Amatos style has board in quandary

Community response to sole superintendent finalist is mixed

The Portland Public Schools board this week seemed on the precipice of offering its superintendent's job to Anthony Amato, the current superintendent of schools in Hartford, Conn.

And that possibility was causing some not-so-quiet rumblings from some of the Portlanders who met with Amato last week. They think Amato's assertive management style would freeze out school leaders, teachers, parents and others from any voice in how the city's schools should run.

Amato became the only announced finalist for the job on Monday when Patricia Harvey, schools superintendent in St. Paul, Minn., withdrew her candidacy a few days after interviewing for the Portland post. Harvey has decided to stay in St. Paul.

School board leaders repeatedly have said they may announce other finalists for superintendent. But so far none of the candidates has been willing to be publicly identified as being a finalist for the job.

The situation has left the board in the same awkward position it encountered four years ago when presenting Ben Canada as the sole finalist for the 1998 superintendent vacancy. It is trying to gauge community enthusiasm for hiring a candidate while offering no other choice.

The Portland board may have to give Amato an answer rather quickly. Amato has revealed that he has discussed jobs with at least two district school districts in California, which he has not named.

'If it's somebody they want, they're going to have to decide quickly, or he'll go someplace else,' said David Knowles, a former city planning director who headed the Leadership Advisory Committee, a citizens group appointed by the school board to offer advice on what the community wants in a superintendent.

Amato's assistant said he was out of the office Thursday and unavailable for comment.

Some of the local reaction to Amato, who visited the city last week, has unquestionably been positive.

'I thought there was a lot of upside in terms of his experience,' said Tony Hopson, who is a leader of the Education Crisis Team, a group of activists who have criticized the district for the school performance in Portland's poor and minority neighborhoods.

Hopson, who was among those participating in the interviews with Amato, was referring to Amato's experience in leading the Hartford district and before that a New York City school district Ñ both of which included many children from poor families and boasted improved test scores during Amato's tenure.

But Hopson added that Amato talked little in his interview about community involvement in the schools Ñ'which kind of bothered me.'

Will he listen?

After hearing what some of his critics in Hartford have publicly and privately said about Amato, others have questioned his willingness to listen to others' views in leading schools and school districts.

The head of the Hartford teachers' union has publicly praised Amato. But Richard Garrett, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said Hartford teachers who spoke with Portland union members 'were uniformly critical of Amato Ñ his leadership style, his management style.'

During their Portland interviews, Garrett said, both Harvey and Amato displayed an 'authoritarian tone' that troubled teachers. 'But that was much more pronounced with Amato.'

Amato's managerial style also was questioned by Scott Bailey, a Portland parent and a member of the Leadership Advisory Committee. He also was part of a group that interviewed Amato last week.

'Mr. Amato, I believe, has shown that he can put things in motion,' Bailey said. 'But I think the record seems to indicate that he does not do that in a collaborative way that inspires people all through the system.'

Those with concerns about Amato seemed to ratchet them up as the week wore on, and there were indications that some board members were leaning toward hiring him Ñ and beginning contract negotiations as quickly as possible.

Two board supporters

In an interview this week, school board member Marc Abrams did not say the board should or would definitely hire Amato. But Abrams said Amato 'clearly meets the qualifications' that the community advisory group suggested for the next superintendent.

'People need to remember that what we're doing here is picking a leader who can assemble a team,' he said. 'No one person is going to have the complete package.'

School board member Lolenzo Poe, a past member of the Education Crisis Team, also supported Amato.

'I can't speculate on the board as a whole, but I can surely tell you as one board member that I'm ready to get on with it,' Poe said about hiring Amato. 'I think we have done a very thorough search. I think we've spent considerable number of hours with a number of candidates, and I'm comfortable if we decide on Dr. Amato.'

Responding to concerns about Amato, Poe also said he thinks that Amato would collaborate with teachers and the community.

'And quite frankly, I don't think we could ever bring any candidate into this town that you would not find some point at which there would be some disagreement,' Poe said.

It was not clear how other board members viewed Amato. Board member Julia Brim-Edwards said she wanted to refrain from talking publicly about the superintendent search until she talked with board members about it during an executive session scheduled for Thursday morning.

Executive sessions are closed to the public.

The four other board members did not return phone calls this week.

The school board began the search for a new superintendent last May, when the board forced the resignation of Ben Canada, who had been superintendent for three years.

The district's former chief financial officer, Jim Scherzinger, has been serving as interim superintendent.

School board Chairwoman Debbie Menashe has said board members hoped to begin contract negotiations with their choice for superintendent by late March.

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