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Renewed Search For PPS Superintendent Shows School Board Divisions


What’s harder than getting seven Portland school board members to agree? How about getting 10 of them to get along?

On Thursday night, the seven sitting members of the Portland Public Schools board sat down with the three new members elected last month to discuss hiring a new superintendent. The one area where they found clear agreement was that the recent passage of the $790 million bond measure likely makes that critical job easier.

The three new members — Scott Bailey, Julia Brim-Edwards and Rita Moore — are already in the middle of that effort, comprising the majority of the board’s superintendent task force.

But in the wake of a failed superintendent search earlier this spring, all 10 Portland board members — the incoming, the hold-over and the outgoing — sparred over how to replace Carole Smith, who retired early in the wake of the district’s struggles with lead in campus drinking water.

Brim-Edwards previously served on the Portland board in the early 2000s and helped hire a superintendent then. She’s now a board member-elect, taking office in July. But she pushed the current board to fill the superintendent position quickly if possible.

“I think there’s a small window,” Brim-Edwards said. “I think another year of an interim superintendent who’s not an educational leader or community leader is just going to kill PPS.” 

Portland Public Schools board leaders Tom Koehler (speaking, in orange shirt) and Amy Kohnstamm (second from right) celebrated the passage of a $790 million bond measure May 16, 2017.

Portland Public Schools board leaders Tom Koehler (speaking, in orange shirt) and Amy Kohnstamm (second from right) celebrated the passage of a $790 million bond measure May 16, 2017.

Rob Manning/OPB

Reaction from her future colleagues showed old and new divisions among board members.

Board member-elect Rita Moore warned that a quick hire would likely limit community involvement and, if completed before the new members take office in July, would not allow her to vote on the hire.

“I am deeply uncomfortable with an incoming board member being shut out of this process and a rush to judgment in the space of 29 days now — two weeks after an election happened,” Moore said.

The person Moore is replacing, Steve Buel, agreed that no superintendent should be hired before the new board is in place. But that view was not unanimous among outgoing members.

“Do you think Obama should have nominated the Supreme Court justice?” said outgoing board chair Tom Koehler, comparing the possible hire of a new district leader in the next few weeks to the U.S. Senate’s failure to vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

Moore insisted that was not a fair comparison since Garland’s nomination languished for far longer than the month that the school board would be waiting before she, Bailey and Brim-Edwards take office.

“I’m just going to be blunt,” Moore said, “I don’t think this is a decision that ought be made by a lame-duck board.”

The third board member who’ll be stepping down in a month, Pam Knowles, said the debate was academic, because no incoming superintendent would want to accept the job without having support from the newly elected board, the people for whom he or she will actually work. But Koehler balked at guaranteeing new board members a “veto,” as Buel suggested.

Brim-Edwards and other board members also advocated adding some “flexibility” into the search process, potentially to accelerate the vetting of candidates with strong credentials, such as those with previous experience as a superintendent in districts familiar to board members. 

Board members also disagreed over how to handle the consulting contract with Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the search firm responsible for the recruitment of Atlanta administrator Donyall Dickey, whose hire ultimately fizzled. Buel pushed to give the firm 30 days’ notice and move in a different direction, but his colleagues disagreed. That didn’t mean the firm has enduring support from board members, though.

“Those two individuals who led that process, I think we all agree—” Koehler said before Buel interrupted.

“Well [HYA] sent us their two best people didn’t they?” Buel asked.

“No, no they didn’t,” Koehler responded.

Board members also had a hard time agreeing on what exactly doomed the hiring of Donyall Dickey.

Pam Knowles contended the problems were almost entirely related to issues that came up in the vetting process — issues that several board members felt their outside headhunting firm should have discovered earlier. The school district has declined to publicize the final vetting report, under legal threat from Dickey’s attorney. Other board members said conflicts in contract negotiations, particularly over whether Dickey could do outside work, were also critical barriers to hiring the Atlanta administrator.

One issue that has proved contentious in the past, and may again going forward, is what PPS should pay the next superintendent. The last permanent superintendent, Smith, earned $248,000 per year in salary. Interim superintendent Bob McKean is making $243,000 for the year he’s about to finish.

Board members appeared to see the benefits of offering more to be competitive, pointing to the salary of Don Grotting in Beaverton, for instance, who earns a base salary of $265,000. Administrator salaries have been controversial at Portland Public Schools, including in 2014, when Smith got her last contract renewal. But board members such as Brim-Edwards argue it can be far easier to recruit candidates to such positions if the salary is competitive.

At one point, a comparison was made to Portland State University, where a new president was hired just a few weeks ago. PSU used a process that opened the final stages to the public.

“PSU, I will say, the big advantage they have is $600,000,” Brim-Edwards said wryly.

Portland State hired Rahmat Shoureshi as its next president at a salary of $599,000, not including a housing and vehicle allowance.

Editor’s Note: This story was changed to more correctly reflect the compensation numbers for former superintendent Smith and Beaverton superintendent Grotting. 

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