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Lebanon School District Reviews Superintendent's Performance

In recent days, the school board in Lebanon, Oregon, has placed its superintendent on paid administrative leave and entered negotiations with another district employee to serve on an interim basis. And now the district is on track for a top-to-bottom review, as Rob Manning reports.

Lebanon's small academy structure at the high school may be the clearest example of the conflict that precipited calls for a review in the Willamette Valley town.

Teachers were skeptical about splitting up the high school. Parents were openly critical. Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had given the academy project money, pulled out, because it didn't appear to be working. But board members and Superintendent Jim Robinson kept the system in place.

Board member Rick Alexander says parents' rejection of “experimental academies” is just one example of a deeper problem.

Rick Alexander: “The community has lost confidence in the district to educate our students.”

Following the most recent school board elections, Alexander has a slim majority that agrees with him. At a recent board meeting, Alexander led the effort to put Robinson on administrative leave. Alexander says the move is not meant to impugn Robinson, but to reassure community members in advance of an intensive review.

Rick Alexander: “We're trying to educate students, and when the perception of the community is that we're failing, we need to give the community direct answers as to why.”

Alexander says a complete review is the best course to take.

Rick Alexander: “By having a top to bottom independent review, we can see the failures in the system, and the communication failures that's in the system.”

Around Lebanon, Superintendent Robinson is a divisive figure. Some say he's got the right ideas, but can be abrasive and pushy.  Others don't like his ideas, either.

Sherrie Sprenger is the current board chair, and has generally supported Robinson's initiatives, such as the small academies. She says the board's majority blindsided her and the superintendent.

Sherrie Sprenger: “The superintendent was out of town, his mother had suffered a stroke and he was dealing with that. He didn't know the topic of the meeting, nor did I. I urged the board to take a step back.”

But a majority voted to move ahead and put him on leave. Another top district official is now negotiating an interim contract to fill in for Robinson. Meantime, there are few details about what the review will look like.

State education officials won't do it, unless they get a formal complaint - which they haven't received so far.  Sprenger says the next steps for Lebanon should take into account that Oregon has changed.

Sherrie Sprenger: “We all hearken back to the heyday in the '80s, when logging was thriving, and the community had a clear personality, and we were proud of that, and it's been a hard transition."

The city's mayor, Ken Toombs, says the if the small academies are an example of getting students prepared, then Lebanon has work to do. He points out that the local economy is improving.

Ken Toombs: “The community is saying that the academies are only preparing students for college classes, and not preparing them for the vocational side of education. There's a lot of pushback.”

The Mayor says he supports the review, and believes it will help the community pull together around the school system. Plans to finalize that review process may come up at a meeting later this month.

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