Tae Chong sounds off
Leaving the school board, bitter over condos and cuts
By Chris Busby
After three years as a citywide representative to the Portland School Committee, Tae Chong is leaving his post haunted by a disturbing vision of the city’s future.
In this vision, the city is crowded with condominiums, its old neighborhoods indistinguishable from one another amid all the slick grandeur and faux-brick facades. Affluent retirees and young professionals dominate the population. The families financially able to do so have settled in the suburbs of sprawling Greater Portland, where they feel the schools offer a better education than the city’s system can.
Portland’s system, which caters mostly to children receiving some form of public assistance, has been shedding teachers and programs for years. The city councilors who control school funding often cite the district’s declining enrollment to justify budget reductions, and haggle with the school board down to each tenth of a percentage in the property tax rate.
Meanwhile, new condo towers, hotels and tourist attractions spring up, some benefiting from big property-tax breaks bestowed by the same council.
Actually, Chong’s vision of the future is pretty much his view of the present.
Chong said his decision not to seek a second term is purely personal: he and his wife are expecting a child, and Chong is pursuing a Masters in Business Administration at the University of Southern Maine. He said he’d consider a return to politics someday, “if my schedule was not so crazy.”
Four people took out nomination papers to fill the at-large vacancy on the board, including former Planning Board member Jaimey Caron and Susan Hopkins, a candidate running with the support of the Green Independent Party. To get on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election, candidates must submit their petitions to the City Clerk’s Office by the end of the day Tuesday.
Chong said he’s been approached about endorsements, but has decided not to endorse anyone.
“I feel kind of dejected,” he said, looking back on his tenure.
Chong has been a Portland resident and student here for 30 years – “from first grade to graduate school.” Asked for his take on the state of the city’s district, he replied, “Considering we’ve had six years of budget cuts, I think we’re doing OK.”
The flight of people, especially families, from the city alarms Chong; and he’s further alarmed that more Portlanders aren’t as alarmed by this as he is.
“There used to be 80,000 people in Portland in the ’60s. Now we’re hovering in the sixty thousands,” he said. “How can we have lost 25 percent of the population in 40 years?
“If we lost 25 percent of our businesses, people would see it as an epidemic. Or an upsurge in crime of 25 percent: people would say we need to put more money into public safety.
“In Portland, they say, ‘You’re losing kids. Cut programs.'”
But what better way to attract families back to the city – and strengthen Portland neighborhoods in the process — than to offer their children a top-notch education, Chong argues. Instead, he said, Portland offers condos, and “condominiums aren’t based around families.”
“We’ve gone from a city really defined by neighborhoods to a city where I don’t know what the difference is between the East End and the West End,” said Chong, who lives in the Rosemont neighborhood off Brighton Avenue. He works for the Portland Housing Authority as a liaison between the agency and residents of its public housing properties.
Chong said he got a nasty reaction from people inside and outside City Hall whenever he questioned the direction the city is heading. “The city was angry when I said we spend more money and resources trying to entertain people from away than we spend on the people here.”
“I’m surprised residents haven’t caught on,” he added. “Maybe that’s because it’s a slow burn, it’s 40 years in the making. At some point, people have to wake up.”