On paper, Sara Gandarilla seemed the perfect fit for Rigler Elementary School.

Gandarilla—who took over as Rigler principal last fall—came armed with four years of bilingual teaching experience in Woodburn. That's important, because Rigler is a dual-language immersion school in Spanish and English.

 

On April 24, Gandarilla went on medical leave and announced she would seek a transfer to another school next year. One week earlier, several teachers at Rigler had filed a formal complaint with Portland Public Schools against Gandarilla, alleging she'd created a "hostile, threatening and intimidating working environment." Gandarilla referred WW's questions about her leave to PPS.

Now parents and teachers are left wondering who will take Gandarilla's place and whether the new principal will make lasting contributions to the school.

"It's deeply personal to those of us who go to our neighborhood school," says Rigler mom Laura Moulton, "which is already lacking in resources and doesn't have everything it needs to be successful."

Rigler parents are not alone in their feelings of uncertainty. Eight schools in the Portland district have lost principals midway through the school year, upending school communities to a degree parents and teachers can't recall happening previously.

The reasons some principal leave are common, such as medical problems. But others are far more dramatic—an arrest, poor performance, or formal complaints by parents or teachers.

Parents and teachers say the tumult is a symptom of something bigger in Portland Public Schools: The district does a poor job of involving parents and teachers in the principal selection process, sometimes resulting in bad pairings of principals and schools that later explode midyear.

"People are not happy about having so little say," says Kathleen Jahn, a parent of a Glencoe Elementary School kindergartner and a math teacher at Beach K-8 School.

PPS spokesman Jon Isaacs acknowledges it's unusual to see so much churn—there were no midyear ousters of principals in the past two school years. He says district officials know the turnover is not best for kids. He also says the district listens to community members.

"We strive to take parent input and make it a serious part of the process," he says.

Nathan Means, parent of a fourth-grader at Rigler, doesn't buy it. He says PPS announced Gandarilla's hiring in August, just eight days after seeking parent input. "It seems like there barely is a process," he says.

Some parents at Buckman Arts Elementary School say they were also the victims of poor matchmaking.

Parents say Principal Robin Morrison, who moved to Buckman from Woodlawn Elementary School last summer, wasn't responsive to their concerns. Morrison went on temporary medical leave March 30. Parents learned April 23, the day after Morrison was supposed to return to Buckman, that she would remain on leave indefinitely. Morrison couldn't be reached for comment. 

Kelly Elementary School in the Lents neighborhood experienced the most public blowup. PPS put Principal Marti Diaz on paid leave in October after Portland police arrested her on suspicion of domestic violence. 

Diaz was accused of hitting her spouse during a camping weekend with other PPS principals ("Supermess," WW, Jan. 28, 2015). Prosecutors never charged Diaz with a crime, but the district has kept her on leave. It's not clear whether it will try to fire her or move her to another school.

James John and Glencoe elementary schools swapped principals earlier in the year. Scott K-8 School's principal, Verenice Gutierrez, left PPS in December after accepting a job with the Pacific Educational Group, the private contractor that runs Courageous Conversations, a program to promote racial equity. Hosford Middle School also lost its principal. So did Richmond Elementary for several months.

The turnover might not have been so noteworthy if it had happened during summer break, when Superintendent Carole Smith typically moves principals to fill holes created by retirements or promotions.

In fall 2014, for example, about a quarter of the district's 80-plus principals were new to their assignments because of shuffling. That's in line with annual turnover rates at other large districts, according to the Center for Public Education, which says the rate typically ranges from 15 to 30 percent.

Tom Koehler, a PPS board member, says the district needs to do more to ensure there are dynamic principals at every school. There's already movement to address one shortcoming: The board recently launched a conversation about increasing principals' pay.

"The whole system needs improvement," Koehler says. "There's no doubt."

Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers union, says PPS needs to improve the principal selection process because principals set the tone for the whole school community.

"It makes the biggest difference," she says. "When you have a good principal, it creates a much more positive place for kids to learn.”