By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle
A proposal that would protect superintendents from being fired for following laws and executive orders went through vigorous debate on Tuesday.
Some parents and Republicans opposed the plan while several superintendents, school administrators and school board groups and Democrats voiced their support.
Senate Bill 1521, which is before the House Committee on Education, would prohibit school boards from ordering superintendents to violate state and federal laws and executive orders, and would prohibit school boards from firing superintendents for following them.
The most controversial part of the bill would require school boards to give 12 months notice to a superintendent for a firing “without cause.”
The proposal was passed by the Senate on Feb. 9, and is due for a vote by the House Education Committee.
The proposal was requested by the Oregon School Boards Association, the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators and the Senate Committee on Education. It is a response to the high-profile firings of superintendents in the state during the 2021-22 school year over mask mandates, as well as ideological battles over political symbols in schools, student equity initiatives and classroom lessons on racism.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, presented the bill to the committee. He said opponents would claim it was an attempt to take away local control of schools.
“The rights of school boards here in Oregon, acting on behalf of local communities, are powerful. But, they’re not limitless,” he said.
Superintendents support plan
Tim Sweeney, superintendent of the Coquille School District on the coast south of Coos Bay, testified for the bill. He said when he was hired in Coquille in 2010, his contract ensured the school board would give him a 90-day notice for being fired without cause.
“It wasn’t until I was selected as Superintendent of the Year in 2019 that the board granted me an extension of that 90 days,” Sweeney said. “So, “It’s hard to live with knowing your job is a 90-day job all the time,” he said.
The district extended his notice of termination without cause to six months in 2019.
Superintendents Sue Reike-Smith from Tigard-Tualatin School District and Danna Diaz of the Reynolds School District spoke about how such contract terms make it more difficult for districts to hire and retain superintendents, who already have high turnover rates, especially among women and people of color.
“In order to recruit, retain and support diverse educational leaders, an important first step is providing basic employment protections,” Diaz said.
Morgan Allen, a director of policy and advocacy for the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, said it was urgent that the committee pass the bill.
“I think there’s a high likelihood in the coming days and weeks (that) there will be school boards in the state that will hold public votes to immediately drop the masking mandate, which until March 31 is a requirement that has the force of law,” Allen said.
If that were to happen, superintendents would be in a position of either defying boards or jeopardizing their licenses.
“That is a real life, real time observation of what’s going on in our state and the political battles that are occurring in communities across the state, and I think it speaks to why this bill is very much needed for our superintendents,” Allen said.
Concerns about school board authority
Republicans see the bill differently.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, a member of the Crane School Board, said he opposed the 12-month notice for firing “without cause.”
“I feel that’s part of the relationship building between superintendents and school boards,” Owens said.
Owens said districts often get just a few days with superintendent candidates before they choose to hire them, and he said it’s important to be able to let them go if it turns out that they were a poor hire or if the superintendent hadn’t earned their trust.
Owens said the 12-month notice serves no one.
“I think this does a disservice to our communities, our school boards and the superintendent,” Owens said. “Superintendents I know would not want to be staying in an appointment if it is not a good fit with the school board. They’d like to move on.”
Both Owens and Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, asked whether the without cause provisions in the proposal could be addressed in contract negotiations.
“I know that when you’re hiring city managers, there’s no law that addresses this,” Weber said. “When you’re hiring teachers and aides in your classrooms there are no laws addressing this.”
Both have proposed amending the bill so superintendents would get six months notice that they are going to be fired without cause.
They also want more specific language in the bill. Currently, it says school boards cannot require superintendents to break a “state or federal directive having the force of law,” which includes statutes, court decisions, declarations and state rules. They want the proposal to list more explicitly that it would apply simply to state and federal laws as well as executive orders.
Rod Schilling, who described himself as a concerned citizen, said he feared the proposal would discourage people to run for local school board because their authority would be limited, and that it could ultimately drive parents to remove their kids from public schools.
Another parent, Jennifer Wagner from Florence, also said that school districts in Oregon were losing too much local control.
“It’s not about wanting our school boards and our administrators to break the law,” Wagner said. “That’s not really the reality of what this does. As it stands now, it’s extremely difficult to make changes at the local school district level and parents literally feel helpless and hopeless.”
They said the bill would further erode the authority they have over what happens in their kids’ schools.
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