Board member Buel tackles 'dysfunction' as frustration mounts

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - Portland Public Schools board members are waiting to evaluate Superintendent Carole Smith after a handful of big issues - including a teachers contract - are resolved. Smith has led the district for seven years, a long tenure for most big city superintendents.As Superintendent Carole Smith begins her seventh year leading the state’s largest school district, there’s a lot riding on the graduation rates and Portland Association of Teachers contract outcome.

Both issues will be reflected in Smith’s annual performance appraisal this year.

The school board has evaluated Smith each October since 2008, but delayed the evaluation of her sixth year on the job this past fall. The board “did not believe it was fair to evaluate her or anyone while contract negotiations with PAT are in full swing,” says PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles, adding that Smith “has played a big role in contract talks and she continues to be at the table to reach an agreement.”

Bargaining teams for PPS and the Portland Association of Teachers are scheduled for another mediation session Feb. 9.

As for the graduation rate data, Miles says that’s been a major focus for the superintendent. Some board members have been hoping that the timing of the evaluation could be adjusted so that the graduation data, released this week, could be reflected in the evaluation.

Hired in October 2007, Smith is four months into her seventh year leading the district. Seven years is a long tenure for PPS, higher than the state and national average of three to four years, according to Craig Hawkins, executive director of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.

Yet there are a handful of superintendents in Oregon who’ve led their districts for a decade, or even two. Lake Oswego Superintendent Bill Korach retires this year after 25 years on the job.

“A lot of times it tends to be a good fit; the leader and community gel,” Hawkins says of long-serving superintendents.

In October 2012, Portland’s school board extended Smith’s contract another three years, through June 30, 2015.

Making tough decisions

Some school boards, including Beaverton, have moved beyond the standard evaluation with a “360 review,” which includes input from community members, parents, teachers, principals and other district stakeholders.

PPS, however, has stuck with the basics. Shortly after Smith took office, in May 2008, the board set superintendent performance standards that they revisit each year. The standards consider progress on the district’s seven key priorities: “transforming our culture to reflect the district’s core values;” “effective educators;” “equitable access to rigorous, relevant programs;” “individual student supports;” “family and community as partners;” “stable operating model;” and “infrastructure modernization.”

In the board’s most recent nine-page evaluation of Smith in October 2012, members praised her “collaborative and transparent leadership style” and celebrated her “long-term big-picture perspective.”

“... The superintendent needs to be constantly mindful of how today’s decisions impact what is possible years down the road. ... It means that many decisions are difficult and require the superintendent, with the board’s support, to make tough decisions that are not necessarily possible at the moment, but from a big-picture, long-term perspective are necessary. We urge the superintendent to be courageous in that regard.”

The board promised its “full confidence” in Smith’s leadership moving forward.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - PPS Board Member Steve Buel high-fives supporters of the teachers union in early January during a rally outside a school board meeting. Buel is frustrated by the district's budget decisions and rubber stamping of decisions by the board.

Dysfunctional board?

Smith and the Portland School Board, meanwhile, have a lot on their plate besides the teacher contract and graduation rates. There is the upcoming budget process, ongoing equity work, high school reform work and more enrollment-balancing decisions to be made.

Yet the board might have to look inward and resolve some housekeeping issues first.

Since his election last May, board member Steve Buel has drawn attention to what he calls the “dysfunction” of the school board, but uttered perhaps his boldest words yet at the Jan. 27 board meeting.

“The way we’re running this school board is absolutely, incredibly absurd, in my opinion,” he told the crowd of hundreds of teachers and union supporters, who responded with raucous applause.

Buel was expressing his disappointment about the way the board approved spending the $16 million in surplus funds that had been found in the fall. Since October, he has expected to see something in writing so the board could discuss the funding issue in open session, Buel says. Instead, without much discussion the board voted Monday night to follow Smith’s recommendations.

That led to his diatribe: “I like the superintendent; she’s a nice woman,” Buel told fellow board members. “We just have a responsibility as a board that we’re not undertaking. We’re just kind of rubber-stamping this through. I have a lot of problems with it. Hopefully, people in the community will take a look and see how we’re actually working as a board, which isn’t really making sense for us as a school district.”

Changes frustrate some

Buel is hardly the only one with that opinion.

Current and former board members attribute much of the frustration to a major change in the board’s operation three years ago. Board members used to meet in subcommittees, spending several hours per month in three-person groups delving deep into the district’s budget, student achievement and charter schools.

With the public invited to sit in, they asked questions and then brought the information and their recommendations to the full board for consideration. In September 2011, the board voted to eliminate the committees and move to a new structure, which members said allows the full board to learn about the issues at the same time and be involved on every topic, rather than relying on expertise gained by some of their colleagues.

Board members who served at the time say board co-chairwoman Pam Knowles introduced the change after attending a workshop at the Houston-based nonprofit Center for Reform of School Systems, which is led by former PPS Chief Operating Officer Cathy Mincberg.

Board member Bobbie Regan and former board member Trudy Sargent opposed the change and still do, having served under both systems.

The current system “consolidates the power of the board in the co-chairs. In the past, there was some power in the committee chairs,” says Sargent, who left the board last year after two terms.

“The agenda is really limited,” she adds. “Nobody else has the ability to bring topics before the board except for what comes up through staff.”

Her frustrations echo Buel’s. “Often I felt as a whole board if you have questions, need information, it might never come back to you because it might not be back on the agenda. It left you unsatisfied,” Sargent says.

In fact, she says, there might have been a different outcome on various issues if the committee structure remained in place.

She points to the high school six- of eight-period scheduling controversy that took many by surprise in 2011, just after the committees were eliminated.

“The board really never looked at this and said, ‘Is this the right thing educationally to do?’ ” she says. “A committee could’ve had the opportunity to say we really want to look at this.”

Former board member Julia Brim-Edwards, a Lincoln High parent, has advocated for a full high school schedule with the grassroots Portland Parents Coalition. In her attempts to lobby the board for change, Brim-Edwards says the move away from the committee structure “has diminished the board’s capacity to leverage, lead and be a catalyst for change.”

Regarding Buel’s accusation of the board as a “rubber stamp board,” Brim-Edwards says the perception is just as troublesome as the reality.

“Their current structure and format reinforces their perception because the community doesn’t have the opportunity to engage at a deeper level,” she says, “and there isn’t evidence publicly that the board is going deep into issues; that it’s more of a straight approval process.”

Regan, now in her third term, also thinks the move to the current system was a “big mistake,” and is responsible for “some of the frustration we’re experiencing now.”

She hopes it will be revisited at some point.

Regan doesn’t agree with Buel’s characterization of the board as a “rubber stamp board.” But, she says, “I think the public is wanting us to be as transparent as possible.”

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