Crook Schools in Crisis

This multiple-story package was created in a week's time in response to events in Prineville, Oregon. As education reporter, I teamed with Crook County reporter Matt Sabo to develop and write stories and assign photo and graphic elements. I also was lead editor on the package.

From The Bulletin, March 3, 1996, Page A1

Crook's divided school board: Body language spells 'dysfunctional'

By Matt Sabo
and Mike Van Meter
Bulletin Staff Writers

PRINEVILLE -- Eyes rolled, heads shook and fingers wagged. Pencils drummed the table.

Among the five members of the Crook County School Board and Superintendent Bruce Anderson at their Feb. 12 meeting, body language did a lot of talking.

The school board doesn't get along.

Members of the group squabbled and bickered over items ranging from meeting minutes to long-term planning. In one stretch, it spent 17 minutes haggling over whether bills for more than $250 should be reviewed by the board and if meeting minutes should be word-for-word or summarized.

In the end, no decision on either issue was reached. In the end, paying the bills and keeping the minutes may well be symbolic of the schism already pitting board member against board member -- a schism that may well pit townsfolk against townsfolk should a recall attempt against two board members go to the ballot.

"From where I sit, it looks like two different ways of managing the district," Anderson said.

"One is focusing on the future goals of the district, the other is about controlling the day-to-day operation -- what I call 'administrivia.' "

So far the fray hasn't shown up in reading or math scores, but the long-term effect of a board that is bogged down in its own differences won't be known for months -- perhaps years.

Feb. 12 was another in a string of what has become typical nights for a board that calls itself "dysfunctional." It sits down as a group of five but is clearly divided 3-2 on many issues.

The three men on the board, John Jackson, Tom Schmidt and Jim McGuire, back Anderson. The two women, Roberts and Woodward, do not -- in fact, they would like to see Anderson hit the road.

"If you were to take one person out -- and that would be Anderson -- we would be able to work together," Roberts said.

"The chemistry is such now that I don't see us being able to work together."

Middle ground doesn't exist, the intractable board members admit.

"It's either cut or dried," said McGuire, the newest member of the board. "You're either in or out."

Jackson believes the superintendent is unfairly targeted. "The point is that he is getting a lot done," Jackson said.

"And I don't think it's in the best interest for us to go through the process of hiring a superintendent."

The spin-off from the board's differences has prompted both the combative and the bizarre. An effort to recall Jackson and Schmidt, who each have a year left on their terms, has been launched by Prineville resident Nell Grady.

Someone else has written a flurry of anonymous letters charging mainly Anderson with graft and corruption. Several county and school officials were fingered as well. The charges have not been proven; the identity of the person who wrote the letters, which were signed the "Prineville Squeaker," has not been revealed.

McGuire said he didn't know what he was getting into when he won election a year ago. "From the outside, it looked like we had a board that was getting along and working well. And it's just the opposite of that," he said. "And the longer it goes, the worse it gets."

(In the maelstrom, Page B-1)

 

'Aggressive' schools chief has a fight on his hands

Page B-1

By Mike Van Meter
Bulletin Staff Writer

PRINEVILLE -- Bruce Anderson's foes want his head on a platter. It's as simple as that.

"We positively need to get rid of this bunch. We positively need a new superintendent," said Nell Grady, chief petitioner in a recall effort against the two members of the Crook County School Board who are most closely aligned with Anderson.

Board Chairwoman Janet Roberts made clear that she wants Anderson's head as well.

If Grady, Roberts and others are successful in getting rid of the chief school administrator in in Crook County, Anderson will become the sixth superintendent to leave since 1984. While their methods of leaving vary -- some in disgust, others in disgrace -- it's a tally that Anderson is well aware of. That doesn't mean he's figured it out.

"I don't begin to understand the historical cycles that tend to keep this going in Crook County," Anderson said.

Anderson very nearly didn't take the job in Prineville.

"I interviewed, went home and wrote a letter withdrawing because I didn't think I would fit in," Anderson said. Four to six weeks later -- after the board wrangled over someone who was nearly hired -- Anderson was asked to reconsider.

Anderson did reconsider, and left Tillamook -- a district that, like Crook County, has either a history of getting rid of superintendents or a history of hiring poor superintendents, depending on who you talk to.

Even Anderson, 50, concedes his personality hasn't always kept him in the good graces of others.

"The skills that I was trained in were from the old top-down mode -- power wins," Anderson said. "It still does, in the short run. But in the long run it does not, because you collect too many enemies."

After nearly a quarter-century of being an administrator, Anderson said he's attempting to change so he won't attract more enemies than he already has.

"The biggest thing I'm trying to do is be a better listener," Anderson said. "My style has been the opposite of that."

Anderson said the challenges he finds to changing his own style may be reflected in the school board split.

"As difficult as it is for me to change to a new way of doing things, to people who meet once or twice a month it must be even more difficult," Anderson said. "I think this recall issue is merely and outgrowth of that process."

Frank Porfily, a friend of Anderson, a county commissioner and the focus with Anderson in a board-ordered investigation of contracting work done at one of the elementary schools, called Anderson "more aggressive than most."

But he pointed out that the early years Anderson was in Prineville saw passage of a $20 million construction bond for the school district and the beginnings of improved test scores.

"Things turned around and were running smoothly," Porfily said.

The contracting job -- won by SMAF Construction, owned partly by Porfily and his son -- was originally bid for $19,170. Later, it was increased by $9,000 to cover changes in the project.

An audit ordered by the school board last fall cleared Anderson, Porfily and others of any criminal wrongdoing, but pointed out procedural errors and suggested a number of changes in bid procedures to bring them in line with state administrative rules.

The probe also looked at Anderson's personal financial dealings with Porfily, but again found no impropriety.

Grady has filed a state ethics complaint against Anderson over the same matters.

"I'm dissatisfied with this Hirsch report (the probe ordered by the board) -- they showed again and again he broke the law, but said he didn't," she claimed. "It's a disgrace."

The audit marked more public signs of direct conflict between Anderson and some board members. Conflicts had become evident just weeks before when members split over cutting advanced classes and adding a Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Crook County High School.

Anderson said appropriate procedural changes have been made in light of the report.

"Obviously we needed to take care of bid procedures," Anderson said.

But he is angered by questions concerning his honor.

"There's a small group of people who've acted on these allegations as if they were true," Anderson said.

There have been other frays among board members and with Anderson, including an ongoing dilemma over how to bring elementary school hours to state standards and class offerings.

 

Board agrees: Friction causes heat

By Matt Sabo
Bulletin Staff Writer

PRINEVILLE -- Lost in the morass of school board divisions and petty power struggles over things like who has access to check registers is the education of Crook County schoolchildren.

All five board members admit the friction has undermined staff morale and shoved aside some of the pressing issues facing the district. Chief among these issues, as identified by board members, are looming budget cuts, moving into the new high school this summer, course offerings, and class sizes.

In the present board climate, however, educating kids isn't coming first. "It seems to me like we spend more time worrying about things that don't have anything to do with kids," said first-year member Jim McGuire. "Since I've been on the board we haven't really done a whole lot of productive things."

Instead, the board is distracted by infighting, with Superintendent Bruce Anderson at the center of the brawl. Board member Bev Woodward said the bickering could end in one move.

"The resignation of the superintendent," she said.

Roberts concurs. "I think an administrator needs to look at what's good for him and what's good for the district and recognize for both sides when it's time to take another job," she said.

Woodward said the board, despite interference from Anderson, shows at times it can work well together. "But then afterwards, one or two or three of the men are meeting with the superintendent," she said. "We work well when the five of us are sitting together. But then at the next meeting, you start all over again."

Despite the eruption of the current squabbles, reading and math scores have shown a steady rise in Crook County since 1993. In the middle of the test score improvements, a $20 million construction bond was passed and discipline problems in the middle and high school have decreased. Anderson says board members should look at those accomplishments and build on them.

The divide between the board has grown over the past two years as allegiances were cast with and against Anderson. The gap widened last fall in disputes over issues ranging from the introduction of a Naval Junior ROTC program, to axing upper-division language classes, to work at an elementary playground.

"If we had the same vision and goals, we would be productive," said John Jackson, in his third year on the board. "I believe the obligation of board members is to set aside our personal agenda items and do what's best for the school district. If we can't do that, I think that's where we run into trouble."

Jackson believes the issue causing the board division is "how are we going to manage the school district."

He asserts that Woodward and Chairwoman Janet Roberts are engaged in micro-managing, focusing too much on small details like bill paying. "In three years of serving on the board I can't remember when intense scrutiny of monthly bills turned up a problem," he said.

Woodward, who was removed as a secretary for a former superintendent a few years ago, believes the move to no longer have the board approve monthly bills of more than $250 is coming from Anderson. "It is all Bruce Anderson."

"When I would ask normal questions about bills and things Mr. Anderson would get upset," she said.

"He would get totally upset. Instead of the board uniting and saying I was entitled to reviewing the bills, it was, 'Oh, Beverly.' "

 

Private eye on trail of shadowy 'Squeaker'

By Matt Sabo
and Mike Van Meter
Bulletin Staff Writers

PRINEVILLE -- As if a divided school board, a recall effort and a superintendent under fire aren't enough for one small town, there's the Prineville Squeaker.

Nobody has come out to say they know his or her name -- and she or he isn't telling. Crook County School Superintendent Bruce Anderson -- a prime target of the Squeaker's anonymous letters -- wants to know badly enough to have hired a private investigator.

"This is dark ... evil," Anderson said. He considers the Squeaker's writings "violent and intends to unmask him or her, then sue whoever it is.

The Squeaker wrote five letters between Sept. 12 and Oct. 25, 1995. The letters were sent to Bulletin reporter Matt Sabo, school board member Jim McGuire and the biweekly newspaper in Prineville.

The letters accused various county and school officials of graft and corruption, but focus on the school district and Anderson. "Bruce Anderson is a crook, and that will come out more and more over time," the Squeaker alleged.

In December Anderson took copies of the letters he obtained through McGuire to Crook County District Attorney Gary Williams. Williams has not filed any charges as a result of information culled from the letters.

Anderson also hired private investigator Lynn Enyart to uncover the identity of the Squeaker. The investigator has forwarded his report to Anderson's lawyer.

Frank Porfily, another of the Squeaker's targets, said he thinks the anonymous letter-writer is using backers of the school board recall to further his or her own ends.

In all, 11 pages of single-spaced, typewritten letters were sent by the Squeaker. the only clue the Squeaker gives to his or her identity is in the first of the letters: "I have to keep my name secret in this, as the information that I get is from my husband (and he works for either the school district or the county), and friends who also have privileged information," the Squeaker wrote.

 

Recall leader cites finances, accountability as key issues

By Mike Van Meter
Bulletin Staff Writer

PRINEVILLE -- One of the first things you see on the surface of the Crook County School Board split is that it's men against women: Tom Schmidt, John Jackson and newcomer Jim McGuire against board Chairwoman Janet Roberts and Bev Woodward.

The convenient characterization of the whole thing is to couch it in terms of good ol' boys vs. the women.

Recall backer Nell Grady won't have any of that.

"Those two (Jackson and Schmidt) are not good old boys -- they're good old government, state and federal," Grady said. "It's so evident, the alignment there."

The government employees -- Jackson is in charge of the state Department of Forestry office in Prineville, while Schmidt runs the U.S. Forest Service office -- are Superintendent Bruce Anderson's main allies on the board. It's Anderson who lies at the heart of the recall effort.

Grady said her original disenchantment with Anderson stems from handling of a $20 million construction bond passed in November 1993. She said he is "bound and determined to spend it until it's all gone. I don't like taxpayer money spent with that attitude."

Grady's list of reasons for recalling Schmidt and Jackson -- and ultimately, for wanting Anderson gone -- include:

Substandard school hours: Since losing a decision before the state Employment Relations Board, the district has been forced to cut class time and pay $131,000 to elementary school teachers. the cost could rise further when Powell Butte elementary hours are factored in.

Now the hours Crook County elementary students are in class don't meet state standards, prompting a declaration from that state that the schools themselves do not meet those standards.

"It's such an embarrassment, Crook County being declared substandard," Grady said. "This is absolutely the crowning thing."

School officials are in the process of negotiating with the state over a plan to bring the schools up to snuff.

Destruction of a Quonset hut: A small building near the high school was to be renovated, Grady said, but has since been torn down to its foundation.

"They did more than the board directed them to do," Grady said.

School officials and others counter that the structure's steel supports were completely rusted out. High school students will rebuild the structure as part of a class project.

Underground sprinklers: "There's underground sprinklers on every piece of lawn in the school district," Grady said. "It's beyond my comprehension what the cost might be."

Board minutes: Grady said she is upset over moves to summarize the minutes from board meetings rather than have a word-for-word transcript.

Paying the bills: Board scrutiny of the district's check register has been a tradition in Crook County, but Schmidt and Anderson would like to end that. Grady said "accountability to the board" in such matters is critical.

Disputes over the bills and board minutes contributed heavily to tension between board factions at the Feb. 12 board meeting. Grady watched the scene play out on the television broadcast.

"We saw things that put a comic show to shame," Grady said. "There was shouting ... and they were angry and throwing things."

Grady said a recall could put a stop to all that.

"I'm a normal taxpayer that has worked 50 years in Prineville," Grady said. "I would kind of like to live these years in peace and harmony, but when you see this you want to stand up and be counted."


Story clips index
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