Union trades workers left in the dark as Portland Public Schools prepares to sell HQ


A proposal years in the making to sell Portland Public Schools (PPS) headquarters to Albina Vision Trust is moving forward. But union trades workers say they’ve been left out of the loop, and they’re worried that without their input, a new building won’t adequately meet their needs.

The Prophet Education Center, located at 401 N. Dixon St., houses the school district’s administrative offices and maintenance, nutritional services, and music repair workshops and warehouses. All told, the 360,000-square-foot building covers about 10.5 acres. 

Albina Vision Trust wants to purchase the building and land to redevelop it into 1,000 housing units. The nonprofit was established in 2017 with the goal of restoring about 94 acres of land in lower Albina, one of Portland’s historically Black neighborhoods. Many of its residents were forced out by decades of urban renewal projects in which governments took control of their homes through eminent domain, then demolished the houses to clear room for new construction, including PPS headquarters. 

In 2021, the school district agreed to give Albina Vision Trust first right of purchase, so the nonprofit can buy and redevelop the property. But before they would agree to sell the building, PPS leaders told the nonprofit they needed an affordable plan for a new headquarters. 

This year, Albina Vision Trust returned to the board with that plan: The nonprofit will help the district find a new location of equal or greater value to its current headquarters. If the new location is worth more, Albina Vision Trust will cover the difference to make the move “cost neutral” for the district. 

To demonstrate that suitable alternatives exist, Albina Vision Trust completed a basic real estate analysis that found 14 buildings that were at least 125,000 square feet, the same size as the existing office space.

In a unanimous vote on Feb. 20, the board approved a resolution agreing to the deal and setting a “due diligence” period that includes a 60-day timeline for PPS and Albina Vision Trust to establish specific search criteria, and one year to identify a new headquarters and warehouse site. At the same meeting, union electrician Adam Maurer told the board he was deeply concerned that most union trades workers had not heard about the plan to sell the headquarters until this year, and that the real estate analysis left out the workshops and warehouse spaces in the building. Without that information, there’s no indication if moving headquarters really is feasible. 

Prophet Education Center was purpose-built as a “one-stop shop” for district services, said Jennie Johnson, a journeyman electrician who works in the district’s musical instrument repair shop. The building has special power supplies to support specialized tools and machinery; ventilation systems; storage space for spare parts; freight elevators to move heavy equipment; garage space to easily load gear into vehicles; and central access to all 177 of the district’s buildings, Johnson said. 

Johnson and Maurer worry that if workers like them are not consulted on the new headquarters search criteria, the district might agree to move to a lower-cost building that can’t support its warehouse and maintenance staff. 

“We want to make sure they are connecting with us in a way that covers all the needs we have, because if they miss one thing … it will have a major impact,” Maurer said.

Johnson said her main concern is that the district might not do due diligence to make sure they are covering all costs that would be required for the move. 

“I would be excited for us to move if it was a space that would meet our needs like or better than the space we are in, but my worry comes from the lack of communication from the district,” Johnson said.

PPS spokesperson Valerie Feder told the Labor Press it’s very early in the planning process, and the district only started developing its search criteria on March 4. All workers in the building will have the chance to share their thoughts, she said.

“First we need to talk to the departments, the people. It’s going to be a big undertaking,” Feder said. “No one wants a building that can’t accommodate our people. That wouldn’t make any sense at all.” 

But 14 days into the 60-day study timeline, Maurer, Johnson, and journeyman sheet metal worker Jeff Fryar told the Labor Press they hadn’t received any more information from PPS about how they could help with that process. The District Council of Unions, which represents multi-craft maintenance workers, planned to meet with Albina Vision Trust on March 26 to learn more about the plan, Maurer added, but under the resolution timeline, that leaves less than a month to contribute to the search criteria. 

“This is an opportunity to do it right, and what makes everyone nervous is that no one is talking,” Fryar said. “We figure we are getting a picture of a pony for Christmas instead of the pony itself.” 


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