The firing of Portland Public Schools’ deputy chief executive officer comes on the heels of a significant setback in the district’s plan to fix inequities in Oregon’s largest school district.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero hasn’t said why he axed his second-in-command. A district spokesman released a statement that Yousef Awwad was an at-will employee and didn’t fit with the new leader’s vision.
In recent weeks, Guerrero was forced to announce that information Awwad provided about potential health hazards at Harriet Tubman — one of two middle schools slated to open next school year — wasn’t reliable.
At an Oct. 16 meeting — Guerrero’s second week on the job — school board members asked Awwad if people should be worried about the environmental safety of the school.
“We have no concerns about the air quality in Tubman,” Awwad responded. “That’s the answer.”
But the board lost confidence in those assurances.
The next school board meeting, which was supposed to be a jubilant celebration of the vote to open the schools, was anything but joyous. Instead, on Oct. 24, Guerrero broke the news that testing was needed and the community should be prepared to learn that Tubman might not be a viable site after all. He told the public they may be in the dark about the future of the school for some time.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Guerrero said.
School board frustrated
Frustrations from the board were clear: They’d been told by Awwad they did know — and now they had to tell their constituents that wasn’t true.
School board vice-chair Rita Moore said at the meeting she felt she had to personally apologize as a result.
“I was either misinformed or misunderstood and I passed along incorrect information,” she said.
District spokesman Dave Northfield said in a text message the breakdown in the plans for Tubman had nothing to do with Awwad’s ousting.
Awwad was not the district’s environmental health officer. But he oversaw that position and was the top-ranking administrator responsible for school facilities, and had known since spring 2016 that serious safety hazards were a reality in the district’s aging schools. The cover up of results showing lead in drinking water helped lead to the firing of two key facilities officials and the departure of Superintendent Carole Smith. Awwad was the chief financial officer at that time and was then tapped to take on more leadership as someone respected and uninvolved in the scandal.
To applause, Moore said she wished Tubman’s potential health issues had been given a deeper look when they first arose.
“I think we ought to look at how’d we get here,” she said. “How come these issues weren’t surfaced long before now?”
The news was especially painful as it wasn’t the first delay North and Northeast Portland parents and students have suffered. Last fall, Interim Superintendent Bob McKean, with Awwad at his side, announced the opening of Tubman and Roseway Heights would be moved to the 2018-19 school year instead of the 2017-18 school year because of competing district priorities.