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School board blues

• Karla Wenzel has hopes for the new board, but the chairwoman leaves disillusioned and worn down

The feces in the mail may have made the decision for her.

They came to Karla Wenzel's home in a large white envelope Ñ anonymously, of course.

The package arrived a couple of months ago during the heated contract negotiations between the Portland Public Schools and its teachers union.

'They said I was dishing it out, so I should take it,' Wenzel, the Portland school board chairwoman, says of the note accompanying the tin of excrement inside the envelope. The note referred to the contract negotiations.

Combined with the school board-related graffiti that had been spray-painted on her driveway a few weeks before, and with what Wenzel believes was an intentional poisoning of her family's dog shortly after that, the incident solidified the decision she'd been leaning toward. The nonpracticing lawyer and stay-at-home mom would leave the school board after one four-year term.

'I was afraid to let my kids play in the front yard of my house Ñ because of the anger level directed at me as a volunteer member of the Portland school board,' Wenzel says, her voice rising as she sits in a coffee shop a few blocks away from her 7-year-old daughter's elementary school.

'I think that's what really (led) to not running Ñ how personal it got.'

By 8 this evening, four new members Ñ a new majority Ñ will have been elected to the Portland school board.

They will join a board that has been lambasted routinely during the last couple of years. Lambasted for how it managed a superintendent, then for the money it spent to get rid of him, then for how it botched the search to replace him. Lambasted for increasingly rancorous relations with the school district's employees' unions. Lambasted for poorly managing dwindling district resources and, in general, for what critics say has been muddled and ineffectual leadership of the state's largest school system.

And while most of the criticism has been directed at the board in general, a few Ñ especially teachers union leaders Ñ also have criticized Wenzel, saying she's short with those who disagree with her.

Wenzel says she leaves the board disagreeing with a lot of its critics on a lot of issues. But she and the critics seem to agree on a couple of things.

It's ugly out there in the world that surrounds the Portland school board.

And it's way past time for a change.

'I started (four years ago) buoyed with all kinds of optimism and hopefulness,' Wenzel says. 'That with just the right amount of smarts and work and perseverance, tackling the critical issues É we could really make a difference.'

Four years later, 'the cynicism, the negativity, the assuming the worst about you personally and about the job that you're doing É it just wears you down.

'It's just time to leave when it so much affects your basic personality and core beliefs about human nature, and the ability to make a difference.'

Uncontrollable circumstances

Wenzel decided to leave the board before her fellow board members did. But in the end, all four board members whose terms were up this year decided not to run again.

Few board watchers were surprised Ñ after the controversies of the last few years.

Still, even the most vociferous critics of the school board agree that at least some criticism was misplaced. The board had little control over the district's biggest problem: the repeated budget crises of the last few years forced by limited state money available for K-12 education.

While district employee health care costs are increasing at double-digit rates and state-promised employee retirement benefits are increasing even more, the district's general fund budget will end up being $360 million this year,

$3 million less than last year.

Even with the budget issues, Wenzel says, the 52,000-student school district has made progress during the last few years.

When she ran for the board in 1999, many people were criticizing district officials for being unable to explain their budget numbers, what money was being spent where, Wenzel says. The 'transparency in the budget' has improved drastically, she says, in large part because of the work of Jim Scherzinger, the former chief financial officer who now is superintendent, .

Meanwhile, the superintendent and school board now outline possible budget changes in repeated public forums in much more detail than they used to, Wenzel says.

And the district's student test scores have continued to improve.

'There's been progress on things that matter,' Wenzel says, adding that the district achieves much 'that doesn't really come to people's attention.'

Still, she can seem as frustrated with the last four years Ñ and sometimes with the performance of the school board Ñ as any of the board's critics.

The board spent more than $100,000 last year on a national search to find a replacement for former Superintendent Ben Canada, and it eventually announced four finalists for the job. But each of them withdrew from consideration after highly public visits to Portland Ñ visits in which the school board revealed the candidates as finalists but then made them wait for a job offer while the board brought other candidates to town.

After all four finalists withdrew, the board suspended its search, naming the homegrown Scherzinger as superintendent.

'We should have landed somebody,' Wenzel said of the national search. 'We had too much of a community-involved process, and we didn't allow ourselves a process that could be nimble.'

System slow to change

Wenzel says the board and district also have failed to narrow the 'achievement gap' in learning between poor and minority students and white students from more well-off families.

The district, she says, still doesn't have an efficient system that monitors the results that schools are getting with certain groups of students and that then could show which schools are doing well and which need different leadership.

But ultimately, Wenzel says, the most frustrating part of the job has been 'the slowness' of the school district's bureaucracy.

'I think, even understanding government, the speed at which things happen or change (in the district) is very, very, very slow,' she says.

'As someone who was born impatient, the pace of change has always felt too slow.'

Critics have said it's the board's job to force that change.

Wenzel responds that the board has done more recently to set priorities and deadlines for action. But, she says, Portland citizens expect to have significant input before a governmental body makes any major decision.

'We operate in a world of constant pushes and pressures that act against fast action and results,' she says. Sometimes, she adds, 'the goal of the (public) involvement is to paralyze the process.'

Board, union clash

One of the biggest impediments to change in the district, Wenzel says, is Portland's teachers union. She cited a comment made by one of the superintendent finalists, former Charlotte, N.C., Superintendent Eric Smith.

She says that after he interviewed with the teachers union leaders, Smith told board leaders that 'not once in their interview of him did they mention students. Not once did they mention the classroom, and not once did they mention student achievement.'

Wenzel says that fits with her assessment of teachers union leaders Ñ that they care less about student achievement than they do about minutiae in Portland's unusually precise teachers union contract, such as how many hours a teacher must be in a school building.

'I think there's a big disconnect between the union and classroom teachers,' Wenzel says. 'Because the classroom teachers I see É care about their students. They want to see their students achieve, and parents regard them as education professionals.

'And then we have a (teachers) contract that basically reduces teachers to factory-line production workers. It's not about professional judgment. It's about numbers É the number of widgets on a factory line.'

Portland teachers union President Ann Nice said union leaders, like all teachers, care about student achievement. But, she said: 'I think some of those day-to-day workload issues actually are student achievement issues. If we don't set limits on the demands on teachers, the demands would be unlimited.'

Nice also said of Wenzel's board leadership: 'I thought her style as board chairwoman at times was rather abrupt, especially with people she disagreed with.'

Whatever the case, Wenzel's views Ñ she was endorsed by the teachers union four years ago Ñ demonstrate the animosity between union and school district leaders, who narrowly avoided a teachers strike after combative contract negotiations this past spring.

'I think it's hugely important that this relationship improve,' Wenzel says of management-union interaction. '(But) I don't know what that means in terms of how to do it.'

Part of a bigger problem

For Wenzel, who is married to Portland General Electric executive Fred Miller, the distress surrounding the school district is only a reflection of a larger distress in Portland.

She cites the results of a poll that local private leaders commissioned earlier this year. It showed that two-thirds of Portland voters think that things in the city, in general, are on the 'wrong track.'

'The filter for 67 percent of the people out there Ñ the starting place Ñ is, nothing good can come of anything that government officials or elected people or other institutions touch or are involved in,' she says. 'So, everything is going to be seen through 'wrong-track' eyes.'

But Wenzel also questions the very structure of the school board. She recently angered other board members by suggesting that an appointed school board might work better than an elected board.

'What's hard about the board is seven independently elected people with their own agendas, perceptions and constituencies, who are elected to bring home the bacon to a community or to drive their personal agendas,' she says. 'And there is not a focus É of working together,' she says.

Considering everything, Wenzel says, she's not sure there might not have been a better place than the school board to have volunteered her 30 hours or so per week for the last four years.

'If I could have invested that in a nonprofit, or in a low-performing school, reading to kids, tutoring kids É right now I think that I would have had a greater impact,' she says.

Still, referring to the four board candidates who will win seats tonight, she says, 'maybe their experience in their four-year travels through this position will lead them to a different place.

'I think the system and district will benefit by having new eyes, a fresh look and folks that will say, 'You know what? We aren't the previous board. We're completely new, and we can assess things. And you can count on us.' The slate is clean going forward, to make the right decisions and to start building back public confidence.'

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