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Portland Public Schools Tries Unusual Process To Land Interim Superintendent


This story has been updated.

The school board for Portland Public Schools is running candidates for its fill-in superintendent job through a duplicate set of interviews, in front of reporters, with a public meet-and-greet thrown in — a process that has led some of the district’s top candidates to back out of pursuing the position.

It’s also led to a public airing of possible candidates by the city’s daily newspaper.

The school board intends to announce an interim superintendent to replace Carole Smith on Tuesday. After a round of interviews last Thursday, school board members are in their second day of interviews Monday. A meet-and-greet with interim candidates is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in advance of the board’s selection. The district announced Tuesday morning that it had selected two finalists, but one withdrew from consideration. Board members will vote Tuesday on the final candidate, former Centennial Superintendent Bob McKean. 

None of this is normal for hiring an interim superintendent in Oregon. And it may offer a warning to prospective candidates for the permanent superintendent job in the state’s largest district.

No one on the Portland school board has led a superintendent search in recent years — and only Steve Buel has been involved in a superintendent transition as a board member. That was back in the early ‘80s, during Buel’s first tenure on the board.

A big reason the process is new to the current board is that Smith had been superintendent for nine years before announcing her retirement. No one has been on the board more than three.

The process for naming an interim superintendent tends to follow a predictable path: school board leaders contact the Oregon School Boards Association, or other education groups, and get a short list of candidates who may be available and interested. Then the board sets up a committee to contact some of those candidates to gauge interest. Sometimes the board chairperson does it. Before long, the district finds someone who’s available and interested and meets the qualifications. More often than not, it’s a recently retired Oregon superintendent who’s happy to be a “caretaker” for a few months, while the district pursues a long-term leader.

But Portland Public Schools board members didn’t want to go that way. Board members insisted on a more transparent process, in which there would be interviews with all board members taking part.

Transparency tends to be at odds with a hiring process. Superintendent searches prioritize confidentiality, particularly so that candidates who already have other jobs or have professional reputations to defend can avoid being publicly “outed” as looking to leave.

Board members chose to meet as a full board to interview selected candidates, rather than through a sub-set of the board, which could avoid convening a quorum of the board. When the board has a quorum, it means the meetings must be held as “public meetings” under Oregon law.

PPS can hold them as “executive sessions,” however, meaning the public isn’t allowed to attend, but the meetings have to be publicly announced and members of the news media can attend. The media can also potentially report limited aspects of the meetings.

It’s not unheard of for school districts to interview candidates for permanent superintendents in executive sessions. It’s how Beaverton’s school board recently hired Don Grotting. No reporters attended either of two rounds of interviews in that process earlier this spring. But when Portland hired Vicki Phillips in 2004, board members interviewed candidates in small groups, to avoid a quorum.

It’s typical for school boards to discuss the final selection of a superintendent in an executive session, immediately before a board votes to hire the person.

In the current PPS process, the candidates were interviewed twice. The school board was unable to find a five-hour period when all seven board members could meet and interview the candidates together, so they scheduled two such interview sessions. That means each of the five candidates had to sit through nearly an hour worth of the exact same questions twice.

That’s partly because the district has “trust issues” but also to maintain a high level of “transparency,” according to members of the board.

The alternative would’ve been to name a committee that wouldn’t have met in executive session and could have done the interview once for each candidate, but all school board members would have wanted to serve on such a committee. That form of interview would have also required board members to delegate responsibility to colleagues they frequently disagree with.

The announcement of the executive session meetings has already allowed reporters from The Oregonian to potentially pierce the confidentiality of the PPS process. Reporters identified four former school administrators who had visited the district recently, appearing to be candidates for the superintendent position.

Some members of the school board also insisted on a “meet-and-greet” as part of the vetting process. That event is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, before the board is set to offer the position. In case the candidates haven’t already been made public, the event Tuesday night will ensure it.

People familiar with Portland’s superintendent search say that more than one potentially strong candidate declined to pursue the job, in light of the district’s process.

Whoever takes the job will have a slew of issues to face as interim superintendent: The organizational disarray highlighted in the recent Stoll Berne report on lead in drinking water and in a recent “risk assessment,” a campaign to pass a $750 million bond measure, possible budget cuts for the 2017–18 school year, not to mention the opening of a middle school in North Portland and shifting school boundaries on the west side.

Assuming Portland Public Schools names an interim superintendent Tuesday, the school board will have to immediately start its search for a long-term superintendent.

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