minutes just to find the hidden space upstairs behind the cafeteria where this meeting was to be held. The speaker timer mechanisms were broken so we relied on the secretary to hold up a card. Jessica Applegate-Brown and I had just timed ourselves before coming in and were both well under three minutes. Somehow the three minutes of PPS time didn’t translate from the real world and neither of us were able to finish our testimony.
…Not Enough Common Sense
Regardless of all the mystery and hand waving to distract the public, we had a terrific turn out. Nancy Rawling and Gene Wilcox gave the first testimonies. Nancy, representing Communities for Alternatives to Starbase Education (CASE), delivered the petition of 141 names collected via the petition site and also hard copies of our letter endorsed by 25 local organizations. Gene then presented evidence that Starbase is at heart a recruitment tool. He pointed to the military-mandated assessments done with the children before and after the program, where their attitude about the military and military careers is included in the evaluation. These questions are the equivalent of a BIG GLARING NEON sign that screams, “This is recruitment!!!” Then we all (including my restless seven-year-old) had the joy of sitting through a couple hours of redistricting talks and how budgeting will work (or not) in the coming year. Then I and Jessica Applegate-Brown spoke. I reminded the board that military bases are typically toxic and not held to the same EPA standards as the rest of us. Also, that this program supports the “poverty draft” in our country. Nothing in the Starbase curriculum couldn’t be done just as well in a neutral, non-military location. Both Jessica and I reminded them that the weapons stored at the armory are a direct contradiction to the zero tolerance rule in the schools. If it’s not something that would be allowed on the school grounds, should we really be sending the kids to see it? Furthermore, Jessica cited UN statements on child recruitment and showed how this was counter to the US’s own rules that we gladly support for other countries on this issue.
Violence is Never the Answer
Following this was testimony from Tom Hastings indicating that the use of violence to solve issues is outmoded, and that this program recruits a dying method of conflict management. He challenged the board to consider the results of helping kids make this dire career choice at such a young age simply based on the whiz bang tech the soldiers will show them at the base and reminded them that the US is in two wars, has enemies, and those enemies have attacked military bases—is this where the Portland School Board should decide to send our children? In the crowd we found many supporters including representatives from War Resisters League and another PPS parent, Carrie Adams. Other supporters may have attempted to come, and some I know intended to, but the doors were mysteriously locked. Even after we reported they were locked, they were found to be locked yet again. Again, hmmm. Maybe we need to introduce the idea of democracy to this militarized board—the form of government the military is allegedly defending.
Despite all our great effort, our endorsers, and our signatures, the vote came down to six for and only one against the Starbase renewal. Ruth Adkins continued to show great moral fortitude, holding to higher principles to protect our children regardless of the financial pressure. Martín Gonzalez, who had historically voted against this issue, lost that moral ground and succumbed to the pressures of the dollar. Bobbie Regan continues to claim herself against recruiting and yet continues to support this program claiming that, having toured the facility, she saw nothing of recruiting (apparently she didn’t notice the big gun in the front of the building). Of course, I suppose in some people’s minds recruiting is only when the recruiter is sitting at the table with a paper asking a 10-year-old to sign away his/her life. Pam Knowles went along with this thinking enthusiastically. Trudy Sargent’s son just joined the Navy, so she’s all guns and flags now, and more than happy to help all our children toward that glorious career choice. Both the newcomers, Greg and Matt, seemed sincerely torn on the issue. I hope that many of you will take time to engage in civil discourse with them and help them see that beyond the flag waving and patriotism, the core purpose, for which DOD willingly pays for this program out of their recruiting budget, is about recruiting ten year-olds.
After five years of work on this the board still does not provide an adequate program for the kids that opt-out. In one class, 20 percent opted out—that’s big enough to say it’s time to stop this insane program. Let’s keep talking and keep working. I will be presenting this case to a national body of academics with hopes that they may give us even more research to support our stand. Φ
Terri Shofner is a Buckman School parent.