In case you haven't heard, Portland's public schools are in trouble. One of the school board's current members recently spent time in jail for allegedly harassing his ex-wife, and Portland's school closures have made national news, covered by The New York Times and ridiculed in Doonesbury.

But this coming month, voters have a chance to turn the ship around. On May 17, three new members will be elected to the school board. (Those ballots should be in your mailbox soon.) Last Thursday, four candidates for North Portland's Zone Four gathered at City Hall for a debate sponsored by the Oregon Bus Project. Facing school closures and poor academic performances, the North Portland district is one of the city's most beleaguered.

"Portland was always known for two things: Livability and public schools," said Dan Ryan, a program developer at PSU and one of the candidates. "But I have friends who won't even move here now because of our school system."

On Monday, the current school board announced its proposed budget, which included cutting another 240 full-time positions and trimming back sports programs. Other programs that stayed intact, like the outdoor programs, will demand $100 fees for participating students.

Ryan said that he would work within the shrinking budget by reducing red tape and setting teachers free to run their classrooms as they see fit. He says that, if elected, he plans to "focus on not having so many mandates that drown teachers in paperwork [and] keeps them from instruction and developing curriculum."

But Steve Kayfes, a supervisor at Nabisco and another candidate, sees money as the solution. He plans to go after the 15 percent revenue bar owners make from lottery sales. "We should not keep the corner bars open [while we] keep closing down schools," he said.

Currently, the school board is threatening to close three middle schools in North Portland and place those students in Jefferson High, making the school an inclusive seventh through 12th grade institution. That move would toss 12-year-olds in a social pressure cooker with 18-year-olds.

To prevent those closures, another candidate, Steve Buel, suggests making the schools more appealing to families and students.

"Low-income schools are wastelands," said Buel, a Vancouver teacher. "Put athletics and activities back into those schools. That gives kids something to belong to."

The fourth candidate at last Thursday's forum, Charles McGee III, a sophomore at PSU, suggested that, "We have to start to really look at what other places are doing." McGee wants to narrow the achievement gap by improving leadership in the school system. "We have all these wonderful teachers--why don't we make some of them administrators?"

While all four candidates articulated their broad visions for preventing school closures, they seemed less confident when confronted with specific pressing problems--such as assuring health care to teachers.

Zone Four candidate Juanita Johnson did not appear at last Thursday's debate. Ballots are due to the Multnomah County Election Office on Tuesday, May 17.

Upcoming school board forums:

Thursday, April 28, St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, 2800 SE Harrison, 7 pm

Thursday, May 5, Governor Hotel, 611 SW 10th, 7:30 am.

Thursday, May 5, Portland Public School Headquarters, 501 N Dixon, 6:30 pm.