Oregon schools chief Rob Saxton resigned Wednesday after nearly three years as the state’s first appointed head of public schools.
In that role, he pushed hard to shake up the status quo, including proposing changes to the state school funding formula, criticizing poorly coordinated early reading instruction, requiring high schools to fill rampant holes in juniors’ and seniors’ class schedules and elevating the importance of serving minority and limited English students.
He championed the switch to the Common Core State Standards and the harder tests that measure whether students are learning them. The state teachers union has clashed with him over those tests and his efforts, so far unsuccessful, to change the funding formula to steer more money to schools serving disadvantaged students.
Saxton, who will step down June 30, will become interim superintendent of Northwest Regional ESD for the next two years, the agency announced Wednesday. He will receive $161,000 a year, compared with his current pay of about $190,000.
The ESD job, while high-paying, is much lower profile and affects dramatically fewer students. But Saxton said it will give him the opportunity to more directly affect what happens to students, including in new preschool and early learning programs that the ESD will coordinate in Washington County.
Gov. Kate Brown did not immediately grant an interview about whether she played a role in Saxton’s departure or her plans to choose a successor. In a written statement, she thanked Saxton for “his service to the students of Oregon” and said “I am considering next steps in the context of the broader discussions about education policies and resources.”
In a statement, Saxton called his departure “bittersweet” and and said he was grateful for the “incredible” opportunity of being state schools chief.
A longtime Oregon educator who served as superintendent of Tigard-Tualatin schools for seven years before rising to the top schools job, Saxton was handpicked by former Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Saxton said Brown “will begin the process soon to appoint a new Deputy Superintendent. Our state has a wealth of outstanding educational leaders, and I am confident that (the Oregon Department of Education) -- and the important work underway -- will be in excellent hands.”
Saxton will officially retire in June, allowing him to begin collecting his public employee pension. Retirees who collect PERS payments can work for another Oregon public employer for a maximum of half the normal hours in a calendar year. Saxton will work for the ESD half the calendar year in 2015 and 2017 and will work half-time during 2016, said Christine Riley, chairwoman of the Northwest ESD board.
She said her agency is extremely lucky to have gotten Saxton to take the job and the board readily agreed to make the interim role half-time during 2016 so that Saxton would accept it.
The Legislature in 2011 granted Oregon’s governor the power to appoint the state schools chief once the state’s last elected superintendent, Susan Castillo, left office. Technically, under a quirk of Oregon’s Constitution, the governor then became Oregon’s superintendent of public instruction, so the top official over the Oregon Department of Education and the state’s public schools is called the deputy superintendent of public instruction.
Castillo resigned in 2012, 2 1/2 years before her term was up, and Kitzhaber quickly selected Saxton as his choice to oversee K-12 schools. The educators who were then superintendents of Springfield and Salem-Keizer schools, Nancy Golden and Sandy Husk, were the other finalists for the post.
Nancy Golden, now Oregon’s chief education officer, was also appointed to her post by Kitzhaber. In a statement, Golden called Saxton “a powerful champion for students who will be deeply missed in Salem.”
When The Oregonian asked education leaders last fall to assess Kitzhaber’s track record in education, Kitzhaber drew praise from all directions. His selection of Saxton, who was well-known and well-respected by his fellow superintendents, was hailed as one of his best decisions to help schools improve.
That article said in part:
The biggest kudos that Kitzhaber draws in Oregon education circles are for the leaders he's chosen: Ben Cannon as the new head of higher education, Rob Saxton to oversee K-12 education, and Nancy Golden as chief education officer over the whole gamut. Saxton and Golden, in particular, are praised as good listeners with years of experience in Oregon schools.
Saxton, a principal and superintendent in McMinnville and Sherwood, made his greatest mark during seven years at the helm of Tigard-Tualatin schools. Educators mastered a systematic approach that got most Latino, special education and low-income students reading like champs.
Both Saxton and Golden have begun to push for changes some Oregon educators abhor: More state rules for how schools must run kindergarten and teach reading. Accountability for results on a harder set of tests. Limits on how many years a district can receive extra money to get second-language students up to speed in English. Paying schools, in limited cases, not based on head counts but on results.
But because Saxton and Golden have an open door to education leaders and advocates for students, and are willing to modify their proposals, the two are talked about in glowing terms.
“You won’t find a school person in Oregon who doesn’t love Nancy Golden and respect her,” says Craig Hawkins, executive director of the Oregon school administrators association.
School administrators and teachers unions don’t often toe the same line, but on this, they do.
Golden “collaborates and she honors parents and educators, and that puts us in a much better position to work collaboratively for helping all children all across our state,” says Oregon Education Association President Hanna Vaandering.
Saxton, who has been on the job longer, also gets that degree of credit.
“Rob Saxton has changed the culture” at the Oregon Department of Education and brought strong leadership that reflects the perspective of Oregon district leaders, says Betsy Miller-Jones, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association.
Miller-Jones reiterated that praise in a statement Wednesday.
“Rob Saxton has continued his lifelong advocacy for students over the past three years as deputy superintendent of public instruction,” she said. “He has tirelessly traveled the state and spoken to thousands of parents and educators about the importance of Oregon’s schools.
“In particular, Rob has been a plain-spoken champion about the need for higher standards to ensure that our young people can compete in college and the workplace,” she said. “He will be missed.”
Senate Higher Ed Chairman Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said of Saxton, “I wish he would have stayed... Oregon’s loss.”
Hass praised Saxton for pushing the state to promote early reading skills among kindergartners, something Saxton established during his tenure leading schools in Tigard-Tualatin that paid off in higher graduation rates there.
“He brought that grounded and common sense approach to the state,” Hass said.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, called Saxton’s resignation a loss. “Rob Saxton is a smart, skillful leader who has led Oregon’s public schools during a challenging time. He moved the state in the right direction, stood up for students in Oregon and was respected nationally. Oregon and the nation will miss his leadership.”
The ESD, based in Hillsboro, provides special education, technology, school improvement, business and human resource services to school districts in Washington, Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties.
Reporter Denis Theriault contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week