Calls of cronyism add to concerns over core curriculum
by: JIM CLARK, Portland Public Schools parent Maika Yeigh (with daughter Ella, left, and son Will) is concerned about Superintendent Vicki Phillips’ process for choosing materials for a core curriculum. District watchers also have aired worries lately over Phillips’ hiring history.

Amid continued pushback over her core curriculum plan and other recent proposals, Superintendent Vicki Phillips now is facing questions of cronyism surrounding one of her latest hires.

District watchdogs have been sending e-mails to the administration and school board with questions about Lee Kappes, a New Jersey-based literacy consultant who was hired Jan. 3 as the district's director of early and elementary education, earning a salary of $100,000.

Just a week before, Kappes and Cathy Feldman, managing partners of the two-woman operation called Reach Associates, had a $145,200 contract with the district to provide teacher training and literacy materials that now are in all of Portland's kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

The district ended the consulting contract before her hire, and Phillips said there was nothing improper about it - that Kappes was hired based on her qualifications and experience with the district, and that it is good practice to hire people who've been proven assets.

But observers say they can't help but notice that Phillips often brings people from her past and puts them in high places.

Before Reach Associates came to Portland, it did consulting for Phillips at the Pennsylvania Department of Education, where Phillips was education secretary, and in the Lancaster, Penn., school district, where Phillips was superintendent.

Former Portland school board member Sue Hagmeier says she doesn't know Kappes or anything about her hiring, but has observed from afar that in the central office nowadays, 'there's an attitude there that nothing really happened until all these newcomers got here,' she said. 'It's a very dismissive attitude about work that's been done in the district over the years. … I think there's a need to honor the expertise in the district.'

Phillips disputes that claim, ticking off a string of people in the central office who've risen from Portland's ranks. She says at least two principals were interested in the position Kappes filled, but felt they couldn't leave their schools for a couple of years.

So Phillips hired Kappes on a two-year, interim basis, with a note in the contract that she could not benefit financially from any Reach contracts while she held the position. Kappes said the district will hire her partner, Feldman, as an independent contractor to provide literacy training to second-grade teachers.

Phillips further notes that it actually was someone else on her staff who initially brought the Reach team to Portland, after seeing them at a national conference.

Passion's good, Phillips says

Yet in the big picture, Phillips can't seem to escape the common perception that she continually looks outside the district for expertise. That also is one of the biggest complaints Portland teachers have against the proposed core curriculum adoption.

'It feels like the decision has been made, based on some knowledge that they took from outside the district,' says Kirstin Labudda, a biology teacher at Cleveland High School. 'I feel like those public meetings are there to say we're reaching out, but it's just a show.'

Phillips - who will address the curriculum issue as well as other topics today at a City Club forum - says she hears those frustrations and is working with groups of teachers to work out their individual issues.

'I think the great thing about Portland is people care so passionately,' Phillips told the Portland Tribune. 'I think it's part of the process. People's passion signals how deeply people care. The only time it bothers me is when the discourse is disrespectful. As long as it's respectful, I don't mind the pushback.'

After hearing from the curriculum adoption committees this week, Phillips will send her recommendations to the board at the end of the month. The board is set to vote May 21. Citizens still may comment at public meetings and via e-mail.

The other common concerns about the curriculum have to do with the cost - $4 million per year for five years - and the limited range of materials that are being proposed. Some parents also worry there may be conflicts of interest with the textbooks that are being proposed.

That's part of the concern for Maika Yeigh, a Southeast Portland parent who was the lone dissenter on her committee, which reviewed the language arts materials for second-graders and also worries about their content.

'As a parent who reads a lot at home, it's so important my son reads and enjoys writing at school,' Yeigh said, adding that the textbooks she reviewed seemed to be based more on busywork such as worksheets, rather than encouraging children to read about their own interests at their own level. For kids who don't have reading support at home, she said, the impending adoption is a 'tragedy.'

Consultants were a past issue

Phillips isn't a stranger to questions about her use of consultants. During her tenure in Lancaster, the Pennsylvania Auditor General issued a report that found the district spent $3.2 million on educational consultants during that time, a 1,000-percent increase over the prior six years.

A yearlong investigation revealed that about 70 percent of the funds were for consultant services that had no written agreements between the district and individual consultants.

According to a report summary, 'Investigators also found that the district had no written policy for selecting consultants; rather, during most of the six-year period, consultants were selected personally by Phillips, or by members of her staff.'

No consequences came to Phillips, but the director of the Lancaster district's Office of Teaching and Learning during her tenure, Ricardo Curry, who served as superintendent after Phillips became Pennsylvania's education secretary, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and served prison time for his role.

Phillips told the Tribune that she learned from the experience, and it motivated her to strengthen the process of hiring and tracking consultants here.

'I wanted to make sure we were very clear about our deliverables,' she said. Employees don't start until their contracts are done, she said, and the procurement office negotiates all contracts. An outside auditor also reviews the district's consultants on a regular basis.

Yet one of Phillips' biggest critics in Lancaster, a parent named MaryAnne Motter Cullen, remains convinced that Phillips' use of consultants in Lancaster was a waste of money.

'It's just a pattern of reusing the same consultants who have had no objective evidence of success in our district,' Cullen said by phone. 'Our schools are still struggling.'

Of Phillips' trusted consultants, Cullen said, 'She continues to bring them along because, I think, deep down, they're probably her friends and this is kind of a symbiotic relationship - I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine.'

Susan Enfield is baffled by the thought that it's wrong to bring good people along. She should know - she directed Portland's Office of Teaching and Learning until she resigned last year, previously working for Phillips in Lancaster and at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

'That has nothing to do with Vicki showing them favoritism; it has everything to do with Vicki knowing quality work when she sees it,' said Enfield, who now is superintendent of the Evergreen school district in Vancouver, Wash.

Enfield added that she's confident in Kappes' ability to bring excellence to the job; she said kindergarten teachers have raved about the program.

Kappes told the Portland Tribune that whatever hubbub she's landed in, she's ready to do the job. Her duties will be to provide help to elementary school teachers and principals to adopt the new curriculum, help lower the achievement gap and push for higher standards.

'I certainly had knowledge of the district before I made this decision,' she said. 'I'm motivated by the work, and how I feel the direction the district is going.'

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