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Phillips resignation: What now?

Despite praise for accomplishments, many say superintendent's exit has left them in the lurch
by: Jim Clark, Portland school board member Bobbie Regan (left) embraces Phillips at the news conference announcing the superintendent’s departure.

Like most actions she took in her tenure here, Portland Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips' sudden resignation this week doesn't come without controversy.

After Phillips announced Wednesday that she would step down to accept a job as director of education with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle - which she called the 'opportunity of a lifetime' - members of the Portland school board expressed their gratitude in working with her and reassured citizens the district is in a far better place than three years ago because of her leadership.

Others, including some of her harshest critics, faulted Phillips for climbing the career ladder while leaving so many reforms in midair.

'I think when you come to a community and propose and implement the kind of changes she's decided to do here and then don't have the wherewithal to stick around and make sure the dramatic changes are going to work, to me is just shameful,' said Brock Lower, a parent at Rose City Park Elementary, which will close this fall and merge with Gregory Heights Middle School to become a K-8 school. 'You owe something to the community other than your job.'

The closures of three neighborhood schools and full merger of others to K-8 configurations will take effect this fall. So will the tricky business of implementing a common curriculum in the classrooms. District officials planned to wait another year to chart the progress at the struggling high schools undergoing reforms.

And the Jefferson Campus is shifting gears once again after Principal Leon Dudley left the school in a firestorm of controversy just over two weeks ago.

Lower and others said they weren't surprised at all by Phillips' decision to leave, seeing as her résumé shows job stints of no more than a few years. Many also believed she was using Portland as a stepping stone to higher posts.

'I can't say that I'm surprised,' said Portland Association of Teachers President Jeff Miller. 'I wish her well in her new position.'

In January 2006, Phillips extended her contract with the district through February 2009. But she said Wednesday that when the Gates Foundation contacted her with the offer, she could not pass it up. She said the process had been going on for a 'short while.'

Wednesday's news broke to the public before she could share it with her staff and teachers and principals, and that 'pained' her, she said, in tears. Yet, as is her style, she informed the world about her decision gracefully, with an ear-to-ear smile and in the most positive light.

She told the Portland Tribune she equated her situation to that at Jefferson: 'The great news about Jefferson is that when someone steps down, we have great people to step up.' Phillips' last day with the district will be June 30, then she said she plans to take a month off for the first time in her life and begin her post in Seattle on Aug. 1.

Hunt for schools head begins

Even though a new school board may be in place July 1, after the May 15 election, the current board is holding a special meeting this morning - presumably to begin discussing the new superintendent search. Board members said they soon would begin the process of soliciting community input, and a search likely will include both internal and external candidates.

Phillips and the board members said the district has made great strides, and is poised to carry on the ongoing reforms and attract a top-caliber superintendent. Voters overwhelmingly passed a local-option levy last fall after Phillips worked with the business community and city and county governments to rally support and promise a lean budget, which she then created.

This year's budget was the first one in a decade without major cuts, and many of the district's elementary and middle schools have seen marked progress in raising test scores and closing the achievement gap.

Despite those triumphs, Phillips' departure will sting in the community for a while. 'I think she's kind of screwed us,' Cleveland High School parent Robin Corrigan said flatly.

'I think we have so many balls in the air right now. I wonder what's going to happen. Are we going to have two or three years with kids and schools with no direction? Are we going to languish? Or are her plans going to be implemented with someone with lesser abilities? This district is caught between a rock and hard place.'

That said, Corrigan and other critics said they did appreciate Phillips' willingness to make tough decisions and never wanted to see her leave, just slow down the pace of things.

'I never thought she was anything but smart,' Corrigan said. 'I did at the end think she was starting to listen. Now the district is focused less on what we're going to do as a school district, but more on who is going to lead us?'

Player on a bigger stage

Others feel just as unsettled but said they can't blame her for moving on to effect change on a bigger scale. At Gates, she will oversee $3.4 billion per year in education grants for disadvantaged students in the U.S., which was always one of her stated goals in Portland.

'I figure a superintendent has about three years of life and was hoping she'd be here for a good six years,' said Mike Rosen, a Sellwood parent and self-declared Phillips fan. 'If there's a job she was going to leave for, you can definitely see this is the attraction. When you have a person of good quality, you have to make good use of the time because they're going to attract the attention of others.'

As a parent, Rosen said, he's appreciated Phillips' vision, determination and articulate nature and is disappointed to see her go before she can see her big ideas implemented.

'Regardless of whether everyone agrees with the details, she accomplishes a lot,' he said. 'I've been in midlevel public service for 20 years. Without a doubt, for a political administrator, she's the best I've seen. … She gets the management side, and the political side and that's rare in a high-level administration.'

Phillips, 49, drew her latest round of criticism after Dudley left the campus earlier this month after teachers and students opposed his style and policies.

Phillips had recruited Dudley from Texas to raise up the school from its low test scores, bad reputation and shrinking enrollment, after a contentious community process to redesign the school into four small academies that will be fully implemented next year.

After Dudley left, critics blamed Phillips for supporting Dudley for so long and not seeing the red flags in his past before he was hired.

The future of Jefferson now is even more uncertain, but Phillips insisted that neither that situation, nor any other hot-button issue, had anything to do with her decision to leave.

'None of the challenges here would cause me to leave Portland,' she said after addressing the crowd of tearful supporters at the district's headquarters. 'Challenge is part of the work. I have not shied away from any challenges.'

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Phillips leaves her stamp in three years as schools boss

2002 - Vicki Phillips, then head of the Lancaster, Pa., school district, is a finalist for the Portland school district's superintendent vacancy, but withdraws from consideration. Interim Superintendent Jim Scherzinger gets the permanent job.

April 2004 - Phillips is named Portland schools superintendent after Scherzinger retires, leaving her job as Pennsylvania's education secretary. Her Portland salary: $203,000 per year.

February 2005 - Phillips proposes her first round of school closures in a plan that eventually closes five elementary schools and a middle school.

November 2005 - Phillips and the Portland school district win an $8.9 million three-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve district middle and high schools.

April 2006 - Phillips proposes another round of closures and proposes reconfiguring a number of K-5 schools into K-8 schools.

February 2007 - Opposition swells to Phillips' plans to standardize much of the high school and other grade-level curriculum and materials. District committees have since worked out a consensus on implementing much of the plan.

April 25, 2007 - Almost three years exactly after she was named superintendent, Phillips announces she is leaving to join the Gates Foundation.