Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, center, participates in a conversation about early childhood education needs at the Head Start of Yamhill County. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Two women focused on improving K-12 student outcomes and boosting early learning around the state will serve in Gov.-Elect Tina Kotek’s office.

Kotek announced her new education leadership staff in a statement on Friday, along with several other new appointments to key leadership positions. In the announcement, she also included news of Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill’s retirement. Gill, 56, has directed the department for the last five years, and will retire at the end of June. A nationwide search for a replacement will soon be underway, according to Kotek’s office. 

Melissa Goff, former school superintendent and deputy executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, will serve as Kotek’s education adviser. Pooja Bhatt, a consultant and former education policy adviser for Gov. Kate Brown, will serve as education initiative director in a newly created policy initiatives team. That team will focus on tackling issues in education, behavioral health and housing, Kotek said in the statement. 

“I’m grateful to have strong leaders joining my team who are ready to take on three of our state’s biggest challenges,” she said.

Kotek has said she wants to increase funding for Oregon schools to combat learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, do more to improve student performance in struggling districts and to empower the Oregon Department of Education to hold districts accountable for low student performance. Results from recent state and national student assessments show that Oregon students are lagging behind in reading and other core subjects.

New education advisor

Goff will work on coordinating work across state K-12 education agencies and focus on early learning initiatives, according to the statement. As an adviser, she’ll also work as a liaison between school districts, education department leadership and the governor.

Melissa Goff (Photo by Greater Albany Public Schools)

Goff worked just three months at the Oregon School Boards Association before getting tapped by Kotek to serve as education adviser. At the school boards association, she was working primarily on updating the group’s strategic plan and diversity and equity initiatives, Executive Director Jim Green told the Capital Chronicle.

He said he had not planned to lose his deputy so soon, but was not surprised by the appointment. 

“It was not a shock to me given her experience and knowledge base. That’s why I hired her,” he said.

Goff has been a teacher, building administrator and was most recently superintendent for Greater Albany Public Schools. The local school board terminated her contract without cause in 2021, following newly-elected members’ opposition to mask mandates and for her equity work, she said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle at the time. It was among several high-profile firings of Oregon school district superintendents by school boards with new membership at the time. She’s also served from 2015-19 as a superintendent for the Philomath School District and assistant superintendent of Portland Public Schools. Her experience in urban and rural schools and across positions makes her stand out, according to Green.

“To have someone there who has that depth and breadth of education experience will be valuable to the governor and to schools and districts across the state,” he said.

New education policy leader

Bhatt will focus on improving student outcomes, according to Kotek’s statement. These are typically measured as graduation rates, post-secondary enrollment rates, attendance rates and reading, math and science comprehension as measured on state and federal assessment tests. 

Pooja Bhatt (Photo by SeeChange)

In 2019, Bhatt cofounded SeeChange, a Portland-based consultancy that works on educational equity and inclusion initiatives and policies with school districts, local governments and even with the Oregon Department of Education. She served as Brown’s policy adviser during the 2019 Legislative session, working on education budget priorities. Prior to that she was a senior policy adviser for the city of Portland for nearly three years; she worked as early learning manager for United Way of the Columbia-Willamette; and she did research and policy work for the Service Employees International Union, SEIU Local 503, the state’s largest union for public service and health care workers. 

Bhatt has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan with a focus on education and social policy. 

Colt Gill leaving

Gill has served as director of the Oregon Department of Education for five years and oversaw Oregon K-12 public schools’ response to the pandemic and building closures that had students learning online for more than a year. Before that, Gill served the department as innovation officer, appointed by Gov. Kate Brown in 2016 to improve statewide graduation rates. Between 2016 and 2020, graduation rates in Oregon rose 3%, before declining by about 2% in 2021. He’s also served as a teacher and superintendent in several central Oregon school districts. 

Colt Gill (Photo by Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

In a statement, Kotek praised Gill for raising graduation rates, leading schools through the pandemic and helping to create and advance the Student Success Act, the largest investment in state public education in three decades. 

“Colt Gill earned a reputation as a strong advocate for education equity, helping to make our schools more inclusive for all Oregon students,” Kotek said. 

The statement said he will continue to serve in his role until the end of the 2023 Legislative session, which is slated to end the last week of June. A search for his replacement will soon be underway, Kotek said. 

In a statement sent to educators statewide, Gill said serving as director of the state department of education was the opportunity of a lifetime. 

“Although I very much look forward to retirement after 34 years in education in Oregon, I know I will miss this work, I will miss working with all of you in our districts and communities, and I will miss working under the Governor-elect’s leadership,” he wrote.

Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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