Portland School Board Meets in Group Therapy, Wrestles With Distrust

"Obviously there are trust issues," says the interim superintendent. "I get all that."

The Portland School Board elections of May 2015 served as a districtwide referendum on the state of Portland Public Schools, with the election of two new members who signaled interest in ousting then-Superintendent Carole Smith.

Eighteen months later, Smith is gone.

But Tuesday, in a board retreat at PPS headquarters, the seven members of the board revealed lingering fissures over its role in school governance. The retreat, scheduled for four hours, often resembled a group-therapy session, with board member Pam Knowles singling out board member Steve Buel for, in her view, meddling in staff issues and eroding morale and Buel, in return, defending himself by telling Knowles not to put words in his mouth.

"Obviously there are trust issues," interim Superintendent Bob McKean told the group. "I get all that."

But McKean, who serves at the pleasure of the board as it searches for a permanent replacement, also questioned the eagerness of some board members to go around the superintendent to involve themselves in school business.

"It causes the district a great deal of trouble," said McKean, who added that the board's role should be to direct the superintendent as whole.

McKean said senior staff spend about a third of their time dealing with requests from board members.

"Why is that?" Buel shot back, alluding to community distrust over the district's ineffective handling of everything from lead contamination to principal turnover. "Isn't there a huge reason why?"

He added: "I'd rather do what you're suggesting, but we're not able to do that."

Buel used the example of PPS's well documented problems with a handful of ineffective principals, saying he wouldn't have had to get involved if PPS followed through on the problems.

"What would follow-through look like?" Knowles asked, her voice rising in irritation.

In some instances, we'd fire them, Buel said.

"It's not my job to fire a principal," Knowles responded.

"Your job is to hire the superintendent," McKean chimed in, drawing nods from Knowles.

Not surprisingly, the session ended without resolution.

"On the whole, I agree with Steve," said board member Paul Anthony.

Twenty minutes later, after a brief break for dinner, Knowles directed questions to staff about topics ranging from Russian immersion to early kindergarten. PPS's Russian immersion program at Kelly Elementary School educates many children from outside of the district, mostly from the David Douglas School District. Yet the building is over capacity.

"Might be something we should look at," Knowles told Assistant Superintendent Chris Russo.