School & District Management

Oklahoma City Panel Considers Dismissal of Superintendent

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 18, 2008 6 min read
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After just seven months under a new superintendent, the Oklahoma City schools have been tossed into turmoil as school board members weigh whether to fire John Q. Porter, whom they hired unanimously for the post last spring.

Mr. Porter, a former deputy superintendent in charge of technology for the Montgomery County, Md., schools, is facing allegations that include improper billing of the Oklahoma district for some expenses, as well as complaints that he treated some district employees brusquely.

The school board is likely to vote Feb. 6 on whether to fire Mr. Porter, who has been suspended with pay since Jan. 11. The board voted 6-1 for the suspension after voting at a Jan. 7 meeting—later ruled in violation of the state’s open-meetings law by the local district attorney—to approve a report that outlines 21 allegations against him.

BRIC ARCHIVE

A former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, Robert McCampbell, was hired to investigate various complaints about Mr. Porter. His report provided the basis for the board’s suspension of the superintendent.

Mr. Porter, who will defend himself against the allegations during next month’s hearing, has publicly rejected many of the claims that are outlined in the report and has vowed to fight for his job.

In a series of news conferences, and in an open letter to the Oklahoma City community, Mr. Porter said the allegations were “wrong and misleading in nearly every respect.” He could not be reached for comment this week.

‘Breath of Fresh Air’

The superintendent’s supporters, including leaders in the local teachers’ union, say some board members have been looking for reasons to get rid of him since the fall, when they began hearing a chorus of complaints from some principals and central-office administrators.

One of Mr. Porter’s early pronouncements was that as many as 25 percent of the principals working in the lowest-performing schools might need to be replaced. He has not acted on that.

“I think he had a strong message of accountability, and that made some people here real uncomfortable, real quick,” said Ed Allen, the president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers. “From our perspective, it was a breath of fresh air to finally hear a superintendent say that it wasn’t just teachers who are responsible for all the change and improvement.”

Thelma R. Parks, one of the six board members who voted to suspend Mr. Porter, said she was “very troubled” by the allegations, but has made no final decision about whether he should be ousted.

“We just need to get to the bottom of all of this, so that we can move on,” she said.

The Oklahoma City district serves 35,000 children, more than 80 percent of whom qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. The district is in the middle of a nearly $500 million school construction program.

When Mr. Porter was hired, people viewed him as a change agent, Mr. Allen said. Before he was hired in 2000 by the Montgomery County district, Mr. Porter had worked primarily in the private sector with information-management companies. In 2006, he completed the highly regarded urban-superintendents training academy that is run by the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Off ‘Square One’

Cliff Hudson, the chairman of the school board and the chief executive officer of the Sonic fastfood drive-in chain, personally recruited the new superintendent.

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“A lot of us were saying, ‘Huh?’ when we heard that his background was mostly in the private sector and mostly in technology,” said Lynn Green, a high school English teacher who is the vice president of the local teachers’ union. “But he came in, made the community rounds, went to all the schools, and talked about student achievement being everyone’s responsibility. and it made us think, ‘Hey, we might be able to get off of square one.’ ”

But within the first month of his arrival, three high-level administrators who had come from Memphis, Tenn., to work with Mr. Porter had resigned, signaling to some people that trouble was already brewing. On the pledges he made to replace weak principals and take other drastic steps to improve schools, he was thwarted, according to Mr. Green.

“I think a lot of this can be boiled down to the fact that he is not a very politically minded person,” said Mr. Green, who has written about the situation on his online journal, or blog. “I’m just worried that this whole thing will drag on in court, and any progress that we might have made will be gone.”

Contract Award Questioned

Mr. Hudson said he began looking into complaints about Mr. Porter’s conduct after several district employees presented allegations to the general counsel, Tammy T. Carter, in late October.

Mr. Hudson, who did not respond to messages this week, said in a Jan. 11 news conference that it was his statutory obligation to hire an outside lawyer to look into them.

One of the complaints, listed as the first allegation in Mr. McCampbell’s report, is that Mr. Porter failed to use an open-bidding process before recommending that the school board approve a $365,000 contract with Wireless Generation to provide electronic reading assessments across the district. The devices were already in use in 11 Oklahoma City schools that are part of the federal Reading First program. The board approved the contract Sept. 4.

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See other stories on education issues in Oklahoma. See data on Oklahoma’s public school system.

Mr. Porter has said that under both the district’s policy and that of the Oklahoma Department of Education, he did not have to seek competitive bids because Wireless Generation, based in New York City, is the “sole provider” of the electronic devices that administer the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS.

Under Oklahoma’s Reading First plan, state education officials identified the electronic version of DIBELS as the assessment to be used, according to department spokeswoman Shelly Hickman. Wireless Generation, she said, is the only company with a product that provides the electronic version of the assessment.

“He would not have been able to competitively bid that product,” she said.

Most of the other allegations outlined against Mr. Porter surround personal and business expenses for which he received reimbursements.

He has said that one of the complaints is correct. He billed the district for airfare for his wife, which he called a “mistake.” For three round-trip, first-class tickets that he used to fly between Oklahoma City and the Washington area, where he was still living during his first few months on the job, Mr. Porter said he would pay the district back. He said the tickets were actually purchased as fully refundable fares that are often upgraded to first-class seats.

Mr. Porter wrote in his letter to the community that the allegation that he had been reimbursed for alcohol purchases in restaurants was misleading because he “never intended to seek any reimbursement whosoever for an alcohol purchase. That would be wrong and I simply would not do it.”

Still, he wrote, if he had been inappropriately reimbursed for alcohol purchases, he would “immediately repay any such cost.”

One board member, Wilfredo Santos Rivera, said he was satisfied with Mr. Porter’s explanations. He was the only board member to vote against suspending the superintendent.

“I don’t believe there was any intention on his part to improperly bill the district,” he said in an interview. “I think the process we have [for expenses] is very flawed. There were financial officers signing off on this stuff. Why didn’t they say something to him if it was wrong?”

Mr. Allen, the teachers’ union president, said he thinks much of the conflict is explained by a “clash of titans” between the superintendent and the board chairman.

Earlier this month, as the standoff between the two escalated, Mr. Hudson offered to resign his position if Mr. Porter would also step down. Mr. Porter declined.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week

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