Dr. Karen Fischer Gray announced the end of her tenure as superintendent of Parkrose schools on March 13. After what most would view as a successful 11-year run, which was capped off with a Superintendent of the Year Award for Oregon in 2018 from the Oregon Association of School Executives and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators jointly, Fischer Gray will head to the coast to become superintendent of the Lincoln County School District.
Unlike Portland, which is so big and spread out that one city has multiple school districts for its many neighborhoods, Lincoln County has just one school district for all its many cities.
“You’re looking at a county school district made up of numerous cities. So you have a different dynamic going on there, in that people are very connected to their city and to their community,” says Fischer Gray, continuing, “So how do you let people have their unique characteristics and allegiances while still having a school district that’s connected?”
While as a county, Lincoln is more than twice the size of Multnomah, it has less than one-sixteenth our population with less than 50,000 residents altogether. Demographically speaking, the realities will be different for Fischer Gray as well, with more than 90 percent of the population of the county being white. The efforts toward increasing access to services for underserved minority groups that Fischer Gray spearheaded in Parkrose will become even more acutely necessary in Lincoln.
“I think that’s the challenge that I see, making sure that the school district is a school district and not a district of schools,” says Fischer Gray. “It’s a very different concept.”
Economically, she’ll also be taking control of a different kind of school district. Unlike Parkrose, which experiences almost none of the bounty of Oregon’s tourist trade, Lincoln County is home to Newport and other tourist centers. This means school districts with money and a highly incentivized relationship with city hall. Both experiences will be huge changes of pace after being in east Portland.
Fischer Gray came to Parkrose from Coos Bay, where she was superintendent from 2004 to 2006. During her 11 years in Parkrose, she championed several programs, including Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), which has a simple goal of closing the achievement gap between students. It’s currently employed in classrooms in 46 states and is used by more than 1.5 million students in the United States.
Fischer Gray has previously been linked to attempts to leave the Parkrose position, including an unsuccessful bid for the same job with Reynolds School District in 2012. Her contract was set to end in June of 2019, and after more than a decade in charge of Parkrose, both she and the board were ready to explore new options.
“Knowing that I just had one more year on my contract here, I decided that I would apply, because Lincoln County is the kind of school district I was looking for the next chapter of my life. There was a mutual agreement, a totally mutual agreement that I was moving on,” says Fischer Gray of the decision.
Fischer Gray’s policies caused current Parkrose Board of Education member Mary Lu Baetkey to run for the school board. “She thought I wanted her gone, I might have,” Baetkey said in an email. “However, over these last five years I got to know a woman willing to push herself to do a remarkable job without enough support from the State with funding. She has worked tirelessly on all levels of government to get as much support as she could, to assist our students and their families.” She added “I appreciate all Karen brought to this school district, the culture that developed, has grown and shall continue to grow.”
Among the things Fischer Gray looks forward to working with in Lincoln County are their already high-achieving programs. “They are working hard with early learning. They have early learning programs in most of their elementary schools,” she says. “They have four high schools, and one of their high schools is an AP/IB school that has got a lot of solid reputation around it.” She’s referring to Newport High School, which is an International Baccalaureate school, offering the program renowned for improving educational outcomes.
Fischer Gray is bullish on the prospects of her replacement, Michael Lopes-Serrao, who signed a two-year contract as the new superintendent. “He’s somebody who has been my right hand, so I know for a fact that the great initiatives we started in the Parkrose District will continue. We built this district together as an administrative team,” says Fischer Gray. “So I feel the Parkrose school board made an excellent decision strategically by hiring Michael Lopes-Serrao as the successor to my job.”
Speaking for the board, Baetkey echoes Fischer Gray. “The board feels very fortunate that Michael has agreed to accept this leadership role with Parkrose School District. Michael is dedicated to Parkrose, he has turned down other offers to stay and work in Parkrose.”
He has been with the district for the last 16 years. He was principal at Prescott Elementary School for 11 years and Director of School Improvement and Assistant Superintendent for the last five years. He has been in control of implementing AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) across the district and works with staff on technology use.
It remains to be seen if Fischer Gray will take to the new position with the same dedication she showed to Parkrose—at least in terms of body art. Some may not be aware of the Parkrose Broncos tattoo she sports on her leg. “I told the Parkrose football team that if they could get into the state playoffs, I would get a Broncos tattoo,” says Fischer Gray. “They went to state, and I had to make good on my promise. I chose the Broncos logo that was actually created and designed for Parkrose High School. It was their absolutely unique and iconic bronco, and I got my favorite tattoo artist to stick it on my leg.”
Fischer Gray spoke with pride about her time in Parkrose but focused mostly on her future endeavor. “It’s a big district, a lot bigger than Parkrose, and it’s got an awful lot going on for it,” said Fischer Gray. “It’s got a good reputation, and I wanted a completely different experience going forward.”