Seeking a Superintendent. What really counts?

By Hank Harris of Portland, Oregon. Hank is the director of personnel for the Canby School District.

Count me among those who liked Vicki Phillips.

She was smart; unabashed; unruffled; visionary. Confident and humble and grounded in the values of school equity and justice. I have to believe she cared deeply about the work of Portland's schools and I know she was committed, present and engaged during her 25-hour days at the helm of PPS over a three-year period.

Whether her decisions were always the best or not was the stuff of multiple pundits' letters to various editors -- each with an individual agenda and an axe to grind. Sometimes she got it right; sometimes she didn't. She wasn't too proud to back off when necessary, but she was strong enough to handle the vociferous and sometimes mean-spirited criticism that is levied against all big city superintendents whenever they attempt to make even minor changes in a behemoth system where no one handles change very well at all.

Lord knows she needs a month off.

It's no wonder she didn't stay too long. But the problem isn't Vicki, and it isn't Portland. The problem is the job of urban superintendent. It's about the most awful and thankless job there is, and small wonder that the average tenure of superintendents in Council of Great City Schools' districts is about two and a half years. In some cities, school boards would be delighted to have a superintendent last that long. Look at cities like San Francisco and Seattle and Washington, DC. They look at us, having three years of stable leadership from a highly capable educator, with envy.

But it does not have to be this way.

The job of urban superintendent will not change anytime soon -- but what makes the difference between a great superintendent and a mediocre one is, believe it or not, something other than talent. Talent is nice, but it's longevity that really counts.

Yes, as unsexy as that sounds -- it's the long-term superintendent who has a modicum of competence and who sticks around that makes all the difference in the world.

Homer Kearns led Salem-Keizer for over 20 years, retiring just a few years ago. Compared to PPS, Salem-Keizer is a well-oiled district. Certainly one can argue that Portland faces bigger challenges than does Salem-Keizer, and those arguments have merit. But surely some of the success Salem-Keizer enjoys, and some of the difficulties PPS continues to encounter, is related to the presence or absence of a steady, long-term, committed Superintendent. We haven't had one in a very long time.

So we can be disappointed, but we can't blame Vicki. She put in three long years -- with, I suspect -- not a great deal of vacation time. Or weekends free. Or evenings at home. To go to work for the Gates Foundation, where she can still do great work for kids -- and all the while doing so in an office where the mahogany is real and the paint is not falling from the ceiling and where the photocopy machine is more likely to work than be out of service -- is an allure to which we can forgive her for succumbing. She was never a Portlander, and we must give her credit for leaving the district in a better place than she found it. You can't say the same about the legacy of Ben Canada or Jack Bierwirth.

But in retrospect she was not the right pick. Because the right pick would not have left our city after three years. The right pick would have been a leader who was already deeply connected to our city, to whom the allure of the wealth and power of Bill and Melinda's organization would not top the allure of leading the struggle to advance the schools in America's most exceptional city. The right candidate would have been a Portlander, or at the very least, someone who would become a Portlander.

The good news is that we have some very capable Portlanders, and if not Portlanders than at least Oregonians, who can lead the way, and who might stick around long enough to accomplish some of the work that needs to happen. At the risk of sounding xenophobic, we don't elect governors to lead us from Idaho.

We Portlanders are passionate about our city -- and we have many capable educational leaders -- superintendents in the immediate area who, if called upon, would give us both the talent and longevity that our Portland Public Schools need. The good news is that we do not need, and dare I say we do not want, another city's superintendent who sees their present position, and the Portland position, as a step on a ladder to a fancy retirement.

Because Portland is a destination city -- not a rung. And our schools deserve someone who understands that, who is already committed to the ideals of our city. Chances are that person is already here in Portland.

I wish Vicki only the best, but this time around, let's look here in Portland first.

Comments

  • Karla (unverified)
    (Show?)

    "It's about the most awful and thankless job there is"

    Yeah right, perhaps the lavish compensation should be even higher to ease some of the pain.

    The biggest problem with these urban districts and the revolving Superintendents is the attitudes exhibited in this commentary whereby value is seen where little exists. Where expertise and accomplishment is mostly imaginary with every new locale ramping up the unproven's compensation. The superintendent circuit is one of the most disabling rackets in public education with numerous individuals highly capable and willing to take on the "awful" job at less pay. Yet the field is narrowed by self imposed and self benefiting restrictions along with the highly politicized process to find the politically correct new figurehead. History will show the only difference between Jack Bierwirth, Ben Canada and Vicky Phillips is the ever increasing compensation without any rise in performance.

    In reality the board could throw a dart at a wall of 50 local candidates and find someone just as easy to loft praises at as Phillips.

  • Karla (unverified)
    (Show?)

    "It's about the most awful and thankless job there is"

    Yeah right, perhaps the lavish compensation should be even higher to ease some of the pain.

    The biggest problem with these urban districts and the revolving Superintendents is the attitudes exhibited in this commentary whereby value is seen where little exists. Where expertise and accomplishment is mostly imaginary with every new locale ramping up the unproven's compensation. The superintendent circuit is one of the most disabling rackets in public education with numerous individuals highly capable and willing to take on the "awful" job at less pay. Yet the field is narrowed by self imposed and self benefiting restrictions along with the highly politicized process to find the politically correct new figurehead. History will show the only difference between Jack Bierwirth, Ben Canada and Vicky Phillips is the ever increasing compensation without any rise in performance.

    In reality the board could throw a dart at a wall of 50 local candidates and find someone just as easy to loft praises at as Phillips.

  • (Show?)

    Well said, Hank. I just hope the newly configured school board is listening and will be functional enough to find the right person.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)
    (Show?)

    PPS needs someone who has taught more than the bare minimum -- three years -- like Dr. Phillips did.

    Also, we need someone who knows Portland, other than in the Rand McNally "Best Cities to Live In" way.

    Finally, we need to lock up a super for at least five years, minimum, to prevent the next super from using us strictly to feather her career nest, like Phillips and Dr. Jack did.

    Oh, and a super who is a parent would be nice, someone who actually knows how children work and grow, not in the textbook sense, like, Dr. Phillips.

  • Miles (unverified)
    (Show?)

    I would love to see a local candidate get the job, but I wouldn't limit our search based on provincialism. The best candidate may be from Portland. . .or San Francisco. . . or Raleigh, NC. I don't think a local candidate is any more likely to stay in the job than a national candidate. We Oregonians like to think of ourselves as special, but that same quality can also lead to a closed-minded approach.

    The key to the success of our next superintendent lies in the qualities that the school board is looking for during its recruitment. To me, an emphasis on high-performing neighborhood schools is important, regardless of whether they have 200, 400, or 600 students. Also, a passionate belief in collaboration. It's not that I necessarily opposed Dr. Phillip's ideas, but I opposed her refusal to justify those ideas to parents, the community, or anyone. If you attended any school closure meetings with her, it was clear that she viewed those meetings as a necessary evil, rather than an opportunity to convince parents that it was the right thing to do.

    I'm glad Ruth Adkins is on the board for this recruitment, and I hope that Wynde's relatively narrow reelection sent a message that the board needs to look for different qualities this time around.

  • Harry (unverified)
    (Show?)

    The name you are looking for is Colona.

    Jerome Colona.

    He is currently in Beaverton. Won the Superintendent of the Year when he was in Redmond. Is probably the most respected name in that job in all of Oregon. Started his career teaching in Corvallis, so he has been all over Oregon. And not being a Portland lifer is a positive.

    I doubt he would take the job.

    But it doesn't hurt to ask, now does it?

    Harry

  • trueblue (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Hank Harris says:

    Count me among those who liked Vicki Phillips.

    She was smart; unabashed; unruffled; visionary. Confident and humble and grounded in the values of school equity and justice. I have to believe she cared deeply about the work of Portland's schools and I know she was committed, present and engaged during her 25-hour days at the helm of PPS over a three-year period.

    trueblue says:

    Mr. Harris, are you by any chance angling for a job at the Gates Foundation? ; - )

    Otherwise, its a bit hard to square your description of departing "Hurricane Vicki" with the reality we all experienced here in Portland. The woman was a nightmare. The voters of Portland expressed their views about Ms. Phillips in electing grassroots activist Ruth Adkins to the school board. Ms. Adkins and Super. Phillips are about as diametrically opposed as two humans can be. We've had quite enough of Ms. Phillips self-aggrandizing "vision" here in Portland. She left quite a bit of wreckage in her wake. However, with a few years of hard work, I expect people who truly care about Portland education will be able to repair the damage.

  • trueblue (unverified)
    (Show?)

    As to your main message, trueblue says: RIGHT ON DUDE.

    Let's choose someone this time around who is COMMITTED to Portland, who UNDERSTANDS Portland and who IS IN TUNE WITH PORTLAND'S VALUES AND CULTURE. I can forgive your prefatory praises of Vicki Phillips. I agree that a large part of her problem was that she just didn't get Portland. She underestimated the ability of the community to understand and contribute to the solutions. You nailed this one buddy.

  • (Show?)

    Otherwise, its a bit hard to square your description of departing "Hurricane Vicki" with the reality we all experienced here in Portland. The woman was a nightmare. The voters of Portland expressed their views about Ms. Phillips in electing grassroots activist Ruth Adkins to the school board.

    ditto.

  • Dan Keeton (unverified)
    (Show?)

    I agree with all your points Hank. It is too much to ask one person to move a vast organization from substandard to excellent. People need to get real. A superintendent’s influence is far too diluted to work the miracles people expect. Superintendents serve, and I do mean SERVE, at least five separate constituent groups: taxpayers, board, teachers, parents and students. These groups rarely agree on the time of day, let alone a coherent approach to education.

    Most superintendents kick up a lot of dust by picking modest battles or going to war on one main issue. In essence, they operate like politicians, trying to placate the hopelessly inane and contrary demands of people who want schools to do their particular bidding at the expense of larger needs.

    These demands usually masquerade as requests that sound somewhat reasonable, but at the core, are really designed to result in leadership most favorable to some particular agenda. You hear it in suggested attributes like: "a super who is a parent" or "[a super who] taught more than the bare minimum”. Where is research that backs these prejudices?

    Results are what matters--not process, pedigree or appearances. Get someone with passion, backbone and skin like titanium. If you want someone who makes people feel good about self serving “advocacy” at a thousand town halls, then what you really want is a politician. Maybe we should just do away with the school board, and elect a superintendent. In a way, it would be more honest.

  • blueteeth (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Dan Keeton says that the job of a Super is to:

    try[] to placate the hopelessly inane and contrary demands of people who want schools to do their particular bidding at the expense of larger needs.

    trueblue says:

    this is exactly the attitude PPS staff and Phillips had toward parents and students during reconfiguration last year--that they couldn't possibly offer anything useful. Fact is that many of those constituents understood and cared more about the overall problems in Portland education than either Philllips or the staff. This haughty, condescending attitude will change with our new Board majority. Folks like Mincberg and Ames, who seemed to believe that the community was "hopelessly inane" need to pack their bags and be replaced by folks who actually respect what the community has to offer. Sorry Dan--your implied endorsement of a top down (or ram down) MO has been soundly rejected by the voters of Portland. The School Board provides a healthy check on the exercise of executive power. Too bad our new Board majority wasn't in place last year when Phillips and her gang were running amok.

  • Dan Keeton (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Blueteeth (or is it Trueblue?): you rather muddled my point on the way to your campaign commercial/victory lap. My point was, that the whole Us vs. Them approach to education is going to get you exactly what you ask for: livid, endless fighting over a shrinking pie.

    Your victory will be financed from someone else’s defeat. But, you will get to keep that inefficient school in YOUR back yard.

    Was it thanks to a subsidy from someone less politically dialed in? No matter. You really have to keep your walking distance short. After all, fair is fair and you do spend so much time volunteering . . . advocating . . . contorting logic.

    Hmmm . . . where have I seen this before? Maybe that essay by Garrett Hardin. I should go read that again . . . something about a tragedy . . . and a commons, I think. Hmmm. Yes. Definitely had tragedy and commons in the title.

    Dan

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