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Capital Chatter: What's up at Education Department?

Shakeup either represents a revolving door or needed change in Oregon education.

Salam Noor is out as Oregon's top education official – although it's not clear anymore whose education job counts as No. 1.

Oregon has a clunky education bureaucracy. For the past two-plus years, Noor headed the Oregon Department of Education as the state's deputy superintendent of public instruction. Gov. Kate Brown also has her own chief education officer, as did her predecessor, John Kitzhaber.

Within that office, Brown created the job of education innovation officer last year and appointed Colt Gill, a former superintendent of the Bethel School District in Lane County. Brown, who was on a trade mission to Asia this week when she announced the Department of Education changes, tapped Gill to immediately take over as acting deputy superintendent there, although Noor will remain employed at the department through Dec. 31.

When Brown picked Noor as deputy superintendent in 2015, she said, "Salam has worked successfully to improve graduation rates, close the opportunity gap and provide new learning opportunities to engage students and help them prosper beyond high school."

On Wednesday, the official explanation from the Governor's Office was that Brown asked Noor to resign because she was not satisfied with his ability to execute her vision for Oregon's education system.

Student scores dropped this year on the state's standardized education tests. Oregonians are left to wonder whether Noor was being made a scapegoat. Will the state now simply rearrange its education bureaucracy again or simplify and improve that bureaucracy?

• Brown calls for equity, accountability: In a letter to Gill and four other state education officials on Wednesday, Brown outlined four education initiatives. She also listed her two "overarching guiding principles," which are:

"I. I expect that you will require a high standard of accountability in implementation, ensuring outcomes are measured and that every dollar of public investment for our students is well spent.

"II. I expect that you will work in your respective roles to ensure that our children, students and young people are provided the full benefit of programs as intended and consistent with our State's Equity Lens for education."

• Traveling the path of education bureaucracy: After Gov. John Kitzhaber and the 2011 Legislature abolished the elective office of state superintendent of public instruction — their way of getting elected incumbent Susan Castillo to leave — the governor reverted to being the state superintendent. The governor then appointed a deputy to actually do the work of running the state Department of Education.

Noor traveled a circuitous path to that position. A native of the Middle East, he attended high school in the Seattle area before earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Eastern Washington University and a doctorate in political science and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Utah. An assistant superintendent for the Salem-Keizer School District, he was passed over for the top job there before returning to the state Department of Education as its leader.

• What would Knute do? State Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, the leading Republican candidate for governor in 2018, was unimpressed with the education initiatives that Democrat Brown announced Wednesday in conjunction with Noor's departure. He did not detail what he would do differently if he were governor.

His statement: "This is political panic by Gov. Brown. She's had three years to fix the funding and quality of Oregon schools and she's failed to lead. Thousands of Oregon school kids are the victims of her indifference and indecisiveness. The revolving staff doors across the entire Brown Administration reflect poor judgement in hiring and a lack of vision that even her own staff can't follow.

"Where Gov. Brown has failed to lead on pension reforms to fix school funding — I will lead. And where Gov. Brown has been afraid to challenge the status quo to improve education quality, graduation and attendance – I will lead. The problem for Oregon education is Gov. Kate Brown. 

"The solution is a new Governor in 2018."

• What will the PERS task force say? Brown's task force will hold its fourth and presumably final meeting on Friday afternoon at Portland State University. Four meetings are not a lot of time for in-depth analysis and public reflection, so it will be interesting to see what members come up with.

They are to present a list of ideas for how the Brown administration and Legislature can trim at least $5 billion from the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System's ginormous unfunded actuarial liability. PERS reserves are tens of billions of dollars short for paying the projected costs of state, school and local-government retiree pensions.

The proposals likely will include selling some state assets and finding ways to move revenue toward PERS.

Will the most-creative proposals survive or have they already been killed through behind-the-scenes lobbying?

• A bit more timely: The governor's staff deserves credit for early posting of information about the Friday meeting of Brown's task force. Public comment is being accepted online until 12 a.m. Friday, which I presume means one minute after 11:59 p.m. Thursday.

I previously chided the governor's staff for posting the agenda less than 24 hours before a task force meeting. As of this writing, Friday's agenda is not online; but the public comment deadline is.

• Talking with the press: Brown held a media availability for Oregon Capitol reporters last month. Leading up to that, journalists were increasingly frustrated with the sometimes-slow response — or no response — from her press office.

• Oregon firefighters return the favor: Rain, cooler temperatures and some snow have calmed Oregon's wildfires. But this is the worst time of year for California wildfires, and Oregon firefighters are heading south to help. Wildland firefighters from California came north this summer and helped especially with initial attacks on Southern Oregon fires.

Firefighters are driving to California from Benton, Clatsop, Deschutes, Klamath, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties. Among them are firefighters and engines from Gresham, Portland and the Port of Portland, who only a few weeks ago were battling the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge.

Dick Hughes has covered the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.

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