School boards have two big jobs: approve budgets and hire superintendents. With Carole Smith gone, the Portland school board has to find a fill-in quickly – and a permanent superintendent after that.
It’s a tall order any time. But now it is happening as Portland Public Schools is reeling from a controversy over lead, there’s a bond measure in discussion and school boundaries are changing.
And school is starting next month.
North Portland education executive David Crandall warned board members this week that they better get those decisions right.
"I trust you are aware that many of you have a credibility problem at present. You are facing a dysfunctional organization at the central office," said Crandall. "And your choices for interim and permanent (superintendent) are crucial to the future of Portland's children."
There is a typical approach to finding an interim leader. Jim Green was chair of the Salem-Keizer school board when it hired an interim two years ago.
“You want to make sure you get somebody that understands your district, understands Oregon law, Oregon education and can make sure they can steer the ship down the river without hitting any sandbars or rocks along the way,” Green said.
Belinda Reagan, union president of the Portland Federation of School Professionals, echoed Green's sentiments — and continued the ship analogy.
"Whomever is hired into this position must have the ability to manage this massive rocking ship without causing it to capsize. The ideal interim superintendent should be willing to step aboard, take hold of the helm but make no significant moves that might take us dangerously off-course," Reagan told the Portland school board.
But steady-as-she-goes wasn't on the minds of some Portland board members, including Mike Rosen.
"If we're going to have an interim superintendent for a significant period of time, I don't buy into the 'caretaker' analogy," Rosen said.
Rosen is the board member some of his colleagues looked to as the lead crisis unfolded because of his environmental science background.
"We have serious operational problems. They have to be solved immediately — not nine months down the road by someone who's going to take a year to figure it out," Rosen said.
Related: Lead In The Water
Other board members argued Rosen's concerns are addressed in the job criteria with priorities like "courage," "effective implementation" and "safe learning environment."
Rosen wasn't convinced, even as Amy Kohnstamm invited changes.
"I can't support this, at this time," Rosen said, drawing a smattering of applause from the small audience at Wednesday's board meeting.
“You don’t have any revisions that you’d like to make?” board vice-chair Kohnstamm asked.
"I'd be willing to make revisions, Amy, if I had enough time to look at it and talk to people in the community," Rosen responded.
Smith stepped down this week after a report into lead in drinking water found systemic problems on her watch. In leaving, she wrote "it's critical for the board to figure out how to work together."
The board approved the criteria 6-to-1, but board member Steve Buel said the board struggles to agree.
"We haven't been able to get to four people who are willing to work together. And that's a problem," Buel said.
The board's differences over selecting a new leader mirror differences in the Portland community.
For instance, what's more important: that a new superintendent set education policy or manage a complex organization?
President of the Portland Association of Teachers Suzanne Cohen quoted a kindergarten teacher who urged the board to hire an established educator.
"Our interim and next superintendent should have 'lived knowledge' of classroom life and a deep respect for teachers," Cohen told the school board, reading from comments her members sent.
But some community members prioritized management skills. Josh Hjerstadt worked at Portland Public Schools for nine years, supervising crews and planning repair projects. He said superintendents should be more like CEOs.
"Our administrators aren't business-minded in their decisions and tend to be much more emotionally driven or politically driven in their decisions," said Hjerstadt, who now works for the Port of Portland.
However, the head of the school professionals union warned against hiring a corporate executive, saying "we're not Nike."
The board wants to conduct interviews in early August, so they can have a new superintendent before school starts — in less than six weeks.