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Learning With Less: Keeping The Spotlight On Education

Oregon school administrators are under pressure this year to do more with less. Budgets are tight, and goals are rising under a new oversight system. The leader of that effort, Rudy Crew, is meeting Tuesday with school superintendents from all over Clackamas County. OPB followed one of those administrators last school year, as part of our “Learning With Less” series on education. Rob Manning follows up with that administrator, Matt Utterback, as he embarks on the new school year in a new job.

Clackamas Superintendent Matt Utterback

Clackamas Superintendent Matt Utterback

Rob Manning/OPB

When Matt Utterback was principal at Clackamas High last fall, he had to figure out how to schedule classes for the same number of students, with 19 fewer teachers.

Then in late June, Utterback was promoted to interim superintendent for the entire North Clackamas School District.

“A little crazy,” Utterback says. “You come into a position in which you’re overseeing 1,500 employees, 17,000 students, over 30 schools – and due to the timing of our previous superintendent leaving, and me coming on board, it was kind of late.”

Utterback has been in North Clackamas for 23 years, but for the first time he’ll write the budget, rather than just absorb its impact.

He pulls a heavy binder off a shelf to answer questions about the budget that he now oversees. “Costs have gone up, insurance has gone up, we’re functioning at an $11 million reduction from where we were five years ago.”

In those five years, Utterback says North Clackamas has lost more than 300 jobs thanks to cuts and cost increases. The Beaverton school district saw a similar number of position reductions concentrated into just this school year. North Clackamas got to add back a few jobs this year.

But even though he manages the budget, Utterback says it’s time to stop talking so much about money.

“We need to do school. And when you start talking about budget reductions, that seems to garner a lot of attention, a lot of emphasis – and when that happens, there’s only so much attention and emphasis we can direct, so we start pulling away from instruction and student achievement,” he says.

That intense focus and energy directed at student learning is what has Utterback excited about the state’s new chief education officer, Rudy Crew. The same month that Utterback got his new job, Crew introduced himself to Oregon.

“What I bring to this is certainly the passion, certainly a clarity of vision,” Crew says.

Rudy Crew

Rudy Crew

April Baer/OPB

But what might register most powerfully with longtime educators like Matt Utterback was this, from Crew:

“I believe there are people in the field right now for whom this has been their life work as well. And therein is the diamond in the rough. Therein is the work that we have to cull, and find, and scratch, and ask people to come out of – sometimes, their sense of abandonment— and come to us, and say ‘here is the better way’.”

Utterback’s “better way” includes re-orienting the academic paths of students from low-income and minority families, so they’re more likely to reach Advanced Placement classes. That’s what he focused on as Clackamas High’s principal.

And going forward, he wants to make literacy a focus for all North Clackamas teachers, whether they’re in the English or science departments.

“You learn through writing,. You learn through speaking,” Utterback says. “We need to teach our kids to think more critically, to be able to do research, to be able to look at two different points of view. We need kids that can form arguments and opinions from multiple perspectives. And you do so much of that through writing and being able to read critically.”

The budget, though, tends to be a superintendent’s biggest task. Crew has said he doesn’t have a bank account to fix the budget. Utterback isn’t planning on a substantial increase from Salem, and instead expects a multi-million dollar budget problem, come spring.

“It would be easy for us to hunker down and say, ‘This funding crisis will pass,’ and I think there are lots of folks out there that wouldn’t blame us, because what our teachers are being asked to do, in some ways, is very unrealistic,” Utterback says. “Over 40 kids in a classroom is not a great instructional model. But again, that’s not going to change any time soon. So, how can we – with the resources we have – begin to look at improving our school system, looking at doing things differently, for the sake of our kids – and I don’t think we have a choice.”

Utterback sounds like Crew when he stresses the urgency of school reform. But Utterback also says he hopes the newcomer to Oregon will listen, too.

He plans to attend the education summit with Crew, Tuesday night in Clackamas.

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