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Education

Oregon bill would offer protection to superintendents facing ‘without cause’ termination from school boards

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
FILE: The entrance to the Senate chambers at the Oregon State Capitol, May 2021. Senate Bill 1521 would make it so that school boards could terminate superintendents without cause “only if certain conditions are met.”

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would change the conditions under which superintendents can be fired “without cause."

A bill under consideration by the Oregon Legislature seeks to offer protections to superintendents facing dismissal.

Senate Bill 1521 would make it so that school boards could terminate superintendents without cause “only if certain conditions are met”.

One of the bill’s main changes is a requirement that a school board can fire a superintendent without cause “only if the district school board provides the superintendent with at least 12 months’ notice of the termination.” School boards could still fire superintendents with cause.

The bill text also states that a district cannot direct a superintendent to ignore or violate state or federal law or take action against a superintendent who follows state or federal law.

This bill considers superintendents to include interim superintendents, as well.

The bill’s staff summary explicitly references superintendent terminations in Greater Albany Public Schools and the Adrian School District. Newberg’s superintendent was also fired last year and had a “no cause” clause in his contract.

In his testimony shared with the members of the Senate Education Committee, Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney shared statistics on what he called “skyrocketing” levels of superintendent turnover in Oregon.

“Between 2018-19 and 2021-22, there were 127 superintendent vacancies in Oregon, an average of almost 32 vacancies per school year,” Sweeney, who also serves as president of the Oregon Association of School Executives, wrote.

“For the current school year, there were 43 superintendent vacancies. And so far, there are already 35 vacancies — with more expected — heading into the 2022-23 school year. This is out of a total of 216 positions in Oregon.”

The Coalition of Oregon School Administrators and the Oregon School Boards Association worked to create SB 1521.

During a public hearing on Thursday, at least one superintendent, Marc Thielman of the Alsea School District, spoke and said there is “widespread disagreement” among superintendents and school board members across the state around the bill.

“This is a very controversial infringement of school board authority and autonomy,” Thielman, who is currently running for governor, said.

Other than Thielman, superintendents who submitted testimony have been overwhelmingly supportive of the legislation.

One of the recently dismissed superintendents, former Greater Albany Public Schools Superintendent Melissa Goff, shared written testimony in support of the bill. Goff shared how newly elected school board members changed the board’s majority and dismissed her a few months after renewing her contract.

“The chaos that ensued disrupted the beginning of the school year for staff and students, caused anxiety and concern for many of our families, particularly families of color with whom I had worked closely, and cost Greater Albany Public Schools the equivalent of at least four full-time teaching positions,” Goff wrote.

“We are seeing even more dramatic negative impact in Newberg schools right now, thus emphasizing the need for Senate Bill 1521.”

In Newberg, several administrators have left the district in the wake of Superintendent Joe Morlock’s firing in November. The school board will soon undergo a superintendent search and two school board members that voted to fire Morelock were recently part of a recall election. Voters elected to keep chair Dave Brown and vice chair Brian Shannon, though final certified results will not be known for a couple of weeks.

Several organizations shared support for the bill, including FACT Oregon and Stand For Children.

Local control advocates push against bill

But there has also been a strong response against the bill, with testimony rolling in from parents and community members worried about state control in local school districts. Some organizations have come out against the bill, including from groups that have been sharply critical of COVID-19 protocols and efforts to change how schools teach controversial topics, such as race and sex ed.

Annalee Waddell with Oregonians for Liberty in Education called into question the bill’s definition of law that includes any executive order, “declaration, directive, or other state or federal authorization, policy, statement, guidance, rule, or regulation.”

“A local board elected by the community is much better situated to know the needs and desires of the community,” Waddell said.

On Facebook, Free Oregon asked its followers to provide testimony for the bill. CEO Ben Edtl called the bill “senseless” and a case of “government overreach”. In his testimony, he referenced Newberg specifically, and a school district policy that prohibits staff from displaying “controversial” or political symbols.

“Considering that the school board members were democratically elected to remove this political indoctrination from their public school district, there must be no other way to interpret SB 1521 as an anti-democratic attempt to block taxpayers from influencing the public education they pay for,” Edtl wrote.

Though the school board did not give cause for Morelock’s firing in Newberg, it coincided with the first complaint under a new symbols policy. Morelock dismissed the complaint, saying a rainbow sign with the words “Be Known” was not “political, quasi-political, or controversial.”

Sen. Dembrow said on Thursday the bill will come up for a vote next week.

Current school superintendents have expressed support for the bill, including Sweeney from Coquille and Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith.

“When an effective superintendent is fired for ‘no cause,’ or for following the law, it not only robs Oregon’s students of caring and connected educators, it has a chilling effect on our ability to recruit and retain the next generation of caring education leaders when they correctly perceive that they are vulnerable to the political disagreements that are occurring in many communities across our state,” Rieke-Smith said in testimony this week.

Reynolds Superintendent Danna Diaz said the bill would provide “basic employment protections” and attract more diverse leaders to a state where only 5% of school district leaders are people of color.

She referenced a newly released study on the challenges faced by superintendents of color in connecting SB 1521 with recruiting, retaining and supporting diverse superintendents.

“It is a fact that superintendents of color, especially women, are experiencing direct threats to their safety and the safety of their families,” Diaz wrote in her testimony.

“We should not also be subjected to the fear that we can lose our jobs for centering the needs of our students to ensure equitable outcomes for our communities. And especially not for simply following the law.”

New study outlines challenges, provides recommendations for supporting superintendents of color

Two recently published reports highlight the experiences of superintendents of color and female superintendents and call for changes and recommendations in school leadership systems. Among the suggested protections from one of the reports is an end to “no cause” terminations, similar to what’s proposed in SB 1521.

A report out last week from Education Northwest, the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon Department of Education, and the Oregon School Boards Association, “Exploring the Lived Experiences of Superintendents of Color in Oregon,” examined the experiences of 16 current and former superintendents of color in Oregon.

The study found superintendents of color felt unsupported at times in their roles, including when advocating for students and teachers in underserved groups.

Superintendents surveyed mentioned a desire for mentorship among superintendents of color, as well as a pipeline for administrators.

“The study makes a compelling case for swift and real changes to support the recruitment, retention, and well-being of superintendents of color — in districts, in school boards, and at a state policy level,” said Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill in a press release sharing the study’s results.

“Specifically, policy change at each of these levels can ensure greater protections and privacy should threats, intimidation, harassment, or smear campaigns occur, as well as accountability if discriminatory practices occur.”

Recommendations included stronger recruiting for candidates of color, including pathway programs, and creating a plan for superintendents to feel safe in their workplace.

The report also recommended eliminating the “no cause” firings clause “currently in many superintendents’ contracts” as a way to protect superintendents of color working for “equitable policies and practices”.

A recent report that examined inequities for female superintendents in Oregon found examples of gender bias and called for more support for female superintendents. Recommendations included improving everyday workplace dynamics.

Both reports recommended training for school board members, who regularly evaluate and manage a superintendent’s contract. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would require school boards to participate in professional training. A similar bill was introduced in the 2021 session but died in committee.

Lawmakers held a first hearing for the school board training legislation, House Bill 4029, earlier this week, with school board members speaking both for and against the measure.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.