The Long haul?

Board members' opinions divided on district chief's job performance
Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long has found himself on the hot seat after School Board members produced sharply different evaluations of his performance.

Members of the Medford School Board are sharply divided in their opinions of Superintendent Phil Long's job performance, according to the board's most recent annual evaluation of him.

Board members in February each completed a 51-point inspection of Long's performance, with individual board members offering separate rankings of Long's performance, and sharing frank comments about his actions as district superintendent.

While a decision on whether to renew Long's contract was put off in a Monday School Board meeting, a majority of the board appears to support him.

Board Chairman Jeff Thomas and members Sally Killen, Tricia Prendergast and Ron Andersen, ranked Long as proficient or higher in nearly every category measured, including areas of leadership, management and ethics.

In stark contrast, three board members — Marlene Yesquen, Kim Wallan and Paulie Brading — doled out several "needs improvement" and "unsatisfactory" rankings to Long, and shared serious concerns about his ability to take direction from the board.

Yesquen, Wallan and Brading all criticized Long for failing to make good on a request by the board last spring to cut $300,000 from the support services operating budget over the course of the 2012-13 fiscal year.

The board had asked for the cuts after the district budget committee agreed to spend more than $4 million in district reserves. But board members learned in January that Long had decided not to make the cuts.

Long said that because revenue ended up being higher last fall than anticipated, he didn't feel the need to make the reductions, which could have meant lost jobs.

"The superintendent refused to submit himself to the authority of the board, defying the board directive to reduce the budget by $300,000," Brading wrote. "His noncompliance with this board directive is a violation of a direct order. The superintendent's act of bad faith is completely dishonorable."

Both Wallan and Yesquen described the failure to reduce the budget as "insubordinate" behavior.

The board was asked to amend its request to make $300,000 in cuts as part of a flurry of budget amendments presented to members at a January meeting.

"I did not clearly communicate that to the board," Long said Tuesday. "I think had the communication been better, we would have resolved that — and everyone owns that (the communication)."

The board chose Monday night to forgo voting on renewal or non-renewal of Long's contract, and agreed to have the contract end naturally on June 30, 2014, barring a change before that date.

Thomas said Tuesday that Long requested that the board defer voting on renewing his contract but noted that he could return to the board at any time to ask for a renewal.

In a prepared statement he read in Monday's meeting, Long criticized some board members' actions, saying they had participated in "disrespectful discussions" and had chosen to "dictate day-to-day operations and direct staff to do things that are beyond the scope (of) the role of the board."

Yesquen said later in the meeting that she would have preferred that the board considered terminating Long's contract early.

Long said Tuesday that after the board completes its budget work this spring, and after the May School Board elections, he hopes the board will revisit whether to renew his contract.

The board positions held by Prendergast, Thomas and Brading expire in May. All three have indicated they will seek re-election.

"I didn't want my contract to be the issue at this moment," said Long.

Other concerns about Long's performance centered on the district's flat graduation rate and what some of the board members felt was Long's failure to effectively communicate with the community and district residents.

"The graduation rate for the district did not increase," said Yesquen, who along with Wallan and Brading said Long's work toward the district graduation rate goal was unsatisfactory, the lowest possible evaluation ranking. Thomas ranked the progress as "needs improvement," while the remaining board members ranked progress as proficient or higher.

The district's four-year graduation rate for 2011-12 was 63.9 percent, down slightly from 64.7 percent the previous year, according to Oregon Department of Education graduation rates provided by the district.

"No changes to policy, administration, counseling, teaching or structure have been made to achieve this goal," said Wallan. "It should come as no surprise, therefore, that our graduation rate is flat."

Long said that economic factors and the number of children who move in and out of the district should be taken into consideration, but agreed that the district graduation rate was unacceptable.

Wallan and Yesquen both ranked Long as unsatisfactory in his ability to demonstrate effective communication skills, with Yesquen citing the way in which Long announced changes in administrator and confidential employee compensation in August.

Brading said the district could use a better spokesperson than Long when it comes to communicating with the public.

"(The) superintendent displays inconsistencies in all areas of communication," said Brading. "The district needs a credible spokesperson who presents all sides of an issue and potential consequences for the action."

Long said that had the board voted on whether to renew his contract Monday night, he believes it would have been renewed by a 4-3 vote, but he believed the decision was difficult for the board, and it would be easier for members to defer the decision.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.



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