Troubled Portland schools rely on accidental leader Superintendent's critics wonder if he can save district
He's the guy who never really wanted the job.
And the guy who not many wanted in the job.
But a year and a half later, after one superintendent was run out of town and a string of potential superintendents couldn't run away from the job fast enough, there Jim Scherzinger sits.
The former legislative bureaucrat. The former finance officer. The current superintendent of the state's largest school system.
He's a numbers guy trying to fight off some disastrously negative numbers: multimillion-dollar budget cuts, slashed school days, reduced school district enrollment. And he's trying to fight the perception that Portland's school district is perilously close to ruin.
As parents, educators and Portland leaders worry about the future of the city's school system, Scherzinger Ñ superintendent mostly because no one else would take the job Ñ serves as sort of a Rorschach test for Portland district optimists É and pessimists.
His supporters Ñ and there are many, especially on the school board Ñ see an earnest, committed and talented finance expert who is the right man at the right time to steer the district through budgetary hell. They also see a Portland native and father of three kids, all enrolled in the Portland school system, who has brought honesty, openness and integrity to a district that lacked a bit of all three before he took the head job.
'I think Jim is the most honest, rational, capable leader that I've ever worked with in the district,' says Debbie Menashe, chairwoman of the school board when it forced former Superintendent Ben Canada to resign and appointed Scherzinger interim superintendent in May 2001. 'And I have just unlimited respect for him.'
Others, while lauding Scherzinger as a good man and a solid accountant, also see someone with no education background continuing in a job that, especially right now, demands that expertise.
'I think this district is so messed up that it's going to take someone with a lot of skills to turn it around Ñ skills that Jim is missing,' says Carrie Adams, a former school board candidate and activist who has criticized the lower achievement of poor and minority students in district schools.
And some see Scherzinger's continuing tenure Ñ 'interim' was removed from his title last summer Ñ as symbolic of a school board and community giving up the idea of greatness for its school district, giving up even on the efforts needed to halt the district's decline.
'He's clearly the 'could be worse' superintendent,' says Duane Schulz, a high-tech executive and parent who has often criticized the school board during the last couple of years. 'Because we're in a 'could be worse' community. A problem postponed is a problem half-solved.
'I don't think this community has a vision of what great looks like.'
Against the tide
To understand the views on Scherzinger, you have to understand the phenomenon of the Savior Superintendent.
The nation's few good urban school superintendents have become educational stars. They swoop into underachieving and troubled city school systems Ñ and almost all city school systems are underachieving and troubled Ñ with their press clippings, expensive suits and shiny shoes. And they extol their passionate vision on how they'll turn it all around, raise test scores and get kids learning.
Other cities woo them. And the superintendents command large, perk-laden contracts. One of the candidates who turned down Portland in the school board's failed superintendent search earlier this year went on to land a $300,000-a-year superintendent's job in Annapolis, Md.
Once in a while, the star superintendents force real change in the education bureaucracy.
More often, their stars fade. The school boards buy out their contracts. And they move on.
Scherzinger, 54, could not be more different.
When he was thrust into the spotlight after Canada resigned, Scherzinger had been the district's chief financial officer for three years. Before that, he had worked for the state Legislature for 20 years, the last 14 as head of the Legislative Revenue Office. He operated in Salem's background, helping legislators analyze budgets and finances.
The son of a man who worked for U.S. Bank in Portland for 40 years, Scherzinger has spent most of his life in Portland and Salem. Until two years ago, a few months before he was named interim superintendent, he was still driving a 1983 Mazda 626 that he had bought new. It finally died, and he bought a new Volvo.
He's seldom without a wry smile on his face, as if he's saying that even budget cuts and ugly teacher contract negotiations can't kill a sense of humor. But Scherzinger thinks and talks like an economist, in layers of sentences and 300-word paragraphs.
And he's not much of a public speaker. He doesn't pound lecterns or exude passion. He doesn't speak in digestible sound bites.
'Some would even say he lacks charisma,' school board member Lolenzo Poe says jokingly. 'You're not going to charge the hill after Jim speaks to you.'
Which is only one of many inkblot tests with Scherzinger.
Right for the times?
Some people want a star superintendent to inspire hill-charging, especially in a school district that people increasingly see as adrift.
But Scherzinger's supporters suggest that his calm and deliberate personality might be more appropriate for the district right now.
'I think in this budget environment, we need somebody who can speak honestly with the community, who can provide factual information,' says school board member Julia Brim-Edwards. 'And the fact that he is as steady as a rock in very turbulent times is what the district needs.'
Scherzinger acknowledges that 'if being dynamic is being able to move people emotionally É clearly, I'm not.'
But, he says, 'I think in different times and different places, districts need different things. É I have a different kind of persuasion. And actually, to be honest about it, I believe that's more important in the current situation we're in.'
Scherzinger's supporters Ñ board members, parents and others Ñ also praise what they consider the district's greater openness and honesty since he's been in the job.
Two days after Scherzinger took over as interim superintendent, a Willamette Week story reported concerns about radon and other environmental problems at Northeast Portland's Whitaker Middle School. After years of district officials downplaying complaints about the building, Scherzinger closed the school and hired a consultant to examine the building's conditions.
The consultant's damning report, released later that summer, said the building was unfit for human occupation and it was closed permanently.
Even teachers union officials, continually at odds with district management, praised his forthrightness.
'One of the things he's brought is some trust and integrity into the position that we didn't have for a while,' says Scott Bailey, president of the nonprofit group Community and Parents for Public Schools. 'The way Jim is as a person is to be factual, to lay things out. It seemed like before he took over, there was sort of a circle-the-wagons mentality.'
Still, while critics of the district agree with some praise, they suggest that the positives are not nearly enough.
Relations between district management and employees are as bad as they've ever been, many say. The school board abruptly adjourned its meeting Monday night as teachers loudly protested contract proposals that, among other things, would cap teachers' health benefits and cut their pay by close to 10 percent this year. Many teachers are talking about a possible strike as early as March.
Meanwhile, teachers union leaders decry what they think is the extraordinary power amassed by the district's human resources head, Steve Goldschmidt, in Scherzinger's administration. Union leaders continually criticize how much influence that Goldschmidt, also with little background in educational issues, has in most district personnel moves.
'I don't think Jim Scherzinger is running the district, so I don't think it much matters whether he's doing a good job or not doing a good job,' says Portland teachers union President Ann Nice. 'I think somebody else is running the district,' she says, referring to Goldschmidt.
Board members say union leaders criticize Goldschmidt because he's changed the district's tendency to give teachers the benefit of any doubt in interpretation of what the contract allows. Still, board member Sue Hagmeier says she's not convinced yet that Scherzinger 'has the mechanisms for listening to all of the employees that he needs to.'
Most parents and education activists care less about employee relations than they do about student learning. And some say the Scherzinger administration has done little to improve education for poor and minority students, or to put in place a district structure to improve it for all children.
'High schools don't know what the middle schools are doing, and middle school students are arriving at high schools with elementary school skills,' school activist Adams says. 'It truly overwhelms me that we don't have even the basics figured out.'
'I think they continue in a downward spiral, because they don't have talent at the most important positions,' says Ron Herndon, an education activist who for decades has criticized how the district teaches poor and minority children. 'If anything, it's gone backward.'
But no one should have expected more Ñ from the school board or from a man without the credentials for the job, Herndon says.
The school board confuses 'liking a person with talent,' he says. 'And they confuse good intentions with the ability to give children what they need to be successful.'
Need for accountability
Scherzinger acknowledges that his administration hasn't done enough in outlining a district strategy for improving education and has not set up an accountability system to make sure improvement happens.
'The biggest failure of the first year is that we didn't do that,' he says.
But, he says, that work will be done now with last month's hiring of Chicago educator Patricia Pickles as chief academic officer.
Still, he says: 'I actually feel better about where the district is in how well we are achieving our goals today than I did two or three years ago. People do not realize how close to amazing success that we are, and (because of budget cuts) how much at risk we are of losing it all.'
He matter-of-factly acknowledges what everyone else says: 'The primary reason I'm superintendent now is, they couldn't find one. And a good part of the reason they couldn't find one was the financial condition we're in.'
But if the district somehow can find stable funding and again attract superintendent candidates like some of the finalists last year, 'I'd go back to the position I was in Ñ to get that person, and adequate funding,' Scherzinger says. 'If you gave me that trade tomorrow, I would take it. I'd be overjoyed.'
School board members Ñ four of whom might not be on the board after May elections Ñ seem ambiguous about Scherzinger's future as superintendent.
The board gave him a contract this fall that pays him $150,000 annually, compared with the $179,000 in salary and bonuses that Canada made in his last year.
Several board members say they don't expect another superintendent search to start this school year, which means Scherzinger probably will remain superintendent next fall and perhaps beyond. But none will say there won't be another superintendent search next year.
For now, it's Scherzinger's job.
'I understand that he's not people's (superintendent) model,' says board Chairwoman Karla Wenzel. 'But he is who he is, and he has huge strengths. And he's our model right now.'