Former Chief Information Officer Susie Strangfield is out of a job and likely to sue the Oregon Department of Education. And her ouster raises questions about the agency's process for disciplining staff.
Strangfield’s case began in early January when she was suspended for “inappropriate workplace conduct."
“I was in meetings one day and then fell off the face of the planet,” Strangfield said.
She sat by her home computer for weeks, forbidden from contacting anyone but her supervisor or human resources.
In a field dominated by men, Strangfield was the education agency’s first female CIO. For much of last winter and spring, she worked from home as the department investigated her.
“It was two weeks, nothing. Another two weeks, still nothing,” Strangfield recalled. “This went on for nearly four months. So clearly when we did get to the interview, they were digging for anything they could.”
In the weeks after her departure, Strangfield’s colleagues learned she was on administrative leave, but didn’t know why. They speculated she had created some kind of legal problem for the department. The department offered no details, and Strangfield was told not to contact anyone other than her supervisor and the human resources department.
Then in mid-March, officials summoned Strangfield to the department’s building in Salem for an investigative interview.
She arrived with her attorneys, but with no idea what to expect. She was met by her supervisor, Assistant Superintendent Rick Crager, and the department’s head of human resources, Krista Campbell, as well as Senior Attorney General Brena Moyer Lopez from the state Justice Department.
Strangfield’s interview lasted about three and a half hours, much of it involving Campbell quoting Strangfield’s past statements as the CIO.
“'Where are you on this?' 'When are you going to get this done?' 'No, we’re not going to do that,' and 'No, that makes no sense.' Are those accurate statements (you made)?” Campbell asked.
“I don’t know about the ‘no, that doesn’t make any sense,’ without further context,” Strangfield responded. “But in my role as the CIO, I might ask ‘where are we on this’ … It’s a status update.”
Campbell asked if Strangfield raised her voice at an employee over the phone. She asked about a tense interaction over a training she was trying to schedule with a manager who reported to her.
Campbell asked if Strangfield lashed out at a subordinate, because she hadn’t seen a meeting agenda beforehand.
“The content that they presented, they did a great job of explaining,” Strangfield replied, explaining that the meeting was one that she typically facilitated. “I would’ve liked a heads-up.”
There was a lengthy discussion about miscommunication over an off-site meeting a short walk from the department building. Campbell asked if Strangfield walked to that meeting wearing the earbuds for her cellphone, even though a colleague was walking nearby.
“I don’t recall if I had my earbuds in or not," Strangfield said. "I often have them in when I’m walking."
“Even when you’re walking with somebody else?” Campbell asked?
“Yeah. You’re not on the phone, but maybe you just got off the phone or whatever,” Strangfield responded.
Campbell asked about a time a subordinate pitched changes as part of a computer system upgrade. Campbell summarized Strangfield’s reported reply:
“‘You didn’t say there’d be any front-end changes, we’re not doing this.’ Is that accurate?” Campbell asked.
“I don’t know that I said, ‘We’re not doing this.’ But I did worry about the front-end changes, because that wasn’t part of the initial scope,” Strangfield responded.
That was followed by one of several instances when Campbell asked Strangfield how that might’ve made her staffer feel.
Campbell alleged that after that meeting, Strangfield swore angrily at that staffer’s boss for letting the presentation go on too long. Strangfield allegedly said “I’m the f------ CIO.”
Strangfield confirmed a conversation with the staffer's supervisor, but denied swearing at her. Instead, Strangfield said that she had been the target of a profane tirade from her own supervisor, Rick Crager, who was in the interview room at the time. Crager didn’t comment on the meeting recording as Strangfield recalled him discovering a pilot project to bring broadband internet to rural Oregon schools had missed spending deadlines.
“There was a lot of anger shared with me from [Crager]. He called it a ‘f----up’,” Strangfield said, recalling that Crager said he would report the problems to the department head and legislators.
“It was a very difficult conversation. It made me feel threatened and scared,” she said.
“What made you feel threatened?” Campbell asked.
“Well, I’ve got my boss yelling at me telling me it’s a ‘f-----up’ and saying, 'I’m going to take this and share it over here,'” Strangfield said. “At no time did he want to hear that I didn’t know that I had this specific role, that I wasn’t aware that I needed to follow up.”
ODE had to scramble to cover costs after state and district officials missed contract deadlines for the broadband project. Under questioning, Strangfield accepted some of the blame.
“It was thrown together at the last minute and it wasn’t clearly communicated,” Strangfield acknowledged. “I will own that I dropped the ball and I missed it. But others missed it too.”
ODE included the “walking with earbuds” allegation and Strangfield’s response about not getting a “heads-up” in a list of violations of the state’s professional workplace policy.
The broadband program’s overruns were also on that list of justifications for Strangfield's pending termination before she resigned in June.
A number of Strangfield’s former colleagues who spoke to OPB about the case said the accusations are inconsistent with their interactions with her. And they said the broadband project should not have been blamed on Strangfield.
“IT staff have never been responsible for getting school districts to get their invoices and contracts in on time,” said Amy McLaughlin, a former IT manager at ODE and the state coordinator for Oregon’s rural broadband effort before she left the department in late 2016.
McLaughlin said the spending and invoicing responsibilities are up to procurement staff and executives, not IT.
Campbell pressed Strangfield for nearly an hour on another project she was leading, called “EdFi," basically a common set of data standards for education statistics, like attendance and high school credits. District officials say consistency can help schools keep better track of students as they move.
Campbell asked Strangfield if that effort was really ODE’s job when it pertained to school districts.
“Do we have any role or responsibility in the transfer of student data between districts?” Campbell asked.
Strangfield replied that she had approval from her supervisor to work on EdFi, and that it was part of the department's strategic plan.
District officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their districts’ relationships with ODE, said Strangfield’s leadership in helping standardize data was crucial to the EdFi project. They agreed with Strangfield that consistent data wouldn’t just help school districts, but assists the state’s efforts to collect and report out accurate information. District officials said data standardization was paused after Strangfield was put on leave.
Ultimately, EdFi didn’t show up in the list of allegations against Strangfield.
Strangfield said the list of charges that she was handed is inaccurate and misrepresented her time at the department. She said even if they were true, they don't constitute policy violations.
“What I don’t understand is how they could use that body of work, or that investigative report, to go toward dismissal,” Strangfield said.
Strangfield points out that no lower-level discipline was administered prior to her being put on leave and given a “pre-dismissal notice.” She'd been required to take training to address perceived shortcomings in her management, but those were not disciplinary.
The education department concluded that Strangfield failed to fully and faithfully perform her duties. Her attorneys sent back a 37-page response, calling the charges “frivolous.” They argued if the allegations are grounds to fire Strangfield then “there is no employee at ODE who is safe.”
“There’s just a lot that doesn’t add up,” Strangfield said.
ODE provided records for this story, but declined to comment.