Portland Public Schools Fights Over a Manager Who Manages No One

The district's personnel struggles linger on, months after Carole Smith's departure.

(Craig Winzer)

Carole Smith's July resignation as superintendent of Portland Public Schools was supposed to herald a new era of transparency and accountability.

But four months after Smith's departure—in the wake of a damning report that highlighted her administration's "absence of diligent inquiry" into widespread lead contamination in schools—dysfunction in the central office continues to fester.

Exhibit A: the case of Richard Gilliam, a once highly regarded midlevel employee who was relieved of all supervisory duties in late 2015 or early 2016. (The two sides don't agree on a date.) He continues to collect his manager's salary of $87,000 a year, despite managing no one.

A year later, resolution seems elusive. Gilliam, who is African-American, has hired prominent Portland civil rights lawyer Beth Creighton, who says she intends to pursue racial discrimination claims against the district.

Kim Nguyen, a retired PPS senior manager who worked in translation services until 2014, says the situation speaks to a culture of administrative neglect under former Superintendent Smith.

"Richard and his department are one of the very pointed examples of what happened under Carole Smith," she says. "Under Smith's leadership, too many people obtained jobs and promotions based on their loyalty to her. We are paying for that loyalty now."

The Portland School Board has vowed to help interim Superintendent Bob McKean reform and reorganize the district's central administration. As of October, McKean said PPS had 55 central office vacancies, owing largely to departures following Smith's resignation.

The Gilliam mess, which PPS has tried to keep under wraps by declining to release investigative reports, is indicative of significant personnel turmoil inside the district's administrative offices.

Observers worry that disorder could undermine already tepid support for a planned $750 million construction bond campaign in May. Newly released results of a voters' poll conducted in June showed respondents narrowly supported a bond package that expensive, making it a tough sell even in the best of times.

"If it continues, it will make the bond campaign very difficult," says Paul Anthony, a member of the School Board. "I really do believe it's being addressed, and over the next several months we'll see evidence of that."

Gilliam's case shows how deeply dysfunctional district headquarters became under Smith.

Gilliam, a community organizer, joined PPS in a temporary position in August 2013 after working with Jon Isaacs on the district's successful 2012 construction bond campaign. (Isaacs went on to become the district's chief spokesman.)

Gilliam rose to the job of director in the school and family partnerships department in September 2014. "People for weeks and months were telling me I'd be perfect," he says. "I was just overwhelmed with people saying, 'You have to apply for this.'"

Gilliam missed the deadline to apply, so Assistant Superintendent Harriet Adair, promoted under Smith, reopened the application process for him, PPS records show. But the district, Gilliam says, did not set him up for success.

PPS administrators handed him the job leading a department of five people who were supposed to help parents become stronger educational advocates for their children. But PPS kept his staff in a district building five miles from his desk in the central office for most of the 2014-15 school year. "It wasn't the best way to allow someone to start," he says. "Despite the obstacles, I was still excited about the work."

What happened next, starting in August 2015, is laid out in school district records that PPS has declined to make public, saying they include disciplinary actions that can't be disclosed. A review of other PPS records that WW obtained fill in the details of Gilliam's toxic relationship with staff. Gilliam's former employees declined to comment.

It started, Gilliam says, with an investigation by him into a few of his employees' conduct. (He declined to provide details.)

That investigation, says Gilliam's attorney, prompted his staff to complain about his behavior, which emails describe as harassing and bullying. Gilliam denies the characterization. "I've never used threatening language with employees," he says.

PPS then launched an investigation of Gilliam, his attorney says.

"Clearly, any white manager who was being complained about for trying to hold his staff accountable wouldn't be investigated," says Beth Creighton, his attorney. "It's turning the process on its head."

For months, while PPS conducted the investigation, Gilliam wasn't allowed to visit district headquarters or interact with his staff. "I was advised I couldn't be around them," he says.

After a January 2016 car accident, Gilliam went on temporary medical leave. But when he returned to the district around April, he asked about the conclusions of the investigation. "They said basically, 'We'll get back to you,'" he says now.

Gilliam no longer supervises any employees. Work in his department appears to be languishing; a website for the department's so-called Parent Academy hasn't been updated since last year. But Gilliam says he's still doing work for the district to improve parent engagement.

Bob McKean, the district's interim superintendent, says he is not pleased with the way the situation with Gilliam and his department has played out. "I'm not happy with what's happened and I am addressing it," he says.

McKean declined to say how.

"I'm aware of the situation and I'm in the process of dealing with it," he says. "Make no mistake."

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