Monday, May 10, 2021
May 10, 2021

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Parents want to save Portland Children’s Museum and Opal School, but it may be too late


As a new mother, the Portland Children’s Museum was a lifeline for Marilyn Shawe.

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, Shawe said she suffered from postpartum depression. She started going to the museum when her daughter was just six months old.

“She learned to walk there, from station to station,” Shawe said.

“It was a safe space for us both,” she said. “While she learned through play at the PCM. I caught a break. There was no mess to clean up, there was no activity to plan for, since PCM had everything we needed.”

The museum announced in late March that it would close permanently this June after 75 years, along with its onsite school, Opal School, citing pandemic-related financial woes.

Records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive show the museum was on a downward trajectory before the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the state. The pandemic may very well have provided the final blow.

But the news of the closure shocked many in the community.

A large and active Facebook community, Help Save The Portland Children’s Museum, is full of stories from people committed to the museum and school. The group has more than 3,000 members.

As a kid with ADHD, said Charlie Zimmermann, 17, of Beaverton, the museum “was one of the few places where it didn’t matter if I got a bit too rambunctious or wanted to touch everything in sight.

“I still treasure the memories and I think the museum should be preserved, in some form. For this and future generations of kids to learn through play.”

For parents of kids at Opal School, the announcement is especially jarring.

The Opal School works on the principles of Reggio Emilia and acts as a laboratory to teach other teachers new ways of working with students. The tuition-based program for younger kids serves 37 students and the charter K-5 school has 90 students.

Elisabeth Utas created the Facebook group that has brought many museum and school supporters together.

Utas was a frequent visitor to the museum before the pandemic. When she moved to Portland two years ago with two kids under four, she said it was a perfect place to go, especially during cold, wet winters.

Now she is hoping her group can save the museum. There is the will, she believes, but the way is still uncertain.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Utas said. “What can we do to save it?”

So far the strategy has been to pressure the board into reversing its decision to dissolve.

The group held a rally at the museum that drew 200 to 300 people, Utas said. They have created petitions and reached out to state and local officials.

“There’s no one that says it’s not worth saving,” Utas said.

But they are facing a lack of information. Why exactly did the museum have to shut down now and how much money would it have taken to keep it open? For Utas and others in the group, the decision seemed to come out of nowhere.

But even before the pandemic, the museum had changes in its future.

Its current location in Washington Park, in what was once OMSI, is leased from Portland Parks and Recreation. In 2018, the organization was told they had 13 years to find a new location.

Tax documents show the museum ended several previous years, including 2017 and 2018, in the red.

A financial audit completed in June of 2020 noted that the organization had been “negatively impacted by the effects of the world-wide coronavirus pandemic which has resulted in the closure of the Museum beginning in March 2020 and continuing into the 2020-2021 fiscal year.”

But, the audit said, the school and museum had developed and put into place a plan to manage cash flow and liabilities. They obtained money from the Paycheck Protection Program in 2020 and at the time, anticipated “applying for forgiveness of all or part of the advance in fiscal year 2021.”

According to the audit, the organization also had reapplied for a line of credit and “recently been awarded two significant grants to assist in reopening.”

However, that report concluded, “the full impact to the Organization’s financial position is not known.”

Board meeting minutes from early February of 2021 show that the organization was struggling.

The museum had received $550,800 as a Paycheck Protection loan, according to the minutes, but they hadn’t spent all of the money so would not qualify for a second round of that funding.

The minutes note that interim executive director Jani Iverson had determined that the organization had two potential paths forward.

“Based on current observations and financial information,” the minutes read, “the two options to consider are dissolving the organization or raising at least $500,000 in bridge funding to keep the organization afloat through December.”

According to the minutes, those present “generally agreed that the group wanted to make the effort towards raising the necessary bridge funding as opposed to shutting down without trying.”

But, Peterson said, those minutes don’t capture the full scope of the discussion. In reality, he said, the organization would have needed $500,000 by March to pay known 2021 expenses.

“The urgency of raising these funds was that without the $500,000 by March, which would have represented one of the largest campaigns in our history,” Peterson said, “the organization would not be able to continue beyond its fiscal year-end of June 30 and therefore be unable to continue Opal School in the fall.”

“Given limited resources in the Museum,” he said. “our primary focus was on not interrupting the education of Opal students and disrupting the lives of families.”

The executive committee wanted to raise those funds, he said, but when the fundraising team reached out to major donors, they couldn’t secure commitments to equal even half the amount they needed.

“The board also found that even if any raised funds were stretched with crowdfunding, we would need to raise well over another $1 million come January 2022 to cover ongoing expenses and, if open to the public, to cover ongoing losses from operating at 10-25% capacity,” he said. “That is not sustainable.”

At that point, Peterson said, the board focused on saving just Opal School.

“Work was done to create a new nonprofit to support the school and the board supported planning and financial modeling,” he said. “Unfortunately it was determined that the Opal School as an independent organization was also not financially or operationally viable.”

Given all this, Peterson said, the board and leadership of Opal School unanimously concluded the challenges facing the organization were unsurmountable,

Peterson said they were aware of the energy of people organizing around the school and museum.

“We love Portland Children’s Museum and Opal School, as so many others do. And like many of our fellow Portlanders, we’re grieving too,” he said. “Students are losing their school, children are losing their Museum, the remaining staff and teachers are losing their jobs – and some families are experiencing multiple losses.

“We understand that some will disagree with this conclusion and would like to change the outcome. However, there is no viable path forward for the Museum nor Opal School and they will close.”