Oregon’s nearly 200 school districts are all run by elected volunteer school board members.
They’ll tell you they have one job that’s probably more important than any other: hiring and firing the chief executive – the superintendent.
Oregon’s largest school district is hot on the trail of a new superintendent, but Portland Public Schools is finding that making everyone happy — the public, the candidates, school board members — and following state law isn't simple.
The Portland school board hired interim superintendent Bob McKean last summer, bringing him out of retirement after long-time PPS leader Carole Smith entered that stage.
Smith retired amid a firestorm, mostly caused by how she and her top staff responded to the discovery of lead in school drinking water.
Last summer, Oregon parents learned dozens of districts also had elevated levels of lead in their water, but the response in Portland – that staff responded slowly, that communication was confusing or incorrect at times — helped usher Smith out after nine years in charge.
The school board attempted to run a confidential process to hire the interim superintendent, though a story from The Oregonian pierced that process to some extent. Many parents and other community members felt excluded from the hiring effort and pushed for more say in the current process for a permanent superintendent.
The Pro-Privacy Argument
Imagine if you will, you’re an up-and-coming school administrator. Maybe you run a school district in a small town in Oregon or Washington or even in Michigan. Maybe you’ve really turned that district around, and you feel ready to run a bigger district where you could also make more money. But you don’t want to apply for the Portland job — fail to get it — and then anger your school board back home, possibly resulting in losing your job.
Those applicants are much more likely to apply if they’re convinced the process is totally confidential. Officials in Beaverton would argue their recent hiring of Don Grotting away from the David Douglas district is a successful example of a closed process. Grottin is a widely respected school executive in Oregon and his hire was welcomed in Beaverton.
The Pro-Public Argument
Portland is not Beaverton. Trust between parents and Portland Public Schools is in short supply, especially in the wake of how officials responded to lead in school drinking water.
The fallout from that was so bad last fall that school board members delayed plans to put a bond measure on the ballot in the November election, a time that tends to be more favorable to such measures passing.
Restoring trust is all the more important now as the the district looks ahead to May, when board members do plan to put a more than $700 million bond to voters.
Any time a government agency is asking for more money from taxpayers, the level of trust in where the money is going will be an issue. There are parents, teachers and board members, for that matter, who would like to restore public trust by hiring the new superintendent.
Public And Private
An internal debate on the board between advocates of more transparency and those favoring more confidentiality has resulted in a hybrid model. The general idea is to have a degree of public involvement but keep names of candidates private until the last possible minute — preferably for the pro-privacy advocates until there's only one finalist remaining.
There are two main aspects of the public part of this, not counting initial outreach, to get input on priorities and values for a new superintendent.
- The Portland Tribune has reported the board plans to publicize the preferred finalist — the person likely to be hired — a few days before board members would vote. The idea is to give parents and teachers a chance to look into the would-be superintendent's background and provide last-minute advice.
- The school board also set up a stakeholder advisory committee to vet candidates. The committee will include members of the public, but its meetings would be private.
Such advisory committee meetings appear to be allowed under Oregon public meetings' law, so long as the public is notified of the meetings, representatives of the media are allowed to attend (but not report the discussions), and the committee doesn't make final decisions in the private meetings.
The committee can only make decisions — such as its final recommendation to the school board — in open meetings, creating an almost inevitable intersection of private and public preferences.
If the committee and the school board agree on just one candidate, then the privacy of all the other candidates will remain protected. But if committee members recommend multiple people for the job at the open meeting for its final recommendation, then all of the recommended names will be public — even the people who don't get the job.
That latter scenario could be where PPS' public and private mixed approach falls down.