School & District Management

Top Contenders Withdraw From Portland Search

By Catherine Gewertz — May 01, 2002 5 min read
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Four finalists in the search for a Portland, Ore., schools superintendent have bowed out of consideration, triggering a new round in the search for a leader and a host of questions about how the district lost all four nationally prominent candidates.

Since mid-March, superintendents of four major school systems have spent two days each meeting with the school board and various local groups in the 54,000- student district: Anthony S. Amato of Hartford, Conn.; Winston C. Brooks of Wichita, Kan.; Patricia Harvey of St. Paul, Minn.; and Eric J. Smith of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County schools in North Carolina.

Portland’s struggle comes as urban districts across the country are working to find effective, stable, and harmonious leadership. The average urban superintendent stays in the job less than three years, and many butt heads with school boards. Given those difficulties, some are questioning Portland’s selection process, which is lengthy, and heavy on community input.

Such a process may have been a particular handicap, some analysts say, at a time when Portland schools are facing money problems made more severe by the nation’s current economic woes. Many local leaders believe that state and district money shortages affected—and might continue to affect—candidates’ willingness to assume the helm in Portland.

“There was an undertone in some of the discussions, sort of an unspoken question, ‘You want me to do what with how little?’ ” district spokesman Lew Frederick said last week.

The candidates themselves gave varying reasons—at least publicly—for withdrawing. Some cited personal reasons, such as family obligations. Others responded to campaigns waged by their home districts to keep them. At least one, Mr. Smith of Charlotte- Mecklenburg, said through a spokeswoman that he was concerned about Portland’s fiscal outlook. Last week, Mr. Smith was reported to have accepted the superintendency of the Anne Arundel County schools in Eastern Maryland.

School district officials in Portland said they remain optimistic about finding a strong chief, and they plan to get in touch with several people on their remaining list of finalists in the coming weeks. For now, the interim superintendent, Jim Scherzinger, has said he will remain in the job until a replacement is chosen. The previous superintendent, Benjamin O. Canada, who had led the district since 1998, resigned in May of last year.

Financial Factors

Many in Portland fear that the cumulative effects of Measure 5, a 1990 state ballot initiative that reduced property taxes and attempted to equalize spending among Oregon’s districts, and the recent economic downturn have cut into district funds to the point that candidates believe they cannot accomplish what is expected of them.

Karla Wenzel, the vice chairwoman of Portland’s seven-member school board, issued a statement calling the instability of the state’s school funding “the biggest factor” in the decisions of the four candidates to pull out.

Oregon lawmakers, wrestling through fiscal shortages in two special legislative sessions, cut $112 million from the state’s school budget for the coming fiscal year. In response, Portland cut $36 million from its fiscal 2003 budget. The $360 million budget plan freezes teachers’ salaries, shortens the school year, and increases class sizes. (“Portland Plan Would Shorten Academic Year,” April 17, 2002.)

“There is no doubt in my mind that our current financial crisis played a role in these candidates’ not coming here,” said Carol Turner, an education advocate for Mayor Vera Katz of Portland. “The continuation of cuts since 1990 are truly extreme at this point. The school board is in a real bind.”

Even with the district’s financial problems, local leaders contend that Portland remains an attractive place to work. They point out that 85 percent of school-age children in the district attend local public schools, and that 82 percent of its 3rd graders read at grade level last year on state standardized tests. The prospect of working in the district was appealing enough that the board received about 100 resumes for the superintendent’s job. That group was winnowed to 25 candidates who were interviewed, and narrowed again to six or seven finalists, four of whom said they could visit and then later dropped out.

The remaining finalists— including one candidate who said that the demands of drawing up a local budget back home prevented a visit at the time—will be approached again. “There are a number of people the board remains interested in,” said Mr. Frederick, though he declined to identify the candidates.

Difficult Process

Whether the Portland board will modify its interviewing process remains to be seen. The process, designed to respond to community demands for participation, has come under fire as too long and exhausting.

Candidates meet with 22 groups over two days—one 15-hour day and another 12-hour day—including parent, citizen, and student groups as well as the mayor and the City Council. The groups are then afforded time to give the board feedback.

Mr. Frederick acknowledged that the process is “grueling,” and said it might be streamlined.

Debbie G. Menashe, the chairwoman of the school board, said some meetings could be combined, but much more modification might eat away at the intent of the highly collaborative process: to make sure candidates and community members get a sense of one another, and to give the community a chance to share its views with the board.

The pace of that process has led to criticism in some quarters that the board did not move quickly enough to offer a contract to a top candidate, and that it left another waiting five weeks or more for a board response.

An editorial in TheOregonian newspaper criticized the board’s search as “one of the more rudderless, indecisive, and hesitant search processes in education history.” Putting a finer point on the matter, the column added that the pace was appropriate for “the aging of fine cheese or the geologic compression of rocks,” but was “disastrous” in seeking a district leader.

Ms. Menashe said such complaints are frustrating when the board is trying to ensure the cooperative process the community wants. She noted, too, that it is more difficult to pursue a successful sitting superintendent than one who is looking to leave.

“People always criticize the process when they don’t like the result,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean the process is bad.”

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents and advises urban districts, characterized the loss of four candidates as “the price to be paid for good government.”

“Do you fault the [Portland] community for wanting input?” he said. “Do you fault the school board for accommodating them? Hiring a district leader is clearly the most important thing a district can do.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Top Contenders Withdraw From Portland Search

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