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April 9th, 2008 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

And The Walls Come Tumbling Down

Carole Smith applies quiet, strategic force to shake her predecessor’s regime at PPS.

     
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IMAGE: Waltonportfolio.com

Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers needed just weeks to capture Baghdad in 2003 and usher in the symbolic toppling of Saddam Hussein. Five years later, a good outcome in Iraq appears distant.

In Portland, Superintendent Carole Smith has taken longer to capture Portland Public Schools and topple the regime of her predecessor, Superintendent Vicki Phillips. But seven months in, the outcome for PPS appears much more positive.

Last week marked Smith’s biggest coup so far.

Smith announced in an email to top-level managers that she was eliminating three administrative offices established under Phillips and creating a new one to replace all three.

Beginning in July, an “academic officer” will oversee the work done by the redundant Offices of Teaching and Learning, of Schools, and of High Schools.

“The central office exists to serve our schools, not the other way around,” Smith wrote in her email.

That may read like bureaucratic babble, but the email is unmistakably a subtle critique of Phillips’ tenure, and a significant step, observers say.

Smith was more cautious with WW. “You get to do what you get to do because of what came before you,” Smith says. “I’m working really hard to look forward.”

Phillips declared victory early and often during her three-year tenure at the state’s largest school district before leaving nearly a year ago for a job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To detractors of the ex-superintendent, who had earned the nickname “Hurricane Vicki,” her exit strategy was clear: cut and run. Consider the K-8 reconfiguration of PPS’ elementary and middle schools and the reorganization of its high schools as examples.

Smith took over last October and has been slowly reworking Phillips’ agenda, cleaning up the messes Phillips left behind in Portland after it became clear Phillips’ mission was not accomplished. Smith says she wants to keep the urgency of Phillips’ work but lose the frenzy.

Last week’s change, displacing three of Phillips’ hires, may have been Smith’s boldest. But it’s not the first notable sign of PPS’s de-Vicki-fication. In November, Smith halted a move initiated by Phillips to relocate the popular Winterhaven School. Phillips had argued the school was too small to stay in its current location.

“I very much appreciate Superintendent Smith’s willingness to re-visit that decision,” says Winterhaven parent Rita Moore.

In January, the district announced plans to slow down discussions of rebuilding its aging high schools even as it moves forward with discussing plans for its other buildings, a shift by Smith that School Board member David Wynde called “absolutely correct.”

“Her approach to the conversation around high schools is that we need to have the program discussions first,” Wynde says.

In March, the School Board voted to settle contract negotiations with the district’s 500 custodians and food-service workers after a protracted battle that Smith helped resolve amicably.

“Carole was really open to having honest conversations with our members,” says Casey Filice, an organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 503.

Tom Gunn, the district’s labor negotiator under Phillips since December 2006, announced his resignation this month, to take effect in June. Mary Mertz, hired by Phillips in August 2005, will leave in May for a job with an online school. Mertz was responsible for overseeing the district’s special education program after Phillips made drastic cuts.

Moore, a strong critic of Phillips, maintains reservations about the district, but says, “I’m very hopeful (Smith is) going to start turning things around.”

 
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