Redmond School Board resolution adds fuel to superintendent contract debate
On Wednesday, the Redmond School Board passed a resolution that could put its superintendent on a collision course with state regulatory agencies. On Thursday, the House Education Committee considered a bill that might give superintendents some cover in similar future situations.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, brought Senate Bill 1521 as a response to the dismissal of several Oregon school district superintendents last summer. The superintendents got crossways with their boards as they attempted to follow state directives on equity and COVID-19 protocols. The abrupt removals created upheaval and uncertainty among students, staffs and communities.
SB 1521 would provide superintendents a little more job security. The bill would prohibit a school board from firing a superintendent for following any state or federal laws or rules that have the force of law. It would require the superintendent to agree to a contract clause that allows firing without cause. And if the superintendent is to be fired without cause, the district would have to provide 12 months’ notice.
On Thursday, the committee hashed over several amendments that would adjust the definition of laws, the length of the notice and when the bill takes effect. Trying to reach a possible bi-partisan position, the committee will resume debate Tuesday, Feb. 22.
The bill has already passed the Senate. If it gets amended and then passes the House, it would have to go back to the Senate for another vote.
In a Tuesday hearing, Morgan Allen told legislators it may seem strange to have to say superintendents can’t be fired for refusing to break the law but that is a reflection of the current political climate. Allen, the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators’ deputy executive director of policy and advocacy, predicted Oregon may soon see school boards telling superintendents to ignore the school masking rule.
The Alsea School District has already stopped requiring masks. Wednesday evening, the Redmond School Board passed a resolution 4-1 telling their superintendent to create a plan that allows parents to decide starting March 2 whether their children will wear masks. The state has said schools must maintain the mask mandate until at least March 31.
Superintendent Charan Cline warned the school board during the meeting that the resolution could create legal problems. School board members dismissed the concerns, indicating they thought the government is overreaching and the potential consequences are overblown.
On Thursday, the board put out a statement that said, in part: “The Redmond School Board voted last night to take back local control. … We look forward to moving ahead working with our teachers, staff and parents to create a roadmap enabling student achievement without the distraction of Salem's politics.”
Redmond teachers union leader Barry Branaugh said the union would most likely challenge the resolution. He said most teachers are ready to remove masks but they worry this resolution is asking them to break the law, which could cost them their licenses.
Cline said he works for the board and over the next two weeks he will be talking with state agencies, health officials, teachers and parents to try to craft a plan that meets the board’s demands without putting the district or its staff in legal jeopardy.
“It’s created a lot of potential chaos, and I would rather focus on teaching kids,” he said.
Cline said he appreciates SB 1521, but he’s not sure it will change things much.
At Dembrow’s request, OSBA and COSA collaborated to create the legislation. Dembrow noted in testimony that the associations share a fierce dedication to local decision-making and an overriding focus on student welfare.
The bill does not add anything superintendents could not technically bargain for on their own, but it does give them more leverage at the table.
Superintendent Tim Sweeney told legislators that for his first nine years at the Coquille School District his contract said he could be fired without cause with 90 days’ warning. He wasn’t able to negotiate it up to six months until after he was named Oregon superintendent of the year. He said essentially working on a 90-day contract made it difficult for prospective superintendents to commit to moving to a new town or to feel secure putting down roots and making long-term education plans.
Most of the bill’s opposition stemmed from concepts of “local control.”
OSBA Legislative Services Director Lori Sattenspiel and Allen said during hearings that the law would not infringe on school boards’ right to employ the superintendents they want. Boards would still be able to fire a superintendent “with cause” for not fulfilling the contract or for other illegal or egregious conduct.
The year notice for a firing without cause gave some opponents pause. Proponents of the bill point out that school boards and superintendents would still be able to negotiate a shorter termination timeline if the relationship isn’t working.
OSBA Board President Scott Rogers said board members have contacted him about the bill and local control issues.
“I understand the concerns, but I don’t know how applicable those concerns are here,” said Rogers, the Athena-Weston School Board chair. “I’ve never had a relationship with my superintendents that this bill would affect.”
Instead of taking away school board power, Rogers sees the bill as an avenue to foster more frank conversations, strengthening the relationship and alignment.
He also worries about a superintendent recruitment and retention problem, particularly for rural districts, if superintendents don’t feel like they have some protection.
In a phone interview, Springfield School Board Chair Naomi Raven said she is grateful for the Legislature’s discussion on how to better serve students. She sees the bill working in concert with House Bill 4029, which would require superintendent and school board training.
“School board work is intense, and it’s been that much more intense the past couple of years,” she said. “I’m grateful for legislators thinking it through and raising the level of conversation.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA