How Did Carole Smith Get to Stay Another Year?

Your questions on Portland Public Schools leadership, answered.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith is leaving. But not anytime soon.

On June 21, Smith announced she'll retire in June 2017, at the end of her contract. Her announcement came after revelations that the district had for at least three years failed to alert students, parents and teachers to elevated levels of lead in school drinking water.

Smith's timeline means she will remain the center of controversy for another year, even as PPS prepares to send a construction bond to voters in November.

Here are the burning questions swirling around the superintendent as the district heads into a long, hot summer.

Did the lead scandal cause Carole Smith to announce her retirement?

Smith says she always planned to retire next June. But this was a disastrous spring.

The Oregonian reported elevated lead levels at two schools that had been kept secret for two months. WW revealed the names of dozens of schools where PPS apparently failed to disclose elevated lead levels for at least three years. PPS found 26 schools with high radon levels and acknowledges at least 20 schools with lead paint problems, along with other health hazards that will cost the district upward of $400 million to fix.

There's no indication yet that the school system has directly harmed children's health, but trust in the district has corroded. "It's very clear that the lead crisis is only the tip of the iceberg," says Portland School Board member Paul Anthony.

Both Anthony and School Board Chairman Tom Koehler say Smith decided to announce her retirement now because of the furor surrounding lead.

Who decided when Smith would retire?

Carole Smith did.

Koehler says Smith approached him with her decision to retire on June 21, the day of the announcement. By Koehler's account, Smith and he had for months been talking about how long she would stay on the job.

Smith claimed in her announcement that "the board has asked me to stay through the end of my contract in June 2017." But two board members, Anthony and Steve Buel, went public saying they weren't consulted in advance of the announcement; Anthony told WW he learned just eight minutes before the email went out to parents.

Koehler says he asked Smith to stay, but adds his request reflects the desire of a majority of the School Board.

Does the School Board really want her around for another year?

The majority of the board has so far accepted Smith's decision to stay another year.

Only one board member, Anthony, has publicly objected to Smith remaining, telling WW it is "absolute nonsense. She has created the crisis, and she does not have the ability to extricate herself and the district from the crisis," he says. "This culture of hiding problems has certainly been strengthened under her administration."

Koehler, Amy Kohnstamm and Pam Knowles say they support Smith staying on for a year. The other three board members have declined to say.

"It's not something for me to discuss in public," says Buel. "Who discusses employees in public?"

The support is ironic. A year ago, four of the seven School Board members were elected as part of a wave of dissatisfaction with district leadership and on a promise not to rubber-stamp the superintendent's decisions.

The board still has the power to fire Smith without cause. They just need to give three months' notice or severance pay for that period.

When the lead scandal began, the board retained the law firm Stoll Berne to investigate what went wrong. That report is due in early July. Yet by announcing her departure date now, Smith got out in front of any bad news—and the board let her.

"The intention seemed to be to diffuse the spotlight that's been on her," says Portland Association of Teachers president Gwen Sullivan. "It seems very intentional."

Why would the board want Smith to stay?

Before the lead crisis, Smith was enjoying a banner year. Negotiations with teachers were going smoothly, unlike two years ago when there was nearly a strike. It was only the second school year when she didn't have to oversee budget cuts. The four-year graduation rates in Portland rose to 74 percent last year, up from 53 percent in 2009. Her crowning achievement this year was the improvements seen at Jefferson High School, the city's traditionally African-American high school, where the graduation rate hit 80 percent last year—a 25-point jump from four years before.

Are parents and teachers OK with Smith staying?

It depends. Smith still has loyal defenders among parents. But many want her gone now.

"As superintendent, Carole is dangerously out of touch with her responsibilities," says Emily Petterson, a parent at Rose City Park School, where elevated lead levels were found. "It's hard to wish anything negative onto anyone, but the bottom line is that Carole needs to be held culpable."

Sullivan, the union president, says teachers are waiting for the results of the lead investigation—and they expect the board to act then. "They can't ignore whatever comes out," she says, "and I don't think they will."

How will Smith's sticking around affect the November school bond?

The construction bond slated for the November ballot could include up to $556.5 million in repairs.

But the vote on the bond issue has the potential to turn into a referendum on Smith's leadership.

"The ideal situation is a sense from the community that there's stable and effective leadership," says DHM Research vice president and political director John Horvick. "I would say it is partly a vote on people's confidence in PPS's leadership."

The school bond campaign has polled voter support, but not since news of the lead crisis broke in full, says Kohnstamm, who co-chairs the bond campaign.

Teachers, whose support is crucial, are skeptical. "We need new facilities," says Sullivan. "It's not that we don't, but the district has to show that it can manage itself."