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September 1st, 2010 WW Editorial Staff | Rogue of the Week
 

Vivian Orlen

Grant money that’s not free.

     
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IMAGE: Portland Public Schools

In an Aug. 28 profile of Grant High School’s new principal, Vivian Orlen, The Oregonian described the principal’s recent decision to reconfigure Grant High’s main office as a “telling example” of her leadership style.

The Rogue Desk hopes the next big change Orlen makes at Grant before school starts next week is not quite as “telling”—nor as roguish as her ill-advised office makeover.

Over the summer, Orlen (who comes to Portland Public Schools from New York City) moved her office and the offices of Grant’s vice principals into glass-enclosed cubicles at the center of the main office to increase transparency. (Forget for a moment that some interactions with kids and employees actually require privacy.) As part of the move, the principal ordered the removal of a large counter and a bank of mailboxes. The new arrangement also required extensive electrical work, fresh plaster on walls and different carpeting. But Orlen believed the changes were important.

“In all my years in public education, I would never describe [our] work as confidential,” Orlen told The Oregonian. “Our work needs to be wide open.”

Which, incidentally, is why we’re naming Orlen Rogue of the Week.

In these tight budget times, Orlen’s redecorating job was expensive—at least $6,600, according to a PPS spokesman. Sure, that’s not nearly enough money to pay for a teacher’s salary. But it is enough to ensure a well-stocked supply of paper in the photocopier. It’s also an ample budget to pay for substitutes so teachers can take their classes on field trips. The money Orlen spent on a new office setup could have paid for 40 substitutes.

But cost wasn’t the only problem. At first, Orlen didn’t have PPS’s permission to perform the work, and she started it on her own without seeking a City of Portland permit. Both of these mistakes are significant at Grant, where the 87-year-old building contains material with asbestos and other hazards that require special handling.

Once the understaffed facilities department at the district learned of Orlen’s DIY project in mid-August, workers spent 33 hours cleaning up the mess she created. They could have been addressing more pressing maintenance needs at other schools.

Symbolic gestures such as see-through cubicles are fine. But the lack of judgment Orlen showed in brick-and-mortar matters may be more revealing than glass cubicles ever could be.

Orlen didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time. But Matt Shelby, the PPS spokesman, says principals have the power to make decisions such as Orlen’s and that hers was appropriate.

 
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