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Greater Albany Public Schools board hires veteran Oregon leader for interim superintendent role

Greater Albany Public Schools’ new interim superintendent may be a familiar face to some in the district. According to his resume, Rob Saxton’s first teaching job in Oregon was in Albany, spending time teaching math at both West Albany and South Albany high schools before moving into administration at West Albany.

The longtime school administrator’s son, Sean Saxton, now works at West Albany in the same role.

Rob Saxton’s return to the district comes after a month of constant upheaval and change. In the last month, three new board members have been sworn in, riding election wins on the strength of out-of-district funding from a conservative political action committee. A board member who was censured in May after then-Superintendent Melissa Goff and assistant Superintendent Lisa Harlan lodged a complaint against him, was voted as board chair. The board fired Goff without cause, and over the last week, voted to suspend the typical superintendent hiring process, adopted an expedited process, and brought in Saxton Monday to interview for the top job.

Most of these moves have been done in closed board meetings, only available to the public virtually, with a crowd outside. Board members still haven’t shared a reason for firing Goff, with board member Brad Wilson responding to that question at a special board meeting last Friday, saying it’s not “legally practical” to share the board’s reason.

“You must be cautious when speaking about people and their employment, so it’s very imperative that we don’t create a situation where we have a lawsuit,” Wilson said Friday.

Public comments have flooded in before each meeting questioning the board’s decisions and transparency. Others have celebrated them.

Over 100 public comments were submitted in advance of Monday’s meeting. The district had asked for the public’s thoughts on Saxton and proposed questions for his interview.

There was overwhelming support for Saxton as a “local” candidate for the job. He was also the only serious candidate for the job, after the board seemingly declined to pursue other candidates shared by board member Michael Thomson.

After ignoring all public comments submitted before Friday’s meeting, saying there was a “planned campaign” behind the comments, Board Chair Eric Aguinaga applauded Monday’s comments, even though several were identical, suggesting organized support for the board.

At least seven public comments included the sentences, “I am writing in my support for the urgent hiring of an interim superintendent and I trust the newly elected board members to choose the right candidate. When we voted for the new Board we expected them to make swift changes to improve academics and return our schools to instruction and improve our failing public schools.”

At Monday’s meeting, Saxton mentioned his close ties to the district, and his desire to help the district this year.

“I think there’s a great deal to do,” Saxton said. “I hope that I can be somebody who would provide some healing, but also some opportunity and some inspiration, and perhaps, help the district move forward, and as quickly as possible to get a leader who can be your permanent leader over time.”

Saxton fielded two questions from each board member on issues including equity and state testing. Director Brad Wilson asked for Saxton’s thoughts on changes to high school schedules, a decision former Superintendent Goff was criticized for.

Saxton said he would not overhaul high school schedules, but might make small changes while being direct and seeking staff input.

Other questions related directly to leading a district in the middle of a pandemic. Earlier this month, the school board voted to “no longer require the wearing of masks, consistent with state law” for all students and staff in the district. Thomson shared a community question and asked Saxton if he would change mask requirements, especially for unvaccinated elementary students. There have been concerns around the state and nationally about the impact of the delta variant on school-aged children.

Saxton said he will listen to the “experts” and take caution, while understanding that instruction models and protocols around mask-wearing can change.

“Let’s wait and see what happens, but let’s do give people options, let’s do have kids in schools as much as we possibly can and have it be safe,” Saxton said.

In answering a question about repairing community trust, Saxton said the board and staff need to show care to the community.

“I know the people in the community care about kids, and they want their school system to be great on behalf of their community, on behalf of their kids,” he said. “And we need to give them the kind of demonstration that says that they have a reason to have a relationship with us that will be based in trust, care and quality.”

The board deliberated for a little more than 10 minutes before voting to hire Saxton as interim superintendent, with board member Michael Thomson the only “no” vote.

Dismissing legal counsel Paul Dakopolos’ suggestion to postpone the contract vote to give the public more time to give input, the board pushed to approve Saxton’s contract, which goes into effect immediately.

Under the contract, Saxton will receive $150,000 for 190 days of work, with no time off. He is to receive technology and automobile allowances, reimbursements for expenses, and health insurance through his tenure and for two years afterward.

One board member asked counsel if the contract was consistent with other districts of Albany’s size. With all of the benefits, two staff members said Saxton’s contract was worth more than Goff’s contract, renewed last month before her dismissal.

Chair Eric Aguinaga called the difference a matter of “dollars per experience,” also noting the need for a superintendent before the start of school.

“When you hire someone in an emergency you end up paying more,” Aguinaga said.

Although Saxton is now the district’s interim superintendent, he’ll be out of the state due to pre-planned appointments beginning July 27. He’ll return just in time for the district’s next board meeting on August 9, before leaving again August 16th and returning on the 27th, six days before the first day of school.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Elizabeth Miller