School Board still divided on making interim permanent

by: PHOTO BY RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Matt Utterback, interim superintendent speaking at the North Clackamas School Board meeting Nov. 15, focuses on academic disparities and student achievement.Previous superintendents of the North Clackamas School District have tackled education disparities, but after Matt Utterback took the reins on a School Board resolution to make “equity” on of the district’s three top goals, he launched a new initiative this month.

With support of staff at his “alma mater” Clackamas High School, where he served as principal for five years until accepting the top district post on an interim basis July 1, more than 500 students have participated in difficult conversations about race and social class presenting potential barriers to academic achievement.

Seeing how kids behave differently and develop more empathy for their peers when they share struggles, Utterback, 45, would like to expand the pilot program called Breaking Down the Walls to a district-wide basis. The project is named to “break down labels” so students can view each other as individuals by talking about stereotyping and pressures to perform.

Disparities are a growing issue in the district that is seeing an increasing proportion of students of color and living in poverty, two indicators of lower average academic performance. In Utterback, disadvantaged populations have found a stronger voice of advocacy for the importance of the issue.

“We have a moral obligation as educators to make sure that each student has the opportunity for the highest level of achievement regardless of their race, how much money their family makes or what language they speak at home,” he said.

Utterback would like the superintendent’s job on a permanent basis, but the School Board on Thursday night was divided as to whether to pick him or spend up to $70,000 on a national search for someone to oversee the district’s $130 million budget.

The School Board contracted for a survey of local views in what qualities people would like to see in a superintendent. Respondents to the survey, results of which were released this month, varied widely in their responses and were more likely to say what they didn’t want in a superintendent, including “not making everyone happy” or “not getting discouraged.”

School Board member Linda Moraga said a helpful common themes in the survey were that people often noted their appreciation of a superintendent’s willingness to address large class sizes and to close the achievement gap. Moraga said the district needs to invest in classrooms and not a search for a new leader.

In the open-ended anonymous comments section of the survey, more than 200 people wanted the current interim superintendent and only 12 comments were against Utterback.

Board members Kyle Walker and Trisha Claxton agreed that funding a superintendent search did not make sense for a district with an interim that already matched the goals of staff in closing the equity gap, commitment to the district and passion for the job. The School Board will probably discuss the issue again at its Dec. 6 meeting.

Taking on challenges

The district is currently budgeting hiring 25 to 30 more teachers next year, although the district has had to cut 200 out of a high of 900 teaching positions in the past three years. Performance Auditor Lee Goeke, who presented to the School Board on Thursday, noted that the district was lagging behind in technological investments from comparatively sized districts in Oregon. Goeke said the district has continued to increase average academic achievement despite the cuts.

After overseeing state budget cuts that forced the closure of two elementary schools last year, former NCSD Superintendent Tim Mills took the top job in the Bellevue School District starting this fall. Disappointment and anger about Mills leaving was another theme School Board members noted in the comments section of the survey.

“Our community wants that consistency of someone who is going to stick around,” Moraga said.

The School Board selected Utterback as a interim superintendent because of his deep ties to the district and for his history of leadership.

Utterback has a freshman daughter at CHS, and his wife is an NCSD teacher. His 24-year career in the district has included service as assistant superintendent.

“I didn’t feel our district was in a position to bring an interim in who didn’t know us,” Utterback said. “I am deeply committed to the long-term health of the district, but at the same time I honor the process that the board is going through; they need to do their due diligence, but if they end up coming back and picking me, then I’d say great.”

Utterback is also tackling the board’s goals for quality instructional practices and long-term fiscal resiliency.

The North Clackamas Education Association is working with the Oregon teachers union to create a pilot evaluation system for large districts like NCSD to meet state-mandated recertification requirements.

“That’s an example of really trying to get creative with our very limited resources,” Utterback said. We’re pretty thin across all our employee groups, so we look for grants when we can.”

Robin Troche, a teacher at Milwaukie High School and NCEA vice-president, said that the teacher evaluation methods have used similar “collaborative, interest-based” methods to the new bargaining techniques recently adopted with the district.

“Matt has the benefit of being a building principal, so he has the perspective of, ‘This is nice, but how long is it going to take to actually do it’ because you don’t want new tools to just sit in the garage,” Troche said.

One initiative of Utterback’s to improve academic performance, through training of the principals he hires, is also not costing the district any money. He said, with 15 minutes of observation and feedback from a principal, a teacher will grow as much in a year as a teacher who doesn’t get that feedback will improve performance throughout their career.

“My goal is to move principals to a place where they’re seen more as a coach than as an evaluator, but that doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

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