Legislators plan to step into school leadership fray
Oregon’s school leadership is showing cracks, and the Legislature plans to respond when it convenes Feb. 1. On the table are bills requiring board-superintendent training and greater job guarantees for superintendents.
School board members and superintendents are feeling the strain of deep political and ideological divisions compounded by the pandemic. Arguments at the top over district moves have led to superintendent dismissals and upheaval for students and staff.
Sen. Michael Dembrow said school leadership instability, most noticeably in Newberg, requires legislators to step in.
“It would be irresponsible of us not to take action,” said Dembrow, chair of the Senate Education Committee, which will likely first see any bills affecting schools.
With 35 days maximum, the short session doesn’t allow for much in-depth policy discussion or bill tinkering. OSBA and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators have been working beforehand on two bills that would affect school boards.
The Office of Legislative Counsel is still drafting the language, but the outlines are clear.
A bill requiring superintendents and school board members to get shared training is essentially the same as a bill from last session that had OSBA and COSA support.
A bill making it harder for school boards to fire a superintendent without cause has required more careful discussions between OSBA and COSA, which are usually in agreement about the best ways to serve students.
Language proposed for a Senate bill would forbid a school board to direct a superintendent to take any actions that conflict with state or national laws or rules. It would also forbid school boards from taking an “adverse employment action” against a superintendent for complying with laws or rules.
As ideological battles over mandates and inclusive language rage through school board meetings, some Oregon superintendents fear they will lose their jobs for upholding state rules, a problem generally not confronted before the pandemic.
Oregon is an “at-will” employment state. Unless employees have specified contract protections, they can be fired with no reason or explanation required. Oregon statutes provide little protection for school administrators beyond what they can negotiate for themselves.
Morgan Allen, COSA’s deputy executive director of policy and advocacy, said COSA is calling for a minimum of one year of pay if a superintendent is fired without cause. Allen said administrators want protection if a new school board majority suddenly changes the district’s direction.
OSBA Executive Director Jim Green said OSBA considers the bill’s general idea reasonable, although he is waiting to see the specifics of the minimum compensation required.
“We would expect superintendents to follow the law, and they should expect if they follow the law they won’t get fired,” he said. “We can all agree that if you are going to fire someone without cause, they deserve some sort of landing.”
Allen and Green stress they are talking about no-cause terminations. Both agree school boards should still be able to get rid of superintendents when there are clear reasons.
Allen said the goal is creating stability for the good of students.
“Staff and students are not feeling safe and not feeling like they have a voice,” he said. “We need to take a step back and remember we serve our students. There has been too much focus on the adults in the system.”
Green agreed on the goal of focusing on students’ needs, saying research shows good, stable leadership increases student success.
Dembrow said he is satisfied with the bill’s proposed language.
“I’m sorry we even have to consider taking this step,” he said. “Hopefully, this will never need to be used again because the situations are just a reflection of the moment we are in.”
Dembrow said he would like to see this bill working in concert with the school leader training bill to help head off future school district instability.
A proposed bill likely headed to the House would require a school board self-assessment every two years and a professional learning plan for school board members and the superintendent. The training must focus on equity and board governance best practices and include a review of student progress, access and opportunity. Training would be required specifically for a person to serve as board chair or vice chair.
The bill includes setting up a temporary Oregon Department of Education advisory committee that would include students to get the training off the ground. The committee would recommend tools and frameworks for assessments and training and create a directory of qualified professional development sources.
School boards’ first self-assessment would be required by Sept. 1, 2025, and they would need to adopt a 2-year plan by Dec. 1, 2025.
The bill is nearly identical to Senate Bill 334 from last session, which was strongly supported by OSBA. The Senate Education Committee approved the bill, but it was stuck in Ways and Means at session’s end.
Green said he knows more training won’t solve everything, but he hopes it can lay the foundation for better and more productive processes.
COSA is also in support. Superintendents all over Oregon frequently praise school leadership training that helps all involved find a common language and identify their roles in the system.
Allen said the proposed training would be ongoing professional development, not just a requirement for “check-the-box rote trainings.”
The bill doesn’t have specific training mandates in it, he said, because it should be decided at the local level to fit with schools’ already ongoing work.
Green said the bills as presented do not concern him over local control issues because school boards would still be negotiating the contracts and deciding the trainings. He said legislators upset at this past year might try to go further during the session, however, and then OSBA would have to draw a “line in the sand.”
“We have locally elected school boards for a reason,” he said. “We may not like some of the decisions they make, they may not be the decisions we would make, but the voters in their districts will decide whether those decisions should stand.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA