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Slate of new board members critical of PPS administration

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Superintendent Carole Smith speaks at the ground-breaking ceremony at Franklin High School May 16 for the $104 million bond-funded reconstruction process. On July 1, Smith will have to face four new Portland Public Schools board members who have been critical of her leadership.

With the May 19 election of four new board members and the ouster of 12-year incumbent Bobbie Regan, observers say big changes are coming to the way Portland Public Schools does business.

“We were looking for candidates who were looking for accountability when it came to the PPS administration,” said Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers union, three of whose favored candidates won in the election. “In the past few years, there hasn’t been a lot of transparency and there’s been a lot of spin from the central office.”

Liz Kaufman, a political strategist for Regan, said this election was about a lack of confidence in Superintendent Carole Smith’s leadership.

“It’s a bit of a referendum on the school administration,” Kaufman said.

Sullivan said she isn’t sure what exactly this means for Smith, who was criticized last summer for receiving a 28 percent raise and, in early April, for authorizing raises of up to 15 percent for her administrators based on a controversial market analysis.

Christine Miles, a spokeswoman for the district, says Smith welcomes an inquiry into her research for the salary adjustments, which was part of a larger executive administration restructuring.

“People just didn’t get a raise, they got new positions with new responsibilities,” Miles said.

Regan had tried to make waves during her campaign, in a failed board resolution to bring in an auditor to review the reasoning for the raises, but said she worries voters threw her out with the bathwater.

“While I was trying to get an audit of those (raises), I think that still rubbed off on me,” Regan said on election night.

Paul Anthony, the winner in Zone 2, said he was surprised that Regan lost.

“With the other three sitting board members deciding to not run and with Bobbie running and then losing, that’s really clear that the voters want a change,” Anthony said. “I see it as the voters wanting a more active board.”

Anthony has proposed a return to a committee form of board governance, in which the volunteer board members would be able to dive more deeply into proposals instead of rubberstamping administrative recommendations in lengthy, formal evening board meetings.

Board co-chairwoman Pam Knowles, who was first elected in 2009 and will now be the veteran board member on an inexperienced board, said she doesn’t think that’s a good idea at all.

“It shuts the public out and encourages board members to get down in the weeds instead of taking a policy-level view,” Knowles said at Amy Carlsen Kohnstamm’s election party.

Kohnstamm’s upset victory over Regan pleased Communities of Color for a Just Oregon (Color PAC), a political group focused on racial equity that contributed nearly $800 to her campaign.

“Overall, we are pleased with the folks that are going to be there,” said Jesse Beason, director of the political action committee.

Julie Esparza Brown, whom Color PAC also backed, will be the first Latina on the Portland Public Schools board.

Brown says she is thrilled to have won her first-ever political race.

“I am excited to get to work. I can’t wait to really be immersed in the issues,” she said.

Equity issues are big in the district where 44 percent of students are nonwhite and families of color say they have been mistreated and misunderstood for decades.

Brown, a Portland State University professor who teaches cultural competence to teachers for a living, said she hopes to build consensus on the board but knows that she will have a different perspective on some issues.

“I think it’s always hard to be a sole minority person of color in a group like that,” she said.

Tom Koehler, who has often joined Regan and Steve Buel in the losing minority on split board votes, said he doesn’t see the election giving him a new majority mandate.

“I actually hope that the new board can reach a common understanding on what’s important,” said Koehler, who backed both Anthony and Kohnstamm’s election bids, “and I believe that can happen.”

Miles, the district’s spokesman, said Smith, who has seen boards come and go over her seven-year tenure, is looking forward to working with the new board members.

“This isn’t her first rodeo,” Miles said.

Sullivan, the PAT president, agreed that she hopes to see less political posturing and more action from the district. But she also said Smith will need to watch her steps.

“She’s got to be really transparent with her new board,” Sullivan said, “because I think there’s going to be a lot of questions about how and why things are done the way they are done.”

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