With a Week to Go Before Election Day, Portland Public Schools Can't Stop Hitting Itself

After the ouster of Superintendent Carole Smith, the district has continued a pattern of self-sabotage.

(Grant Kratzer)

Entering this month, Portland Public Schools couldn't afford a single misstep. But the school district just can't break the habit.

The district belatedly chose this election to ask voters for $790 million to rebuild and repair its aging schools. But on May 4, with ballots on voters' kitchen tables, PPS gave them three pieces of bad news in less than five hours.

Its human resources director abruptly resigned. A Multnomah County jury found the district owed two employees $1 million in a discrimination lawsuit. And most damaging of all, PPS's anointed superintendent candidate, Donyall Dickey, declared he wasn't coming to Portland after all.

Dickey's botched recruitment caps a series of screwups that imperils passage of the bond.

The School Board is asking voters to trust the district's ability to execute a risky, complex, multiyear construction program. Officials handled a previous bond effectively, but poor management decisions about personnel and policy, and a continuing aversion to transparency, threaten to undermine voters' confidence.

"The kind of news we saw last week absolutely affects voters," says Jim Moore, a professor of political science at Pacific University. "It's going to be a low-turnout election, and the polling showed soft support. Those who are paying attention to the election will also pay attention to such news."

If voters say no to Measure 26-193 on May 16, last week's news could be the reason. But the terrible day didn't occur in a vacuum: It's part of a pattern by PPS of hiding bad news, making decisions behind closed doors, and rushing its announcements.

(Grant Kratzer)

Here's a recent history of district mistakes, all of them committed since revelations last May of lead in the drinking water showcased the district's need for repairs and reforms.

1. WW revealed last May that the district had hidden elevated lead levels in the drinking water at dozens of school buildings, but for at least four years hadn't told teachers and parents. Yet after the news broke, the board continued to support then-Superintendent Carole Smith until an independent report of the extent of mismanagement forced her to resign in July. "The board's job is to supervise the superintendent," says Scott Bailey, a longtime parent activist now running for the School Board. "That wasn't happening. If Carole was a weak manager, why wasn't the board all over that?"

2. Over a weekend last July, board vice chair Amy Kohnstamm and others pulled the plug on the fall campaign for what is now a $790 million school bond. The bond was unlikely to pass in November, but Kohnstamm and the board's abrupt decision—made without full explanation to parents and teachers—resulted in a large student walkout, which the district also botched. Benson High School, where students are predominantly minorities and from lower-income families, was locked down while students from comparatively affluent Lincoln High School freely roamed the streets. "That was a missed opportunity," Bailey says. "I wish they'd sent the superintendent over to Benson and allowed the kids out."

3. After the board appointed former Centennial School District Superintendent Bob McKean to replace Smith on an interim basis last August, McKean wasn't on hand to welcome students back to school. The reason: He didn't have a valid superintendent's license. It had lapsed during his retirement. McKean's renewal had to be hustled through the state process.

4. In November, in an effort to improve transparency, district officials tried to hire a new top lawyer. They neglected to Google him. A Florida newspaper reported that the proposed new transparency czar, lawyer Wes Bridges, had in 2009 been convicted of violating Florida's public records law. In another blow to transparency, the district later sued activist Kim Sordyl and former WW reporter Beth Slovic in a public records dispute. "The culture at PPS needs to be dismantled," says Virginia La Forte, a longtime district activist running for the School Board. "Accountability, fiscal responsibility and transparency: It was and still is missing at every level of the district."

5. Last week, the board made a stunning announcement—Atlanta schools administrator Donyall Dickey, introduced March 3 as the district's next superintendent, would not come to Portland. The district declined to say precisely what it had learned during a due-diligence review, but the deal-breaker seemed to be Dickey's unwillingness to commit 100 percent of his time to PPS. That probably should have been obvious: Dickey had worked in three cities in the past five years while aggressively promoting his outside consulting work. "I'm not sure why it took two months to determine there wasn't a fit," La Forte says. "I would think a simple background check would have turned that up."

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that Amy Kohnstamm worked with others on the decision to postpone the bond campaign from November to May, and offered some explanation to parents and teachers.

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