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School board swallows hard lessons

With the superintendent search in shambles, board members grapple with how to start over

Battered, bruised and rejected, Portland Public Schools board members have huddled together in private executive sessions in the last few days to figure out where they might find a worthy Ñ and willing Ñ person to be the district's next superintendent.

Those board meetings, including one Monday, followed a span of five days last week when three finalists for the superintendent's job suddenly withdrew their candidacies in a succession that nearly obliterated six months of board work on the search.

Meanwhile, the board has reaffirmed its confidence in Interim Superintendent Jim Scherzinger's leading the district for now, suggesting it might be awhile before a permanent superintendent is found.

Which gives Portlanders time to analyze this: What went so wrong?

How does Oregon's largest school district spend half a year and $92,000 on an executive search firm to look for a chief executive Ñ and offer a salary of up to $175,000 a year Ñ and not find a new superintendent?

Here are the contributing factors. Or maybe not.

• • •

They went after people they were never going to get.

Yes, that was it.

The school board's four finalists were urban district superintendents who had enjoyed significant success in their own communities. When the communities learned of the Portland flirtations, they inevitably went on the defense, offering giant community hugs Ñ or hinting of hefty raises.

Meanwhile, none of the Portland finalists were local people who loved and understood the city and school district. Nor were any of the finalists accomplished people in nonsuperintendent jobs who could have considered the job without spurring their own communities to rally to keep them from going to Portland.

Ñ

No, that wasn't the problem.

School board members said they seriously considered some 'nontraditional' candidates Ñ people who weren't superintendents or part of K-12 educational bureaucracies. The board also considered candidates from Portland and Oregon, although it's not clear how seriously.

Still, in assessing superintendent qualities, the board pointed to a citizens advisory committee report last fall that said the community preferred a superintendent who had experience managing another urban school district.

Board members also talked of the need for a candidate who understood education and had experience closing the achievement gap between minority and white children.

'When you start looking for those qualities, it does tend to get you back to urban superintendents,' said board member Marc Abrams.

• • •

The board's long public hiring process drove the finalists away.

Yes, that was it.

The board's cumbersome process of bringing in finalists for two days of semipublic interviews with community groups meant that everyone in the finalists' home districts knew they were being seriously considered for the job.

As the board continued that process with four finalists Ñ then waited for community reaction Ñ over almost seven weeks, it meant that the finalists were in limbo back home while waiting for a Portland answer. Finalists' enthusiasm about Portland began to evaporate.

Toward the end, the angst felt by two remaining finalists presumably grew even greater as Portland board members spoke publicly about trying to get another finalist Ñ Charlotte, N.C., schools Superintendent Eric Smith Ñ to change his mind about withdrawing.

'There's a point when you go public with your finalists, you've got to close the deal pretty fast (or) you've got a mess on your hands,' said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Ñ

No, that wasn't the problem.

Board members acknowledge that the process went on too long and should be modified. But they also say that the community wanted input on superintendent finalists, especially when former Superintendent Ben Canada was the only finalist presented to the public after the last search.

The only way to avoid sparking community reaction in a candidate's home district is not to go public with candidates at all, according to Michael Casserly, head of the Council of the Great City Schools, an urban school district group in Washington, D.C. On the other hand, he said, the direct announcement of a superintendent 'is almost always unacceptable to a community.'

• • •

Candidates were scared away by levels of education funding in Oregon.

Yes, that was it.

A statement the school board issued last week said the finalists told board representatives that 'the stability of school funding (in Oregon) was the biggest factor in their decisions.'

When Charlotte's Smith announced his withdrawal, he said funding problems in Portland Ñ the district cut $40 million from its budget for next year Ñ would make it difficult to concentrate on the classroom.

'I can't say that was the deciding factor or the only factor, but it certainly was a factor,' Nora Carr, a spokeswoman for Smith, said late last week.

Ñ

No, that wasn't the problem.

All four finalists went through two grueling days of community interviews for the job after learning details of Oregon's and the Portland district's budget problems.

The reality is that education funding is being cut in many states. A report issued earlier this year by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that 45 states and the District of Columbia face budget revenue shortfalls in the coming fiscal year. Kansas, home of one finalist Ñ Wichita schools Superintendent Winston Brooks Ñ expects a $600 million shortfall.

• • •

Candidates were not impressed with Portland's superintendent salary.

Yes, that was it.

Some thought that the $155,000 to $175,000 salary the board was advertising for the job Ñ not including bonuses and benefits Ñ was low. Canada would have made more than $250,000 in salary and benefits next year under his former contract. Smith makes more than $250,000 in salary and benefits in Charlotte.

Ñ

No, that wasn't the problem.

Of the four former finalists for the job, only Smith makes more than $175,000 in his current job. A recent national survey of urban school superintendents put the average salary at about $177,000. 'I think we were right on target,' Abrams said.

• • •

These things happen.

The most hopeful assessment of the last several weeks for the Portland board would be this: Things went sour in large part because that's what often happens in searches for urban superintendents.

Casserly, from the Council of Great City Schools, said it took Dallas three searches before it found one superintendent. And districts in New York City have 'hired people for a day, gotten rid of them and then had new searches the next day,' he said.

'The process is always messy,' Casserly said. 'I know of lots of cities, plenty of cities, who've had to do two and three searches.'

But, he said, 'getting it right is the most important thing that a school board does. And if it takes a couple of tries to get it right, then so be it.'

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .