Supt. Smith steps down; interim chief appointed

The implications of lead-contaminated water flowed all to the top at Portland Public Schools, taking down long-tenured Superintendent Carole Smith. The district hopes an interim replacement, appointed Aug. 16, can fix some of the issues that emerged under her leadership.

While Smith originally announced plans on June 21 to not seek renewal of her contract after the 2016-17 school year, she expedited her retirement after a report commissioned by the school board found serious managerial issues at PPS. Law firm Stoll Berne found that under Smith’s leadership, lead testing had been inconsistent and results had been covered up.

Minutes after the report was released on July 18, Smith stepped aside.

“The report was clear that there was no wrongdoing by the superintendent, but it did show us that there was a culture [at the district] where information was not getting to the people who needed it,” said Amy Kohnstamm, who represents Lincoln on the seven-member school board. “I do think the superintendent has responsibility for creating a culture where risks are recognized and responded to.”

Principal Peyton Chapman believes Smith’s decision to step down was not merely a result of the lead crisis, but of a compounding of issues that had been brewing for years. The average tenure for a superintendent in urban districts like Portland is 2 ½ years. Smith was entering her 10th year.

“It’s just very hard to be an urban public school superintendent for 10 years,” Chapman said. She believes lead was merely a simple explanation for Smith’s exit.

Chapman believes Smith kept students and families first until the very end of her tenure.

“Someone always needs to take the fall. [Smith] resigned because she would never want any perception of her to get in the way of kids having excellent education. Her top priority always was students.”

Chapman praised Smith’s tireless work to keep schools open and teachers in the classroom despite the Great Recession, which hit in her first year in office.

“She also had a real commitment to racial equity that raised awareness in Portland, which was powerful,” Chapman said.

However, she, like Kohnstamm, wishes that Smith had established a stronger leadership structure so someone would have been ready to step in immediately when she stepped aside. “For whatever reason none of the three Assistant Superintendents, School Area Directors or any of the high school Principals were ready to step up to serve as Interim Superintendent, so Smith should have built a team that could carry on without her.”

Kohnstamm and her fellow board members spent the summer searching for an interim superintendent to serve through the 2016-17 school year while the search for a permanent one continues. The board narrowed the choice down to two candidates and when one withdrew, the board unanimously voted in Bob McKean, mostly recently superintendent of the Centennial School District in east Portland.

Kohnstamm was quick to tout McKean’s extensive resume. “He is a very well regarded educator, a teacher, a principal, director of curriculum and instruction, assistant superintendent, superintendent,” she said. McKean also spent 11 years as a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service.

Though at about 49,000 students PPS is about seven times as large as Centennial, Kohnstamm believes McKean is well-suited to the job. “He’s highly respected for his on-the-ground work and leadership,” she said.

Kohnstamm believes McKean will be able to solve many of the issues highlighted by the report that lead to Smith’s resignation, which will put the district in a much better place when the permanent superintendent is hired.

“[McKean] is courageous and decisive enough to make tough decisions.” she said.  “He’ll be able to recognize where we need to strengthen our system, [such as] looking at central office organizational structure to make sure it supports students and teachers.”

In addition, Kohnstamm wants McKean to ensure that, despite the distraction of the safety issues, “we make sure we never take our eye off the ball in focusing on student achievement for all of our students in all of our schools.”

During the search for Smith’s permanent replacement, Kohnstamm said the board will heavily weigh student input. The Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, or Super SAC, a group of student representatives from each high school, will hold a forum on what students want in a superintendent, which Kohnstamm encouraged all to attend.

In terms of what she and the board will be looking for in a new leader, “we need a really strong leader who is able to inspire a team and bring out the best in people. We also need a leader who recognizes the diverse population and diverse needs of our students and can support all kinds of different strategies that work for all kinds of different kids.”

The national search is expected to take at least several months.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email