Portland Public Schools is at a critical point.
It just postponed a $750 million bond proposal to focus on hiring a superintendent. But its buildings and efforts to hold them together are strained. Oregon’s largest district faces two big gaps: money to upgrade the school buildings and managers to keep them in shape.
But those goals may be harder to reach than they sound.
Recent investigations have found the way Oregon’s largest district maintains its buildings is basically with a constant emergency response.
“What their model is right now is the most expensive way to do business that there is,” said Pat Christianson, a former plumber in Portland Public Schools and the head of the District Council of Trade Unions, which represents maintenance workers in the district.
Christianson said the lack of preventative maintenance has created a repair backlog of more than a billion and a half dollars.
Communities across the Northwest were shocked recently to discover dangerously high lead levels in their water. How did this happen, and what’s being done to fix the problem?
“That’s not something that just happens. That’s something that happens over time. And it happens over time, knowing that it’s happening,” Christianson said. “It’s not something that’s blindly happening, and then, oh, look at this just happened. It’s something with intention has happened. And I don’t want to repeat that model.”
Christianson said he wants changes before he’ll support a proposed bond measure — a measure that should make his members’ jobs easier.
It was concerns like those that led school board member Amy Kohnstamm to recommend putting off the bond to next spring.
“It allows us to have a more tightly-focused bond package, and it allows us, as a board, to focus on the urgent needs of landing stable leadership in this district in the near term,” Kohnstamm urged board members Monday night.
When Carole Smith stepped down as superintendent, Yousef Awwad filled in. He was already Chief Financial Officer and covering for Tony Magliano, the Chief Operating Officer who was suspended in the lead controversy.
He’s not the only one doing several jobs. And that’s a problem.
In the last year and a half, at least 12 facilities managers have left the district.
Take Andy Fridley, the manager in charge of lead testing who is now on paid leave. He was doing several jobs, as described by Fridley’s former colleague, Josh Hjertstedt.
“You have Andy Fridley who was not only managing his own department, but he’s been the acting director of facilities because they’ve been unable to hire a replacement for the last year,” recalled Hjerstedt, who left Portland Public Schools in December after nine years in facility management. “They’ve been missing their maintenance manager over the electrical shop, the mechanical shop, a couple foremen — and Andy’s been managing all of this.”
Former managers described Fridley’s name plate: it has his name and original job title printed on it, but it had sticky notes hanging off it, with the titles of other jobs he’s been assigned.
School district officials acknowledge it takes too long to fill positions. Hjertstedt said some of the problem is in district Human Resources.
“They’re very skittish. They’re scared of ending up in the media by doing something wrong,” Hjerstedt alleged.
Another former facilities manager, Sharon Raymor, said strong candidates may change their minds after they realize how difficult the job is. (Read the letter Raymor sent to the Portland Public Schools Board of Education regarding the discovery of lead in the water at school facilities.)
“Let’s say you get somebody that comes in to interview — that meets the minimum requirements, has a good resume,” Raymor suggested, hypothetically. “They’re asking good questions because they want to know what the job is going to entail. You give them answers, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a lot here’.”
On her way out, Superintendent Carole Smith recommended filling openings and adding people. That’s after she suspended Fridley and Magliano, creating more gaps. School board chair Tom Koehler is opposed to more house cleaning.
“No,” Koehler said. “It’s actually putting people in the house where there are some vacancies.”
HR officials said filling the positions is made challenging because of market forces: facilities workers are in demand and the district has limits on compensation.
Board member Julie Esparza Brown wants to address that.
“We also have to just make sure we remain competitive to the market and establish a climate of — I think an organization that functions well in terms of there is a clear communication chain,” Esparza Brown said.
Adding employees to the management chain, paying more and shifting toward prevention all take money.
Coming full circle, school board member Steve Buel said it would help to pass a bond measure, to fund big fixes and cut down on managing buildings by emergency response.
“I think the way you’re going to get away from that, if you do, is to have a huge portion of it — hundreds of millions of dollars — covered in the next bond,” Buel said.
But that solution may be a long way off. School board members just agreed to delay the bond measure so that it could work on leadership problems first.