Superintendent Vicki Phillips' last week at the helm of Portland Public School's shrinking ship was a "Mission Accomplished" tour de force, a 1-2-3 punch of positive publicity—minus the flight suit.
In that vein, Phillips' final message before departing for her new job in Seattle with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was clear: In her nearly three years in Portland, Phillips had steadied the finances of the school district, raised test scores and made nice with local corporations.
Here's what Phillips didn't say: Under her leadership, the district also offered a $620,000 golden parachute to fired human-resources director Steve Goldschmidt, alienated scores of parents (by hastily closing schools, reconfiguring nearly two dozen others and re-jiggering curricula) and subjected Jefferson High School to a tumultuous year with her ill-suited pick for campus principal, the departing Leon Dudley.
Phillips' farewell tour started last Monday—at her final School Board meeting. With television cameras rolling, School Board members Bobbie Regan, Doug Morgan and David Wynde applauded Phillips for her work and for putting together next year's "relatively no-cuts" budget. Financial stability? Check!
On Tuesday, Phillips announced at a press conference that the number of elementary- and middle-school students passing the state's writing exams increased about 14 percentage points, according to preliminary reports. Higher test scores? Check!
Then, on Wednesday, Phillips and executives from Nike, including CEO Mark Parker, descended on Boise-Eliot Elementary School in North Portland for the departing superintendent's final public relations flourish—a declaration that Portland schools' dependence on corporate giving is "innovative" despite its unreliability.
Phillips, her communications staff, and the executives from Nike were at the elementary school to get a glimpse of the summer kindergarten academy paid for with funds from a multimillion-dollar Nike grant. But they were also there to give television crews and reporters one last orchestrated look at Phillips' legacy, or at least the one she would like us to remember. Closing the achievement gap? You betcha!
Phillips declined WW's request for an exit interview. We had wanted to ask her what grade she would give herself for her work in Portland, her views on the continued controversy at Jefferson (which just welcomed its 21st administrator in 10 years) and the incomplete reforms she leaves behind in the Portland school district.
So in honor of Michael Moore and Roger and Me, Moore's 1989 valentine to the automobile industry in Flint, Mich., WW crashed Phillips' final press events to ask those unanswered questions.
The scene: The library of King Elementary School in Northeast Portland.
The purpose: A press conference to announce higher test scores in writing and a new principal at Jefferson High School.
Description: A handful of reporters watch a presentation of press releases about the test scores, and Phillips introduces new principal Cynthia Harris. After a prepared speech, Phillips opens the floor to questions. She declines to answer my first questions asking her to grade her performance and she won't say whether she's met "benchmarks." She says only that her goal was to improve outcomes for children.
I ask Phillips afterward about a recent comment she made in the Portland Tribune. Phillips was quoted as saying, "Nothing probably makes me madder in this whole amount of work than the fact that a very small few can continue to destroy Jefferson's image." I ask her to name names.
I'm not going to name names.
Shouldn't you clarify what you meant?
I always prefer to put my energy in those people who are willing to come to the table and be appropriately critical but also supportive and problem-solving.... I think it's pretty public who's been critical or not supportive, and I think there's always people who are on both sides of an issue and my point is that Jefferson has a lot of really positive things going on and it's time to get in there and problem-solve and help. And I think that's an appropriate point to make.
Does Tony Hopson [the influential president of Self Enhancement Inc., a nonprofit group that runs a charter school near Jeff] run Jefferson, as is rumored, or does the superintendent run Jefferson?
Cynthia Harris runs Jefferson. [Phillips then walks away.]
The scene: Boise-Eliot Elementary School in Northeast Portland, the site of a "summer academy" for kindergartners needing extra help.
The purpose: To thank Nike for its multimillion-dollar grant and showcase one new program that could help to close the achievement gap.
Description: Total chaos. Adults outnumber two dozen kindergartners, who are coloring, reading and looking confused. Sarah Carlin Ames, a communications department staffer from the school district, stands in the hallway mocking my questions from the previous day. After 30 minutes of playing with the kids, Phillips and CEO Mark Parker stand in front of a "swoosh" sign and agree to answer questions. I'm first.
Is Nike doing enough for public schools in Oregon?
What's wonderful about Nike's contribution is that they're helping us invest in three things we ultimately need to invest in ourselves, for the district. So to be able to prove that those things are effective and work, including this work for our most struggling and youngest learners is...[someone else interrupts]
[Another reporter asks:] Are you going to miss Portland?
I am definitely going to miss Portland. I have loved Portland. I ideally would have been here much longer, but an awesome opportunity came my way; one that I will get to continue to be an advocate and a partner for Portland. How often do you get to do that?
[I ask:] Are there any corporations you wouldn't take money from?
I think it depends on what the money is for. The wonderful thing about Nike is that Nike came to us and said, "This isn't just about our business and the fact that our employees are here and that we want to be involved. It's also about what's going to be most helpful to Portland Public Schools," and that's a tremendous kind of friendship and we're very grateful to them.
At one point during this day I ask Phillips to describe the most frustrating aspect of her job in Portland. "We're focusing on kindergartners now," she responded. That evening the Nike press conference airs on at least one local news station, Fox 12. Filling the camera lens? Smiling kindergartners and a beaming Vicki Phillips.
Phillips begins work at the Gates Foundation as its education director in August. She declined to say what her salary will be. However, tax records show that the person who held the position before her earned $340,000 in 2005.