Portland Public Schools’ pick for superintendent is not coming.
Atlanta school administrator Donyall Dickey has turned down an offer to lead Oregon’s largest school district, a blow to PPS that was first reported by Willamette Week and confirmed by the school district.
The PPS board named Dickey their finalist to replace Superintendent Carole Smith two months ago, but a contract had not been signed.
Smith retired early last year amid controversy over how her administration handled news of lead in school drinking water.
Throughout his career, Dickey has been a prolific author and researcher on educational topics such as how to close the racial achievement gap.
There was excitement around Dickey among school board members when he emerged as the final selection. The feeling appeared mutual as Dickey beamed in a hotel hallway, after learning he was likely to get the Portland superintendent job.
“Parents are sending their kids to Portland Public Schools every day, and teachers are committed to the work,” Dickey told OPB. “Why wouldn’t I want to be part of such an organization? I’m excited.”
Board members continued their vetting process after he was announced as a candidate, including a visit to Dickey’s home district of Atlanta.
Something changed between those enthusiastic days of March and Thursday’s withdrawal announcement.
Board chairman Tom Koehler suggested the district and Dickey may have disagreed on how much outside work Dickey could do if named PPS superintendent.
“We were clear from our standpoint that we needed a superintendent that was going to be here working 100 percent of the time,” Koehler told OPB. “I think Donyall may have wanted some more flexibility. Throughout the process, it became clear that it was not the best fit for either party.”
Koehler suggested the board’s conclusion that Dickey wasn’t “the best fit” was related to a “final report” that school board members reviewed this week. He said he couldn’t share the findings of that report without breaching Dickey’s confidence.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, four school board members lined up along with interim superintendent Bob McKean and deputy Chief Executive Officer Yusef Awwad.
They tried to put the best face possible on a difficult day for Portland Public Schools, and doing so, delivered a somewhat confusing and incomplete message. While board members made it clear that Dickey opted out, they also stressed that the decision was “mutual,” and that board concerns surfaced amid contract negotiations. Koehler said he had private “conversations” with fellow board members and with Dickey, but he said the board never had to make a final “decision” - a step that likely would’ve required a public meeting - because Dickey withdrew.
“This is one of the most important jobs a board has,” said vice chair Amy Kohnstamm. “On the one hand, Dr. Dickey is a very inspiring candidate, a really strong educational leader. On the other, we have to feel completely confident.”
Dickey sent the district a letter withdrawing from the job search Thursday.
“After deep reflection I have decided to pursue other PreK-12 opportunities and to continue my consulting work, supporting other school districts in their effort to implement reforms that improve achievement for all students,” he wrote.
Dickey did not respond to multiple requests for comment from OPB. As recently as Wednesday, his Twitter feed consisted of him thanking supporters in Atlanta for their well-wishes as he prepared to leave for Portland.
PPS voters are considering a $790 million school bond on the May ballot, some of which would be used to fix the district’s lead problem. Three incumbent board members on the seven-person board are not seeking reelection. Interim superintendent Bob McKean has said he’s only interested in serving this academic year.
Thursday was an especially difficult day for a school system that has suffered from a series of public relations stumbles and high-level departures over the past year — and that faces possible cuts in its 2017-18 budget. In addition to Dickey opting out, the district’s human resources director resigned and a jury ordered PPS to pay $500,000 each to two employees for allowing a racially hostile work environment.
Board member Koehler said he does not think Dickey’s decision not to take the job will make finding a superintendent harder.
“I think it will be the same, if not better — particularly if this community, as I fully expect, passes this bond,” he said. “That sends a clear signal to those interested that the community absolutely cares about our district. I’m confident we will find the right person, and I think it will happen sooner rather than later.”
Koehler is among the three incumbents not seeking reelection. Assuming a permanent superintendent is not found before McKean leaves July 1, the board plans to have Deputy CEO Awwad take over as the district’s top executive.