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Karen Fischer Gray joined others in advocating for the removal of the previous superintendent

SCREEN SHOT: PARKROSE SCHOOL DISTRICT - Karen Gray is superintendent of Parkrose School District and one of two finalists for the position of superintendent at Multnomah Education Service District. The superintendent of Parkrose School District is one of two finalists for the Multnomah Education Service District superintendent position vacated by the recent ouster of Barbara Jorgensen.

Karen Fischer Gray is head of the small north Portland school district and it was in her district that the catalyzing conversation among the county’s eight superintendents to convince the MESD board to terminate Jorgensen took place.

Gray says she didn't spearhead the effort, it was simply more convenient to everyone to host the meeting in her district offices.

"That was a group decision by the superintendent council,” Gray says. "I didn’t speak more than anybody else. I didn’t push more than anyone else. ... There was no ulterior motive except: 'We need services for our kids.”

The other finalist is Malheur Education Service District Superintendent Stephen Phillips.

"I’m excited about this opportunity,” Phillips says. "I’m excited that I’m a finalist and I look forward to the rest of the process.”

Malheur County is the southeastern corner of the state, on the borders with Idaho and Nevada. COURTESY: MULTNOMAH EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT - Malheur Education Service District Superintendent Stephen Phillips is one of two finalists for the superintendent of Multnomah Education Service District.

The seven applicants to the position, announced April 17, were put through a rigorous evaluation process, according to district officials. After subcommittee review, four were selected for a 13-hour-long interview, tour and evaluation process on Monday.

“To say that (the selection process) was robust is a massive understatement,” says MESD spokeswoman Laura Conroy.

Interim Superintendent Jim Rose, who has stated he doesn’t want the job long-term, says he was very pleased with the process.

“We had a really strong field and we put these people through a really intensive open, transparent process,” Rose says, listing numerous stakeholder groups, such as unions, departments, community members, current and incoming board members who participated.

Incoming board member Siobhan Burke, however, says in a statement that the district needs a fresh start.

"Dr. Karen Fischer Gray, as a component school district superintendent, was involved with the last superintendent being released," Burke writes. “(An incumbent, Doug Montgomery,) lost in this election because the public wants better, more transparent public service. I hope that the MESD Board decision reflects the public's concern and continues to rebuild the credibility and trust its programs, teachers, nurses, staff, and students so richly deserve."

Rose says Gray’s appearance as one of the finalists doesn’t have anything to do with her possible role in Jorgensen’s termination.

“No, is the answer and I was not involved in those conversations (regarding Jorgensen),” Rose says.

Born in New York City, Gray has been in public education for more than 30 years. She was previously superintendent of Coos Bay School District after moving to Oregon from California in 1990. Her interest and proficiency in special education and criminal justice issues is evident in her resume: bachelor’s and master’s in speech pathology from Cal State Fullerton; doctorate in educational leadership and policy; member of the Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council representing education; an Executive Council member of the Cradle-to-Career Initiative and Planning Commissioner at the City of Portland.

Phillips is originally from Boise, Idaho, and has a bachelor’s in Math and History and a master’s in Educational Administration from the University of Idaho. He then got a PhD in Administrative Leadership from the University of Idaho.

Phillips began in education 17 years ago as a math teacher before climbing to vice principal of a middle school, and then Director of Alternative Education and Career Technical Education at Malheur Education Service District. He became its superintendent in 2012.

Whoever fills the position will have their work cut out for them and a legacy to overcome. The Multnomah Education Service District’s last two superintendents have left under mid-contract confidential terminations.

Rose says the decision now rests with the board, who will re-interview the finalists and then deliberate at 8 p.m., June. 12. The public is invited to a reception for the finalists from 4 to 6 p.m. that day at the MESD headquarters at 11611 NE Ainsworth Circle.

“It’ll be really exciting to see how the board narrows it down from two to one,” Rose said. “It’s not going to be an easy decision.”


Parkrose School District Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray has one more year on her contract with the district.

"If she takes the job then that means we’d have to find an interim superintendent in a short period of time," says school board chair Ed Grassel, but declined to speculate further. "At this point, hypotheticals aren’t something I really like to discuss too much.”

Grassel says he has been pleased with Gray's performance in the district, citing reading and writing standardized test scores rising about 40 percentage points at one school and a 14-point jump in the graduation rate last year. But it's also true that Gray's contract renewal negotiations have been delayed as the board members seek more information to evaluate her.

Board member Erick Flores says the decision should be coming soon.

"We still don’t have information about how the district is doing,” Flores says, noting that the data is expected in the next week or two. "Based on that information, we will have a more educated school board to make a final decision.”

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