After a couple of high-profile superintendent firings in Oregon this year, lawmakers brought Senate Bill 1521 to this year’s short legislative session.
The bill makes it so that if superintendents have a “no cause” firing clause in their contract, they need to receive 12 months’ notice of such a termination by the school board. The bill also prevents a school board from disciplining or firing a superintendent for following local, state or federal laws.
Supporters of the bill say it will provide basic employment protections for superintendents in Oregon. Critics say it encroaches on local control and a school board’s right to hire or fire the one employee that board members are directly responsible for.
The bill has been contentious since the start of the session, with votes breaking down along party lines. Up until the bill’s passage Friday, some legislators pushed for last-minute changes in a minority report.
The minority report offered some changes to specific language, the bill’s timeline, and removed the section about “no cause” firings. Language preventing a school board from taking action on a superintendent for following the law remained.
“The minority report will protect superintendents from not being fired if they are upholding state and federal law,” said Rep. Mark Owens R-Crane, who sponsored the replacement bill. “If that’s the intent of what this legislation is, the minority report covers that.”
Both the bill and the minority report drew discussion and floor speeches from legislators with school board member or superintendent backgrounds.
“We should protect school superintendents and local control of school boards, which have become minimal at best,” said Boomer Wright, R-Coos Bay, a former superintendent of Mapleton School District.
Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth cited his past experience on the Central School District board in talking about the difficulties of dismissing a superintendent.
“I feel a little bit like Goldilocks here, the minority report goes a little bit too far, and the base bill doesn’t actually do some things I wished it did,” Evans said. “So I’m going to be a ‘no’ on both bills.”
After the minority report vote failed, Owens made another effort to move the bill back to the Rules Committee with a couple of changes, including shortening the 12-month provision.
That failed too, but not before a short break and a few more words from Owens. He called out statewide organizations, the Oregon School Boards Association and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators as not supporting conservative Oregonians.
“A ‘yes’ on this for me would be the only Republican ‘yes’ vote on an OSBA priority, or a COSA priority that’s come through either side of this chamber today,” Owens said. “That is important. OSBA and COSA have a lot of work to do to repair the conversation in two-thirds of Oregon.”
COSA, who testified in support of the bill, did not respond to a request for comment. OSBA, another supporter of the bill, declined to comment to OPB.
The House moved to a final vote on the bill, with Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, citing the time crunch of the short session.
“Ultimately, this bill has been quite broadly discussed, and even with the proposals, with no assurances of any further support, I just believe we need to move forward at this point,” Smith-Warner said.
It passed, 31 to 25, with votes mostly along party lines. Four Democrats voted no, including Evans.
With its amendments, the bill will head back to the Senate for another vote before going to the Governor’s desk.