When the controversy over lead in the drinking water came to a head this spring in Portland Public Schools, parents like Mike Southern called for one person’s professional head to roll.
“School board, you need to act, and Carole Smith, you need to go,” Southern said to a roomful of applause at Creston K-8 school back in May. “That’s what I have to say.”
Smith was not fired. Instead, she was allowed to retire.
But Portland Public Schools did suspend two people below Smith. One was Tony Magliano, the chief operating officer who was responsible for much of the behind-the-scenes functions of Oregon’s largest school district.
The other person put on paid leave was a career PPS manager, two steps below Magliano in the administrative chain: Andy Fridley.
Fridley worked 28 years at Portland Public Schools, until one day in June, when he didn’t.
“They came in and handed me a letter, basically, informing me that I was on paid administrative leave for my actions in the lead-in-water issue,” Fridley told OPB Friday, the day his resignation was made official. “I was asked to be out of my office in 15 minutes.”
Fridley is tall and thin, a soft-spoken guy who until the end of last school year was responsible for finding and mitigating environmental hazards such as lead.
Last spring, parents railed at the district after it responded slowly to finding high levels of lead in school drinking water. Through much of the controversy, Fridley was at home, barred by his district bosses from talking publicly about the situation. PPS administrators told Fridley he’d be on leave until investigations had concluded into the handling of the lead results.
The Stoll Berne law firm investigated and reported to the Portland school board nearly two months ago. The firm’s report uncovered disorganization, mismanagement and a lack of procedures to quickly respond and report the water quality problems. Smith sped up her retirement date. With her gone, board chair Tom Koehler placed blame on district managers — people like Fridley — in his suggestions for ways the district should change.
“You get the right people in the bureaucracy, and the right procedures, and a management culture that has accountability attached with it,” Koehler said.
Fridley was the district’s senior manager of health and safety, and so he knows he can’t escape some blame. He regrets some things he said in emails, such as when he dismissively called one parent pushing for better lead remediation efforts, the “zero lead lady.”
“What is a safe level of lead? And as I’ve learned, there isn’t one,” Fridley said. “Zero lead is an excellent goal — we should move towards that. But at the time, there was a standard that was established, that I was trying to meet. It was a frustration point, knowing that our buildings are old, and it’s a challenge.”
Fridley admits he made mistakes, but he also suffered from systemic problems found in the Stoll Berne report and backed up by other former facility workers in interviews with OPB: massive turnover in the department responsible for maintaining and repairing school buildings.
At one point, he was doing three jobs, one permanent and two interim. He served as the operations director and also the senior maintenance manager for the district electrical shop.
After suspending him with little warning, the district gave Fridley two weeks to provide his reaction to the Stoll Berne report. He sent a detailed, 12-page response, mostly applauding the scathing report into his former employer.
“In their investigation, they basically didn’t find an urgency within the upper levels of the administration, all the way up to the board,” Fridley said. “That there wasn’t wasn’t any urgency to that. That was a frustration within operations for many, many years that the problems were getting more and more critical, but there weren’t the resources coming.”
Fridley says he was given the choice earlier this month to either resign or be fired. He found a new job, he says, and resigned. He declined to identify his new employer or have his photo taken, because he says he wants to protect what’s left of his privacy.
Looking back, Fridley questions a district policy that says all facility complaints should be handled the same way: by telling only the person who complained, the principal and his supervisor. One of the big complaints parents had about the lead situation was how slow PPS administrators were to let them know about the problem. Fridley now says he should have told more people of the lead results, though that would have meant going outside the school district’s chain of command.
“I think that was a big part of the distrust that built up between the district and the community,” Fridley said. “So absolutely, I would’ve pushed harder for communication of those findings, much sooner.”
Portland Public Schools leaders created two additional positions in facility management this summer. The new interim superintendent, Bob McKean, has made health and safety his top priorities.
Fridley says he hopes those changes will make life easier for the next senior manager of health and safety in Oregon’s largest school district.