Phillips gets Newberg board's nod for superintendent
The Newberg School District has a new superintendent and his first challenge may be entering an organization where many preferred his opponent in the race.
On May 10, the Newberg school board chose Stephen Phillips to fill the spot vacated when the board terminated the contract of Joe Morelock in November. Phillips and Silverton Assistant Superintendent Dan Busch were the finalists for the job and were interviewed three times by the board during executive sessions in late April and early May.
"So, it was a really tough choice tonight," chairman Dave Brown said in announcing Phillips' hiring at the May 10 board meeting. "There was a lot of passionate feedback and both candidates were highly thought of."
A veteran of 24 years in education, Phillips comes to the school district with some controversial history. He was put on paid administrative leave by the Jewell School District board several months ago for undisclosed reasons, an interim superintendent was named and an investigation was begun that continues. He was forced to resign from his position as assistant superintendent in the Beaverton School District in 2019 after he came under fire for retweeting what local teachers and administrators characterized as a racist rant against illegal immigration.
"He has a tough hill to climb to repair his reputation in our community and in the larger education community," Newberg School Board Director Brandi Penner said in an email. "He will need to concentrate heavily on building relationships with those who do not think he should be in leadership if he is hoping to build any trust among staff and the community."
Vice-chairman Brian Shannon took another view of Phillips' place in the school district.
"I think both candidates were excellent, and I would have been happy to work with either of them," Shannon said in an email. "For me, what tipped the balance was my conclusion that Dr. Phillips would be a more decisive leader. I also think it is fair to say that Dr. Phillips has a greater breadth of experience, as he has been the superintendent of both a school district and an educational services district. But again, they were both excellent and I wish I could have hired both of them."
While some local teachers and administrators publicly said they preferred Busch, a Newberg resident and former local middle school assistant principal, the school board voted 5-2 in favor of Phillips. Penner and fellow minority member of the board Rebecca Piros were the nay votes.
Although Busch said he wasn't surprised by the board's decision, he maintains he was the right person for the job.
"I felt they understood that I have experience building bridges by putting the focus on strengthening our academic and behavioral systems to support students and staff," he said in an email. "I believe I could have helped heal some of the divisions within our community by bringing people together to focus on the issues where there is universal agreement."
Although he declined comment on Phillips' fitness for the position, as well as the soundness of the board's decision from the perspective of a school patron with children enrolled in the district, Busch did comment that he believes politics and ideology played a part in the board's decision to hire Phillips.
"It is clear the majority of the board sees our educators as the problem," she said. "They want an authoritarian leader who will clean house and remove all defiant staff. They see this in Mr. Phillips conservative politics and approach to 'my way or the highway' management."
Penner added that, for the most part, the board was left in the dark as to Phillips' history in Jewell.
"We were told it was an ongoing investigation," she said. "The majority decided that it was not pertinent to his possible employment even though, as I understand, his licensing could be at jeopardy and the case regarding his actions in Jewell (is) scheduled to go to trial in September."
The case Penner referred to involves a former coach at Jewell High School who was fired by Phillips on allegations of sexual misconduct. The coach has since then filed a petition for writ to overturn Phillips' decision and return him to his coaching position.
Shannon declined to comment directly on whether the board majority intended to downplay Phillips' performance in Jewell and Beaverton.
"School board members are not allowed to break executive privilege to share what other members have said during an executive session," he said. "Your readers should be aware that anyone who does so is both breaking state law and undermining the ability of the board to have honest and frank conversations in executive session."
He also demurred on commenting on whether the board's legal counsel advised the body not to discuss Phillips' past disciplinary problems.
"I cannot comment on legal advice provided to the board," he said. "We tried to learn as much as possible about the situation in Jewell. It looks like the problem there was primarily political, related to changes on Jewell's school board. We found no wrongdoing on Dr. Phillips' part that would preclude us (from) hiring him.
"As to the Beaverton retweet, that matter was settled four years ago. Attempting to revive it now is cynical cancel cultural behavior. To argue that expressing a political opinion some people object to should forever prevent that person from serving in public education is un-American."
Shannon said Phillips' emphasis, once he assumes the post after his contract is signed, is to begin building bridges.
"I think he needs to reach out to as many people in our community and the district as he can," he said. "The more conversations he has, the more people will see his heart, his love for all kids, and recognize that the picture of him that has been painted in many media outlets is simply an inaccurate, cynical caricature of the actual man."
Shannon characterized Phillips or any school superintendent's job as one of adhering to the board's wishes.
"In broad strokes, the community-elected school board sets the vision for the district, while the superintendent's job is to put that vision into action in the day-to-day operations of the district," he said.
Penner saw it a little differently.
"The superintendent is tasked with the operations of the entire school district," she said. "The board guides the direction of the district through governance and a strong working relationship with the superintendent built on trust is vital to an overall healthy district. I see the primary responsibility of the superintendent to the board to be in relationship-building and open communication to build trust and understanding."
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