Another School Down

Chris Bouneff

I consider my family lucky. My oldest son is in first grade at one of the best schools in the Portland school district. The state has given the school an "exceptional" rating for two straight years. Enrollment has held steady even as the district-wide population shrinks. The cost for delivering an education on a per student basis is ranked 40th out of 60 schools -- taxpayers are getting a good deal for the dollars they spend.

The school is one of only two year-round educational programs offered in the district, which is one reason families transferred into the school. For many of us who transfer in, the school is close enough to walk to, so we consider it a neighborhood school.

The families are dedicated to the school. So are the teachers and staff. The kids love the place.

This is a recipe for success; you can't get better than exceptional. Yet, Portland Public Schools wants to close us down.

Such is the plight of a family attending Edwards Elementary School in Southeast Portland.

And I'm still trying to figure out why.

For all the trumpeting of Vickie Phillips' leadership and bold proposals, especially with underperforming schools in North and Northeast Portland, we're a school included in the restructuring of PPS that doesn't fall into the closure category. The so-called "data-driven" process that we're supposed to use to judge whether a school should be closed didn't apply in our case -- all the data are positive. Closing Edwards is neither bold nor visionary nor an example of leadership.

A few weeks ago, families gathered at the school were told that Edwards was included because we were no longer "viable" as a school. Phillips confirmed that in her final proposal released today, which still includes Edwards among the schools to be closed.

This despite its academic excellence, its efficiency, and its full academic offerings, including PE and music. For my family, the year-round program is the reason we chose the school. For others, they came because Edwards' size, at about 200 students, ensures an intimacy that cannot be matched elsewhere in the district.

We are essentially a one-hall school. Nine total classrooms, all utilized. My son knows almost every student in the school, regardless of grade level. The place and its intimacy has grown on my son, who is excelling in this environment.

When you look at the hard data with an objective eye, it's easy to understand why The Oregonian called for Edwards to remain open, concluding that "exceptional schools with reasonable costs should be protected, not dismantled."

We do face challenges as a small school, similar to the challenges the district faces. The local levy expires this year, and next year we have to cut, in education jargon, 0.5 FTE. That's huge for our small school. As families, we met recently to talk about fund-raising more seriously than in the past to see if we can meet this challenge.

We know Salem won't help our cause and that Gov. K is AWOL on education, as he is on so many issues. After next academic year, the local income tax expires and all hell breaks loose in Multnomah County.

We recognize reality and that closing Edwards could become a true necessity, even through the savings in consolidation are small.

But it doesn't make sense now. Maybe a year from now, two years from now, we should look at moving our year-round program into Abernethy Elementary School, which is the district's current proposal.

Some Abernethy families won't stay. The district didn't spend any time courting them with the benefits of a year-round schedule, which takes dedication, especially for families with multiple children. The district doesn't have a year-round middle school or high school, so some families will have children on two different school calendars. You have to want year-round to go through that hassle.

And not all Edwards families will move to Abernethy for various reasons. Mine may, because we're committed to a year-round education. But we also are considering a private school, just like many other Edwards families, because Phillips is only willing to make a two-year commitment to the new Abernethy.

Why bother going through a traumatic change if two years from now, our school closes again? It will take at least one year to persuade the Abernethy families who do stay that year-round is a positive change before we as a school can actively recruit new families to boost enrollment to become "viable" again.

In a different editorial, The Oregonian called on Edwards families, among other vocal advocates, to transfer that energy to the statewide school-funding problems.

I'd like to, but many of us are too busy dealing with potential change. If Edwards stays open, we'll be busy raising money and recruiting families to stay viable. If it closes, those of us who move to Abernethy will be busy instituting change to try to remain viable so we don't close again two years from now.

Which leads me to my request of Portland Public Schools. Don't put Edwards and Abernethy through this turmoil yet.

Rather, let Edwards explore our options and be a model of excellence for other schools, maybe even the spark that spreads year-round education to other interested schools, including Abernethy.

The Edwards staff and students have achieved "exceptional" for two years running and held steady on enrollment despite closure threats for the past three years. Imagine what we might do if unleashed, free to recruit families and raise money to maintain our excellence.

Or, hell, just close us. It seems to be Edwards' plight to close, even though this proposal is supposed to be about closing the achievement gap and saving money.

I may not understand the unstated reasons, but I suppose I don't have to. We have visionary leadership now, and as a widget, I guess it's my job to blindly follow it.

Comments

  • Sid Anderson (unverified)
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    Hi Chris,

    Great piece. I've been following the school closure story and I think it's so unfortunate. I know a lot of people think Phillips is great, but I'm having a hard time thinking that, especially when I read about schools like yours. I can't even begin to imagine what parents like yourself must be feeling.

    So much has gone downhill since M5. Something has to be done, and closing schools like yours is not the answer.

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    Enrollment projections for Edwards are "soft" projections because of the different (not bad) year-round-school model. A superintendent looks at enrollment trends over a 2, 5 and 10 year projection factoring in birthrates. The trend in Portland is for young childless couples to live in the city along with the baby boomers. The drastic drop in enrollment in PPS's enrollment over the years is caused by families with children moving to the burbs. The Oregonian whimped out on the school closure recommendations.

    A good superintendent is fiscally responsible. Phillips is doing her job. The decisions she is recommending to the Board should have been made as far back as Matt Prophet's tenure. Govenor Kulongkowski is far from absent in the education discussion. Would you prefer Mannix? Teddy is a huge supporter of public education and he is realistic. Reform Dems are socially progressive and fiscally conservative. Do we really want the state government to be run by the Republicans who are racking up a deficit our children and grandchildren will spend their entire life times paying back?

    Children thrive, it is the adults who send the "ain't it awful" messages in front of them who do them a disservice. Better to teach children that change is part of life, that things don't always go the way we hope they will, that with change comes new challenges and opportunties.

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    Chris, as a parent living in the Abernethy capture area, I feel your pain. There's lots of evidence that a school's size affects children's ability to learn, and that kids in small schools do better. I realize full well that it could have been Abernethy--another small school--that was on the chopping block instead. In fact, that may be the case a few years from now.

    A couple random thoughts: it feels to me like PPS has abandoned the "neighborhood school" paradigm, choosing instead to focus on specialized programs like Spanish, Japanese, Math & Science and Art at various magnets. I think that this has happened because of parent demand, as a way to retain students in the city and a way to try and provide a high-quality, focused curriculum at a more efficient cost.

    However, it feels to me like something is being lost in the process. First, the small, neighborhood school, which used to be a unifying force in neighborhoods, is now just a place at which most parents drop their kids off. Kids who go to a school far away don't play with other neighborhood kids, neignbors don't know each other and people of all ages become more disconnected from the school. And more and more parents are forced to drive their kids from school to activity, increasing traffic and the strain on everyone in the family to keep up with all there is to do.

    Which makes me think that schools like Edwards and Abernethy end up being on the chopping block because their more general curriculums aren't as "showy" as the Japanese immersion or Math & Science magnet schools. But I'm not sure those schools are better, just focused differently. If small schools didn't work, why is the Gates Foundation putting so much money into promoting them?

  • anonymous coward (unverified)
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    Great post.

    On an emotional level, this is connected for me with the recent election. Just as it is hard for me to imagine that so many Americans actually voted for W, it is hard for me to understand, and perhaps finally impossible for me to accept, that my fellow citizens are flat-out unwilling to pay what it costs for quality schools. It's beyond simple civic immaturity; it's the stinking underside of the Reagan-Bush "thousand points of light" "we-can-get-something-for-nothing" shinola.

    If you think that schools are wasting money, then by all means go to visit them. See the old books, the broken-down copiers, the outdated computers, the libraries that are struggling valiantly to be worthy of the name.

    Then say hello to the heroes: the teachers and parents that make the choice, every day, to care.

    It's not Vicki's fault. It's the fault of everyone who's voted no on a school bond issue, and especially the damnable fault of everyone who drank the Measure 5 Kool-Aid. That sound you hear is the rustle of chickens coming home to roost.

  • nader (unverified)
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    I start off by saying I feel for any student and his or her family who is losing a neighborhood school. Ideally there would be a enough money for schools to offer great programs and serve all the students in all neighborhoods.

    The reality is that there simply isn't enough money (why we lack the funds is another issue altogether) to keep open all these, admitedly good, small schools.

    The issue that seems to be ignored each time a family with a child at one of these 'great' schools comes forward bemoaning the school closure proposals is this: why are is your child entitled to attend such a great school, with PE and music classes, good teachers, and small class sizes, while children at other schools are sitting in over crowded classrooms with shrinking school years, and less variety in classes?

    Public schools should offer a basic education to all students, and to the extent that some schools are failing in this obligation, then we need to consider how fair it is that those who are ahead of the curve are getting a better quality than the rest of the schools.

  • Chris Bouneff (unverified)
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    A couple of replies:

    Leslie -- You're right. Witness the demise of Richmond Elementary School. The principal there was allowed to kill the neighborhood program in favor of the Japanese immersion program. On another note, the super's proposal calls for only a two-year commitment to Abernethy. After that, the school will be on the chopping block. How's them apples? Kids going through two closures in two years.

    Pam -- How wise you are. You're so right. Ted has been great. What bold leadership. And, heck, I should start telling my kids that change is part of life. Oh, wait, I do that already. Never mind.

    And Nader -- The reality is there won't be much if any savings from closing Edwards. The district admitted as such and said that this move isn't being done to save money. Edwards, just like all elementary schools, has up to 30 kids per classroom. And the school is nearly full. It succeeds because it's year-round program is an exceptional educational model -- and because of its dedicated staff and families. My first-grader can talk about the impressionist period and pointillism all because of a parent volunteer who teaches art.

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    Pam, just like the several other times folks have reminded you, the Governor's name remains "Kulongoski". No W. That's the president.

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    Nader writes <<< The issue that seems to be ignored each time a family with a child at one of these 'great' schools comes forward bemoaning the school closure proposals is this: why are is your child entitled to attend such a great school, with PE and music classes, good teachers...<<<<

    Every child should be entitled to good schools. The point isn't to lower the bar for the district's administrators, but to set examples --at the most basic level, our neighborhood schools-- on what succeeds for our kids.

    Frank Dufay

  • nader (unverified)
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    I agree with Frank above: every child should be entitled to good schools. But to the extent that some are getting sub-par schools, and others are getting "exceptional" schools, we have a serious problem especially when resources are scarce.

    Public schools are to ensure that all children get a basic floor of education, to steal a phrase from the Shrub, that no child gets left behind. I find it objectionable that we are subsidizing 'exceptional educations' for the lucky ones near good schools, and leaving others woefully underserved. It's sad to say but when resources are limited, then the exceptional schools must be the ones to suffer the cuts because, at the end of the day society hasn't agreed to provide our kids with a great education, merely a basic one. When we are failing in that obligation public education is failing.

    And I'm sorry but I just can't accept at face value the notion that closing these schools is not going to save money. Basic operational costs are duplicated for each school, so to the extent that you can eliminate some of the inherent costs (custodial, administrative, etc), and benefit from the economies of scale by condensing schools, then there has got to be some level of savings.

  • Ruth Adkins (unverified)
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    Great post Chris, and I totally agree with Leslie, PPS has become enamored of "focus options" as a way of retaining families who would otherwise choose private schools. The cost, size and efficiency of these "special" programs are never questioned; instead, neighborhood schools are always on the chopping block. We are considered expendable.

    PPS has never fully grasped that for many families, attending their neighborhood school is their first choice, a deliberate decision to value community and neighborhood over fancy boutique programs.

    As the Oregonian editorial so eloquently stated, neighborhood schools are the crown jewels of Portland. Unfortunately, PPS has no qualms about consolidating schools and busing/driving kids out of their neighborhood, despite the community and health benefits of kids walking to their neighborhood school, as well as the proven academic benefits of smaller school environments.

    I am concerned that PPS's apparent plan to consolidate neighborhood schools, closing even highly successful, efficient schools, will result in a system where an elite travels around town to the magnet program of their choice while those families who don't have this luxury get bused into consolidated schools that are no longer connected with neighborhoods.

    A few random points: Kids in smaller school communities, especially kids at risk, do better in school and are more likely to graduate from high school, in the long run. This saves us all money. The cost savings from closing a school the size of Edwards or Smith is literally a drop in the bucket given the huge shortfalls PPS faces. It's a symbolic move that, in my opinion, causes more harm than the measly fiscal benefit it brings in. * In the case of Smith, the population projections (and the Smith community's testimony) is that the numbers of young children in the neighborhood. will increase over the next ten years. So they are proposing to keep this excellent, successful, efficient school open and look forward to increased enrollment? No, they will close it and bus the kids across I-5, while planning to hold onto the mothballed building so they can (I suppose) reopen it in a few years. It just doesn't make sense.

  • Eric Stachon (unverified)
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    Excellent, excellent post, Chris! And for the Pam's of the world that don't seem to understand why us Edwards parents are outraged, let me toss in my 2 cents.

    No one can or would argue that Vicki Phillips isn't decisive. But let's not confuse decisiveness and leadership. After all, Dubya seems pretty decisive, but I doubt few Blue Oregon readers consider him leadership material.

    While it makes me uncomfortable to make that comparison, something is terribly wrong when a proposal is touted as being "data driven" but the data just doesn't hold up. Edwards is NOT the problem by any measure you choose, be it enrollment. cost or achievement.

    It would perhaps have been more honest if the Superintendent had said, "we have to close some schools, let's do it quick, the process is arbitrary, you're small, there's a school sort of close by with a lot of empty classrooms, I pick you...sorry." Certainly more truthful than claiming your decision came after careful analysis of district-wide data when the data doesn't support what you're proposing.

    I agree with Leslie. The district seems to have a "hands off" policy for the magnet/immersion programs at the expense of neighborhood schools. We actually looked at several magnet programs before deciding that being able to walk to our exceptional neighborhood school was a determining factor.

    My question for the district...why is that not as valid (or even more valid) a choice as deciding to bus/drive my kid around town to get to school?

    Edwards is 4/10 mile from our house. If this proposal is adopted, our new "neighborhood" school (Abernethy) will be 1.6 miles from our house. Try walking that with a 6 year old.

    So much more to say, but it's getting late. It's just so maddening that this proposal makes no sense, the super's mind was made up, public be damned and lots of parents dedicated to schools and our community feel betrayed.

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    Thanks Eric, Ruth and Chris for reminding me that I am not the only parent to think that there's value in attending (and yes, walking to) your neighborhood school. I was beginning to think I was the only one.

    Maybe we should start a new group -- "Portland Parents for Neighborhood Schools?" I'm only half-joking...

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    <<< PPS has never fully grasped that for many families, attending their neighborhood school is their first choice, a deliberate decision to value community and neighborhood over fancy boutique programs.<<<

    My step son Parker --and ALL his friends-- graduated from Abernethy last year. None elected to go to the Abernethy's "environmnetal middle school" and instead went on to Hosford. The kids in this "magnet" program were mostly seen as outsiders, not part of his circle of neighborhood friends. Friends who he walks to school with, hangs out with after school, and who treat our kitchen and food supply as a free neighborhood Plaid Pantry.

    There is NO substitute for a good neighborhood school. Kids walking, taking responsibility for their own transportation. Basketball practice after school without hassle, continued later into the evening on one of the many hoops on our block.

    Frank Dufay

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    And don't forget the value of neighbors "knowing" the neighborhood kids and vice versa. None of my three children is old enough to go to Abernethy yet, but already kids say "hi" to them as they walk to and from school. I also recognize and can greet the kids (and their parents) who walk by my house every day. And, presumably, I am part of the village that keeps an eye on everyone's kids and helps them stay out of trouble. I expect other adults in our neighborhood will do the same for my kids.

    I know it sounds utopian, but I really do believe it works.

  • hilsy (unverified)
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    What I find interstingly absent from this discussion is any mention as to the reccomended changes to schools in North and Northeast Portland.

    For decades, despite many vocal protests and complaints, schools in these areas have generally been allowed to do a poor job.

    Any comments on what people think the impact will be in North and Northeast Portland??

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    I share so many of the concerns you all have identified. I've pasted below the letter I sent to the School Board today. I'm glad we're having an open discussion about the value of neighborhood schools.

    Dear School Board Members:

    I am a parent of two pre-school aged children, one of whom we intend to enroll at Abernethy Elementary in the fall. While I understand that this Board and Superintendent Phillips have many hard decisions to make, I hope that you will cleave to the mission of public education and that you will not impose a year-round calendar on Abernethy and the families it serves.

    Oregon has a uniquely democratic culture, in part because of the widespread support for public education. During the 1960s and 1970s, while public school systems were crumbling in many other cities -- and the affluent in those cities were sending their children to private schools -- Oregon schools survived and thrived. The sons of millworkers went to school with the daughters of lawyers, and the families of both worked together to make public schools vibrant community centers.

    I am increasingly worried about the district’s fascination with special-focus schools. While I value the role of the arts and languages and many other specialties in providing a well-rounded education, it has a backlash that we may not recognize until it is too late. The increasing specialization of education at the elementary level exacerbates the sorting process that is going on in the country. As adults, our identities are becoming more and more calcified. We live in a blue state or a red state. We live and work only with people whose interests and opinions are closely aligned with our own. I am afraid that special-focus schools, while valuable for many families, ritualize that sorting process. With the trend toward every elementary school becoming a special-focus school, our children will need only to associate with others who share their very specific interests and world-view. They lose a very important opportunity to intimately experience other points of view and other life experiences.

    I think we underestimate the value of the neighborhood school in countering these trends. In neighborhood schools, children come together in a community that is not created by point-of-view. Families with different interests and philosophical orientations become part of a collective whose purpose is to look out for one another’s children and, by extension, for one another. It teaches all of us in those communities -- children and adults -- to be better citizens.

    While it is arguable that the year-round calendar that Superintendent Phillips has proposed for Abernathy is not as focused an interest as art or Spanish, it still would be an isolating choice for Abernathy. As one of only two schools in the district to observe a year-round calendar, our students would lose the opportunity to participate in camps and other programs that are set up to support the traditional school calendar. Moreover, I am convinced that many of my neighbors will opt out of sending their children to Abernethy if the year-round calendar is adopted. Because there is no corresponding middle school or high school, and because the city-wide infrastructure is just not adequate for some families, the year-round calendar would tear at the fabric of the Abernethy community and the neighborhoods it serves.

    It would not be an exaggeration to say that I am worried about the state of the Republic. I see neighborhood schools – just simple, strong neighborhood schools – as the fulcrum of democracy, and it would be heart-breaking for the district to abandon them. With that in mind, I urge you not to impose a year-round calendar at Abernathy unless the district also takes serious steps to transition toward a year-round calendar for the entire district.

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    Abernethy and Edwards are 1.37 miles apart.

    I don't know the attendance boundaries, but as far as I can tell from the map, Edwards sits close to the eastern edge of its boundary. If true, many current Edwards children may live a mile or closer to Abernethy. No, it won't be three or four blocks any more. It may be 10-15. Not exactly across the city.

    One of the arguments forwarded against closing Edwards is that it is designated "exceptional." That same argument may be used as a reason for closure: the Edwards children (and community) is probably more easily 'transported' to another similarly situated nearby school.

    People have also used the concept of "small schools" inaccurately. The Gates foundation initiative is targeted as high schools exceeding 2000 students, not elementary schools of 300-400. According to the ERIC Digest (http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-923/small.htm), "small" is usually understood to mean "300 or less). Edwards is definitely small, but the resultant school will not be "big". It will have just under 400 students (and with enrollment trends, that will probably decrease over the years).

    Then there are the realities of the neighborhood surrounding Edwards. I don't have detailed figures in front of me, but we were just driving by Edwards today. It is increasingly surrounded by upscale apartments and condos along Belmont extending to Hawthorne. Do we think that the long run population trends in the Hawthorne/Belmont area points to an increasing or decreasing student population?

    If the latter, isn't it better to get the closure done now, since it is likely inevitable, and establish a vital, working school at Abernethy, which is, as Leslie has pointed out in the past, an excellent school in its own right?

  • Chris Bouneff (unverified)
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    Paul -- One of the biggest problems isn't necessarily closing Edwards now vs. in the future because of some vague concept of inevitability. The biggest obstacle here is forcing Abernethy families to go to a year-round calendar with no effort to court families there on the benefits. Year-round is a superior model of education vs. the traditional calendar, particularly at the elementary grade levels.

    But it is a departure from a calendar that's been around for a long, long time. I chose Edwards and year-round because, after years of looking at the benefits of a year-round education, I was sold on its merits. Luckily for me, it's in my neighborhood, although I had to transfer in my son.

    When I was a PR officer at the Evergreen S.D. in Vancouver, we looked at transitioning several lower-performing elementary schools to a year-round calendar. We spent time through community meetings explaining the concepts. And we brought in parents and teachers from two Oregon school districts that had gone through the transition to talk to families about the benefits and the downfalls.

    In the end, Evergreen didn't make the transition during my time there -- primarily because it takes time to persuade people to adopt a change. PPS isn't making that effort here.

    If, indeed, the super's commitment to the "new" Abernethy is only two years, that gives the school little time to become viable. It will lose attendence next year because of such a drastic change. Year one will be taken up with the transition. Year two the school community may possibly be ready to recruit families to enroll.

    But that may be too late, though, because it could be designated for closure by the end of year two.

    As I wrote in my original post, it may be a good idea somewhere down the road to merge into Abernethy. But you can't force it on that community. PPS should use Edwards as a model to persuade schools such as Abernethy that year-round is the way to go.

  • Beavograd (unverified)
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    I've been a silent reader for a while but can't hold my fingers silent anymore. It is outrageous and so not true that Phillips is a great leader and is doing all of these closures as a way to show fiscal responsibility and tough leadership. This a carefully crafted Vicki Phillips media campaign with no basis in reality.

    Look at the facts. I'm close to a couple of people in the school district who know what's going on. Since she's arrived "fiscal responsibility" isn't what describes Vicki Phillips. She has done nothing but spend, spend, spend. Take a look at some of the positions she's added since her arrival (and these aren't filling vacancies these are NEW positions). The numbers are salary and don't include all the nice benefits.

    Director of Teaching (100,000+ plus a secretary) Director of Secondary Education (100,000+ plus a secretary) Executive Chief of Operations ($140,000+) Personal executive assistant (45,000) Charter Schools Director Budget Manager Personal Financial Manager (Scherzinger at half his former salary) Communications Consultant ($80,000+ Carlin-Ames from the search firm that hired her)

    These are just the ones off the top of my head. I am not a financial expert but it looks like close to 1,000,000 without all the new offices, fancy computers, media equipment that she supposedly has had various departments by for her and her select few.

    And this doesn't even get to all the consultants that everyone says is running around the district.

    I don't see any of these new positions located in schools or providing direct services to kids. Just two of these positions could save Edwards and I bet all combined could save all the schools.

    Sorry, but this isn't what I call leadership. I call this a Vicki Phillips branding campaign at the expense of our schools and children. Good luck Chris.

    Beavograd

  • anonymoustoo (unverified)
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    I've heard a lot beavo's stuff. And she's got most of the staff running around like scared headless chickens and likes it that way. Seems that Brim-Edwards and Wyndes are giving Phillips carte blanche and so is our local media. Wasn't she quoted in our daily as committed to cutting central office costs? Wonder what she defines as central? Are we that starved for leadership that we drink the sand and believe it's water because she tells us so?

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