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Lead Water Crisis Drives Away Portland's Longtime Superintendent

Portland Superintendent Carole Smith announced Monday she is stepping down "now" in the wake of the lead controversy in Oregon's largest school district.

By Betsy Hammond

Portland Superintendent Carole Smith announced Monday she is stepping down "now" in the wake of the lead controversy in Oregon's largest school district.

She made that announcement just minutes after the school board released a damning report showing how Portland Public Schools dropped the ball on testing water for lead, fixing problems that were found and notifying the public of test results.

Smith, who served nine years as Portland's superintendent and reshaped the city's high school system, said she provided the school board with a 90-day notice of her departure, as required by her contract, but that she has accumulated 90 days of unused vacation and leave time, so she will cease working for the district immediately.

She acknowledged the lead crisis was the cause, saying that with the release of the report about what went wrong and why, "I have reached the decision that I need to move up the date of my departure." She had previously announced plans to retire at the end of the school year.

In a statement, school board chairman Tom Koehler said, "I want to thank Superintendent Smith for her decades of service to public education in Oregon and for her leadership over the last ten years as the Superintendent of Portland Public Schools ... She prioritized and championed putting equity at the core of the school district's work.  This will be an enduring and lasting legacy."

Koehler said the board will hire an interim superintendent to lead the district while they do a national search for a permanent successor.

The report on what went wrong with lead testing and remediation indicates Smith expected she would be told of any significant findings or problems, but she was not. The district's inept approaches to lead testing and remediation predated her hiring in fall 2007, the report shows.

Still, the report cites "an absence of diligent inquiry by PPS individuals in the upper levels of administration hierarchy regarding PPS's procedures and protocols for lead in water testing remediation." And it suggests performance evaluations were routinely skipped or conducted with little rigor, allowing sub-par performance to go unaddressed.

Smith refashioned the district's system of high schools, ending the practice of letting students transfer to high schools in other neighborhoods and taking controversial steps, including closing Marshall High and limiting enrollment at Benson High, in order to create schools more similar in size and course offerings in all parts of the district.

She said her proudest accomplishment was helping raise the district's once-moribund graduation rate. Still, the district's rate merely matches the state average and is below state averages among low-income students, Latinos, Native Americans and students with disabilities.

Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance, expressed strong support for Smith in the wake of her announcement.

"Carole Smith has been a strong educational leader in Portland," she said, noting the big imporvements in the graduation rate and "steps taken to modernize the district's high schools."

"We urge the school board to move swiftly to fill this important role and to focus immediately on the serious issues facing the district, including the findings of lead in some schools' water supplies," McDonough said in a statement.

(c)2016 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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