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									Glenda Claborne
LIS 580TV/Winter 2005
Case Study:
The Urban Public Schools Superintendent: The Case of the Portland Public Schools

   I. The Organization

     Portland Public Schools (PPS) is Oregon’s largest school district with

     approximately 50,000 students enrolled in its 100 schools and 50 special needs

     sites. It operates 59 elementary schools (grades K-5), 17 middle schools (grades 6-

     8), 10 high schools (grades 9-12), 8 focus schools (various grades), and 6 charter

     schools. It also offers special programs such as language immersion in Japanese,

     Spanish, and Chinese, ESL/Bilingual for non-English speaking students, special

     education for the gifted and talented and learning disabled, and support for teen

     students (females and males) who are pregnant or parenting.

     As a contractor for Columbia Regional Program, a state and federally funded

     regional program to help local school districts with special services, PPS offers

     early intervention/early childhood special education as well as services to help

     children who are deaf or hard of hearing, vision impaired, deaf/blind, severely

     orthopedically impaired, or have autism spectrum disorder.

     PPS is guided by a seven-member Board of Education, each elected to represent

     one of the seven zones within the school district. A labor union represents about

     1,400 teachers and many other people employed by the school district. An

     independent Portland schools foundation has been very active in mobilizing the

     public in supporting public education.
  The state provides approximately 77% of the school district’s general fund based on

  a statewide school funding formula. City and county taxes contribute about 14%.

  The rest come from other property taxes and other sources. The district budgets

  approximately 92% of this general fund towards instruction, classroom, and

  building support. The total operating budget for the year 2004-2005 is close to 400

  million dollars.

II. Challenges/Opportunities

  The budget has always posed great challenges to PPS in its 150 years of existence

  but in the past three years, perhaps the greatest challenge PPS has had to deal with

  was finding a superintendent who can provide strong leadership for the district. The

  PPS’s problem with leadership became very obvious when in 2001, then

  superintendent (since 1998), Ben Canada could not resolve clashes with the

  teacher’s union and other players in the district, which led to a neglect of core

  leadership functions within the district. The public started questioning the

  superintendent’s $164,000 base pay, $15,000 signing bonus, and two annuities

  worth a total of $50,000. That he drove a district-owned vehicle and was allowed

  six weeks of annual leave and was given a supplemental insurance policy became

  fodder for public scrutiny and discontent at a time of budget cuts.

  The school board arranged for Canada’s resignation in 2002 and paid him a

  severance package totaling $266,000 which included a year’s salary and benefits
and $43,000 for three months of consulting work with the district. During this

process, the board tapped the district’s chief financial officer, Jim Scherzinger, to

act as interim leader.

In the spring of 2002, the board conducted a search for superintendent with the help

of Los Angeles recruiter Ed Hamilton. The search attracted about 100 candidates

and four urban superintendents were invited for extensive public interviews in

Portland. All four candidates eventually bowed out. The whole process cost the

district close to $125,000. The board will not conduct another search for another

year. In the meantime, Jim Scherzinger was asked to serve as superintendent.

In the fall of 2003, the board decided to try another search. This time they

contracted with a local consulting firm, KAR consulting, headed by local political

consultant Liz Kaufman (with partners Sarah Carlin Ames and Kate Raphael). The

contract stipulated less than $85,000 to conduct the search. In April 2004, Vicki

Phillips was named the new superintendent of the Portland Public Schools.

Phillips brought in an impressive list of accomplishments as Pennsylvania’s

Secretary of Education/Chief State School Officer, as superintendent of the

Lancaster (PA) School District, as a senior officer in the Kentucky Department of

Education, as a leader of two non-profit education organizations, and as a teacher

herself. The PPS and the Portland public saw a winner in Phillips.
Phillip’s three-year contract includes an annual salary of $203,000, an annual tax-

sheltered annuity worth $27,000, and $14,000 toward her moving expenses. The list

of issues before her was long – unresolved labor disputes with the teacher’s union,

declining enrollments, schools tagged as failing by the federal government, and a

November ballot issue which threatened to cut 50 million dollars from the district’s


She started work August 9, 2004. But before that, she made three trips to Portland,

organized a training session for administrators, invited four principals from low-

achieving high schools in PPS to meet her in Pennsylvania, and has met three times

with the leaders of the teacher’s union.

In November 2004, she initiated leadership changes among the upper ranks of the

PPS bureaucracy by hiring three new administrators to fill three vacant positions.

Two were drawn from the school district and the third was someone Phillips

worked with when she was Pennsylvania’s education secretary and also worked

with when she led the Lancaster School District.

In December 2004, Pennsylvania’s auditor general released a report that criticized

Phillips for failing to monitor spending in Lancaster, Pa. when she was


In early February 2005, Phillips fired the district’s human resources director, Steve
Goldschmidt, and placed two senior personnel administrators on paid leave until the

end of the school year, when they will be terminated. There were many complaints

from teachers and other district employees regarding Goldschmidt. His firing drew

admiration of strong leadership for Phillips, particularly from the teacher’s union.

In mid-February, Phillips announced a proposal to close six Portland schools,

merge schools, and expand a high school as part of a plan to address declining

enrollments, to raise standards and achievement, and to save money. This move

drew criticisms of a top-down approach which they say is at odds with Portland’s

democratic culture of extensive public consultation on public issues especially

public education. But some, including former Portland mayor Vera Katz and the

leader of the teacher’s union, saw this top-down decision-making as what might get

things going in the public schools.

Phillips and the board conducted three public forums on the proposal at three

different sites in the district. Strong opposition came mostly from parents from three

of the small elementary schools that were targeted to be closed. The parents argued

against closure based on the schools’ consistent excellent ratings and the close-knit

community     built   around   these   schools.   Phillips   will   make    her   final

recommendations to the board on March 7 and the school board will hold two more

public forums before voting on the proposal March 14 or March 28.
  Will the constituents of PPS help Vicki Phillips succeed in reorganizing the school

  district or will they run her out of town? Will Phillips persevere and provide the

  kind of leadership that the Portland Public Schools have been craving for so long?

III. Analysis

  So far, the board, teacher’s union, city and county officials, and many parents are

  behind Phillips. The saga of the search for the “perfect” superintendent in the past

  three years has left many in the community exhausted and many have expressed

  that it is perhaps unrealistic (and more expensive in the long run) to expect a super-

  Superintendent. The board has learned an expensive lesson about severance pays

  and has revamped contract guidelines to avoid hefty buyouts in case new hires in

  the upper ranks don’t work out. Phillips herself has proposed that central

  administrators work under contracts that must be renewed annually and can be

  ended with 90 days' notice. She suggested tying performance expectations to

  student achievement.

  "What it starts to cut out are things that have been in past contracts, like car

  allowances, house allowances, extra medical benefits -- those perks that give the

  impression out in the community that we are less than transparent . . . that result in

  these huge buyouts that neither the community nor I can support," Phillips said (The

  Oregonian, Nov. 16, 2004).
But the community will still look for discrepancies between what administrators say

and what they do when they are directly impacted by reorganization from above.

Already, amid the debates over the proposal to close the six schools and the

projected budget shortfall are criticisms that the school district is spending a

disproportionate amount on public relations and lobbying. People compare these

expenditures on communications with school districts of similar student population

size like Seattle Public Schools (46,000) or the Sacramento City Unified School

District (48,000) and find that these school districts spend far less than PPS. Some

go further and connect this to the financial oversights Phillips made while

superintendent of the Lancaster School District. People will want to shine a light on

these things and try to make connections between the present and the past. This

could undermine confidence in Phillips ability to monitor spending.

However, Phillips had done the ground work of establishing working relationships

with the board, teacher’s union, and government officials. More importantly, she

has conducted numerous visits to the schools and meetings with parents and the rest

of the community. She insists that her decisions are data-driven, particularly on the

report of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, whose findings about and

recommendations for PPS are based on extensive community meetings,

consultations, and focus groups. She is also trying to orient the community to data

that they themselves put a lot of input to.
How much community participation and consultation should a superintendent and

the school board allow on an issue before they can make a decision? One of the

reasons cited for why the first search for superintendent after Canada failed

spectacularly was that the process was too open to the public, allowing for too many

competing interests to be considered but without coming to a fruitful decision.

Some charged that several of the candidates have used this very open public process

to advertise themselves for other superintendent jobs elsewhere or to leverage their

demands for higher salaries back in their school districts. For the second search for

superintendent that produced Phillips, the PPS school board tried to learn from the

experience of the Beaverton School District, a suburban school district adjoining

Portland’s and the third largest in the state. In their search for their own

superintendent in 2002, this suburban district opened the search process to the

public at some steps but closed it at others. This process produced a superintendent

well within the budgeted time and money and one that met the expectations of the

communities that the district served.

As an urban schools superintendent, Phillips faces different challenges than her

suburban counterparts. Urban neighborhoods have tended to attract residents

without children leading to a chain of events that leave many urban schools with

lower enrollments. Phillips’ plan to merge and consolidate schools sounds like a

good response to these changes but she still has to deal with constituents who have

built communities around the small schools to be closed and who feel that they are

losing control of their children’s education.
Some theorists of public organizations will see this situation as the classic example

of democratic control unresponsive to consumer demands and whose very own

open processes do not allow autonomy and exit (Chubb & Moe, 1988). But others

will see the situation as in fact driving public school bureaucracies to become very

sensitive to their constituents’ needs but which, unfortunately, have to create more

bureaucratic structures to meet these needs (Smith & Meier, 1994). In any case, the

communities in Portland and its new superintendent have to work out the tension

between localized needs and system-wide needs as they strive for the best way to

educate the district’s children.

IV. Recommendations

The Annenberg Report already gave some recommendations to deal mostly with the

relationship of PPS’s central office with other components of the system. These

recommendations include developing and communicating a central office service

orientation, building centralized guidance and support for instruction, making

collection, organization, and analysis of data on student achievement a priority,

providing support for schools and their students based on in-depth assessment of

their needs, and directly addressing unhealthy relationships and ineffective

structures across central office and the schools. Phillips has already acted on these

recommendations and has gained praise and support for her decisive actions on

these matters.
        A report of the Urban Education Task Force (The Urban Superintendent: Creating

        Great Schools While Surviving on the Job) gives wise advice to urban

        superintendents and one that I couldn’t agree more is focusing on student

        achievement as the primary objective amid all the reorganizing and restructurings.

        Learning and student achievement is the area where leaders and school

        communities can meet. No one would like to quarrel with a leader who works to

        produce positive results in student achievement. The students, after all, are what

        education is all about.

        As Phillips should continue to listen to many voices from the Portland community

        while also trying to keep her confidence and sanity, the constituencies of PPS must

        also be patient and give its new superintendent a chance to exercise the power and

        authority given to her. Perhaps PPS can show the rest of the country that an urban

        school district can cultivate stable, vibrant leaderships in active collaboration with

        the communities that it serves.


    Portland Public Schools http://www.pps.k12.or.us/
    Portland Schools Foundation http://www.portlandschoolsfoundation.org/template.cfm?main=20
    Portland Federation of Teachers and Federated Employees Local 111 http://www.pftce.org/
    Oregon Department of Education http://www.ode.state.or.us/
    Urban Education Task Force http://www.cgcs.org/taskforce/leadership3.html

Newspaper Articles

        Phillips plan would close six schools. (2005, February 15). The Oregonian, p. A1.
        Neighborhoods hot; schools not. (2005, February 20). OregonLive.com
        Forcing school closures damages community support. [In My Opinion, Susan Anderson]. (2005,
         February 24). OregonLive.com
        Smith parents assail plan. (2005, February 24). OregonLive.com
       Portland schools likely face cuts. (2005, February 25). OregonLive.com
       School closures: the board's role. (2005, February 25). OregonLive.com
       PR spending is bolstered amid school district cuts. (2005, February 26). OregonLive.com
       Edwards Elementary: Family fears losing school's community feel. (2005, March 03).
       Residents criticize Jefferson High merger plan. (2005, March 04). OregonLive.com

Journal Articles

       Bohte, John. 2001. School Bureaucracy and Student Performance at the Local Level. Public
        Administration Review 61(1): 92-99.
       Chubb, John, and Terry Moe. 1988. Politics, Markets and the Organization of Schools. American
        Political Science Review 82(4): 1065-87.
       Hanushek, Eric. 1981. Throwing Money at Schools. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management
        1(1): 19-41.
       _____. 1997. Assessing the Effects of School Resources on Student Performance: An Update.
        Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 19(2): 141-64.
       Meier, Kenneth J., J. L. Polinard, and Robert D. Wrinkle. 1999. Representative Bureaucracy and
        Distributional Equity: Addressing the Hard Question. Journal of Politics 61(4): 1025-39.
       _____. 2000. Bureaucracy and Organizational Performance: Causality Arguments about Public
        Schools. American Journal of Political Science 44(3): 590-602.
       Nielsen, Laura B., and Patrick J. Wolf. 2001. Representative Bureaucracy and Harder Questions:
        A Response to Meier, Wrinkle, and Polinard. Journal of Politics 63(2): 598-615.
       Smith, Kevin and Kenneth Meier. 1994. Politics, bureaucrats, and schools. Public Administration
        Review, 54:551-558.
       Verstegen, Deborah A., and Richard A. King. 1998. The Relationship between School Spending
        and Student Achievement: A Review and Analysis of 35 Years of Production Function Research.
        Journal of Education Finance 24(3): 243-62.
       Wenger, Jennie. 2000. What Do Schools Produce? Implications of Multiple Outputs in Education.
        Contemporary Economic Policy 18(1): 27-36


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