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McKean To Lead Troubled School District

by Bethany Barnes |

Portland Public School Board members spent weeks wringing their hands over whether a "caretaker" or "change agent" should run the embattled district for a year while they hunt for a long-term leader.

In the end, the board unanimously chose someone else: a smokejumper — literally.

The board on Tuesday announced, then approved, its lone finalist for interim superintendent: Bob McKean, former superintendent of the Centennial School District — and an occasional wildland firefighter. McKean, 70, still serves as treasurer for the National Smokejumper Association.

Comparisons of the troubled district to a raging wildfire didn't go unsaid.

David Crandall, who has a grandchild in the district and runs an education nonprofit, referenced McKean's background as a smokejumper during a meet and greet with McKean on Tuesday. The public event came before the board officially voted at its regular meeting.

Crandall asked how McKean would ensure the "dysfunction baked in the culture" at Portland Public Schools wouldn't spread.

"I do think he's jumping into a fire — or he'd bloody well better ignite a fire to stop the ones that are out of control," Crandall said.

The district has been buffeted by controversy over its handling of lead in drinking water and other management troubles, losing longtime Superintendent Carole Smith in the aftermath.

The controversy has added to a list of vacant high-level positions that will demand McKean's attention. Additionally, McKean will be expected to court the public to help the district pass a $750 million construction bond in May.

McKean (pronounced Mc-cain) said he wouldn't go so far as to make the comparison. That said, he called the job a challenge unlike other interim superintendent gigs. He's prepared to make "difficult decisions," which is "part of the allure."

McKean also didn't acknowledge Crandall's assertions of dysfunction and was quick to say the district has "good people in central office." But he quickly said he'd look at restructuring and wouldn't maintain the status quo.

Crandall called the answer "promising."

McKean's start date remains uncertain. And salary numbers have yet to be released. But he's expected to parachute in for an estimated 10 months, with orders to put the district back on track.

McKean worked for decades as a teacher and school administrator in Montana and served as superintendent of the Centennial district, just east of Portland, for seven years until he retired in 2010. Reading and math scores rose significantly on his watch. McKean is currently a board member of All Hands Raised.

Portland, with 48,500 students, will be the largest district McKean has led. He served as an assistant superintendent for Missoula County Public Schools, which had about 10,000 during his time there. Centennial had 6,700.

"Superintendent work is superintendent work at the end of the day," McKean said.

President Suzanne Cohen, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said she was glad to see McKean has classroom experience, but the search process left her frustrated.

Cohen said her union should have played a larger role and that the district should have sought more feedback from the public before selecting a finalist.

A total of 11 people applied for the interim position. The board then narrowed the field to five, with the remaining candidates enduring an unusual interview process.

Board members interviewed candidates in two days of executive sessions, which are closed to the public but can be observed by reporters, because of conflicting schedules. This meant candidates had to answer questions twice.

Holding the meetings in executive session — instead of creating smaller panels of board members that wouldn't be subject to the open meeting law — meant The Oregonian/OregonLive could reveal four of the five candidates by observing who came in and out of interviews.

Board member Paul Anthony, who attended both sets of interviews, said the process was cumbersome but worth the effort — even after acknowledging some potential candidates declined to apply out of fear their interest might become public. Anthony said it was important to be as transparent as possible.

Amy Kohnstamm, the board's vice chair, said the board did initially pick two finalists to present to the public, but said the other finalist withdrew because of a personal matter. They didn't replace that applicant with another candidate. Kohnstamm said she was happy with the process, given the pileup of problems and a calendar that has classes resuming Aug. 29.
She said the search for a long-term superintendent will seek more voices from a greater variety people.

"Time was really of the essence," she said.