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updated 2:30 AM PST, Feb 12, 2016

Ron and Lynne Saxton's education passion

0511_SaxtonWhen the governor needed help with education reform, he turned to a powerhouse husband and wife who've been a team since their college days.

By Susan Hauser

Lynne Saxton got the call first. Last November, newly elected Gov. John Kitzhaber was putting together his transition teams before taking office, and he was asking both Republicans and Democrats to advise him on how to reorganize Oregon’s education system to best serve kids from birth to adulthood.

0511_SaxtonRon Saxton, Lynne’s husband, got a call from Kitzhaber a few weeks later, asking him to help, too. But he was hardly an afterthought. Like his wife before him, he was a logical choice.

Now several months into Kitzhaber’s term, this powerhouse Republican couple is fully committed to helping the Democratic governor revamp education in Oregon.

“We’ve both put a lot of effort into trying to push improvements in education,” says Ron Saxton, former Portland School Board chair and 2006 Republican candidate for governor, “and we’re excited that the governor has taken on the leadership to try to make it happen.”

Lynne Saxton, CEO of ChristieCare, the 152-year-old Clackamas County mental health service agency serving children and families, leads the governor's Early Learning Design Team, whose mission is to identify ways to assure that children are healthy, stable and ready to learn by the day they enter kindergarten.

Ron Saxton, executive VP of Jeld-Wen, the Klamath Falls-based window and door maker, is on the Oregon Education Investment Team that is chaired by the governor.

On April 5, Kitzhaber introduced SB 909, which creates the Oregon Education Investment Board. If the legislation passes both houses and is signed into law this session, the new board will replace both the State Board of Education and the State Board of Higher Education, while changing the Superintendent of Public Instruction from an elective office to a position appointed by the Governor.

For education in Oregon, a radical new landscape is taking shape.

 


The idea that a husband-wife team is playing a big role in the overhaul of the state’s education system is appealing to many observers. With such a huge project, a bit of education pillow talk couldn’t hurt.

“Their expertise is why they were chosen,” notes Rep. Tim Freeman (R-Roseburg). “But I think it’s an added benefit that they’re husband and wife. You get a lot of value-added time on that issue that you wouldn’t get if they weren’t husband and wife. But outside of that, they’re both the right people for the job.”

The Saxtons, both 57 and living in Southeast Portland, have been a team since college days at Willamette University, where they met in a sophomore political science class. Ron admits that Lynne saw the potential for a partnership long before it crossed his mind. Indeed, he had no inkling that his exuberant classmate had already identified him as her future husband.

Lynne recalls, “I looked out my window one day at Willamette and told my roommate, ‘See that guy over there? That’s who I’m gonna marry!’” But that seemed unlikely. For starters, she was dating someone else. Furthermore, she was totally dedicated to sorority and student life. Ron, then state chairman of OSPIRG, a consumer advocacy group, had his mind on his own future.

But one year after their 1976 graduation, they were engaged. A year later, they married and made their first home in Charlottesville, Va., where Ron was in his final year at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Back in Oregon, they had one son, Andrew, now 29 and product marketing manager at FLIR Systems in Portland. Ron joined the Portland law firm of Ater Wynne and in 1997 was elected to the Portland School Board. He served as the board’s chair from 1998 to 2000.

In 2002, he ran for a statewide office for the first time, throwing his hat in the ring to be the Republican candidate for governor. His run was cut short when he lost the primary to Kevin Mannix, who six months later lost the governor’s race to Ted Kulongoski.

But Lynne in particular still values the lessons of the brief campaign. She served as her husband’s field director. In the process, she gained a new appreciation of his strengths, while learning from Ron approaches to problem solving that she now emulates.

“It was great because I’d never seen him in action before,” she says. “I’d never seen him managing people and crises and decisions and such. It didn’t matter how bad things got. He would always be able to convene a team, move from A to B, have a healthy debate, with no one screaming, and get there.”

At the same time, Ron praises Lynne’s own style of tackling issues. “People who know me say I do best at solving problems,” he says. “She does a better job of laying out a vision that’s inspiring, as opposed to just, ‘Here’s a solution.’”

 


The governor has charged his education teams to outline a budget and a policy framework by the end of May. For Ron and Lynne Saxton, the task seems less onerous because they share the governor’s vision of achieving results, outcomes and accountability.

“That’s not what we’ve had historically,” says Ron. “Historically we’ve had a system where results and outcomes were how many days of school you had or how many years — ‘seat time’ kinds of measurements, not performance measurements. And you know, that’s not the way you run anything.”

The governor’s  holistic “zero to 20” approach to education makes sense to the Saxtons, who see a clear connection between a toddler’s poor family conditions, a child’s weak school performance and an Oregon workforce’s failure to compete in a global economy.

It especially makes sense to Lynne, who is lauded for results at ChristieCare, formerly the Christie School. Attention to family needs and responsibilities, while setting measurable expectations for every child’s achievement, has translated into a new level of success for the venerable institution.

“[Lynne's] got a laser focus,” says Kitzhaber’s education adviser, Dr. Nancy Golden. “She’s very much about focusing on the outcome and creating the system that gets us there. She has what I call a line of sight, always keeping her eye on what are the outcomes we need for students so they arrive at kindergarten with the skills to be successful and can leave first grade ready to read.”

Ron laughs when he shares how capitol insiders explain Kitzhaber’s emphasis on making sure kids are ready to move on academically before they’re promoted. “It’s really because John’s a doctor,” he explains. “You don’t take someone into the hospital and then say, ‘Well, they’ve been here a month, we’re going to release them.’ You release them when they’re well. His notion is, you don’t come to school not ready to learn and you don’t go to third grade not able to read.”

Ron says there will be no talk of financing until ways are found to make the existing system more efficient. “We’re not focusing yet on sources of money; we’re talking about uses of money.”

In the meantime, Ron’s team is looking at ways that school districts can share resources and use them more efficiently. For example, the various food service and transportation systems are being scrutinized, with an eye toward consolidation.

“I think John very, very wisely understands that you can’t ask the voters, the taxpayers, to change how we fund schools until you can say that we’re delivering a quality product and it’s working,” he says. “There are a lot of people who believe the problem still is that we don’t have enough money and that if we just had more money nothing else needs to change. And I reject that and Lynne rejects that and the governor rejects that.”

 


Lynne and Ron Saxton are very busy people with their ample work and community responsibilities. Ron in particular is always on the go, traveling on behalf of his employer, Jeld-Wen, to the company’s offices in North America, Europe and Australia. He would have been well justified in telling Kitzhaber that he didn’t have the time to join his education team.

{pullquote}“We both grew up in the Packwood, Paulus, Atiyeh, McCall era where, if someone calls you and asks you to help, it doesn’t matter what their party is, in Oregon you help. That’s the tradition.” - Lynne Saxton{/pullquote}

“If it was just another committee that wanted to talk about these things with no prospect of success, well, I’ve got way too many things going on,” he says.

But the thrilling prospect of working with a dedicated group to solve a big problem in the state was irresistible, says Lynne. “We both grew up in the Packwood, Paulus, Atiyeh, McCall era where, if someone calls you and asks you to help, it doesn’t matter what their party is, in Oregon you help. That’s the tradition.”

And then along came a governor who happened to be a Democrat, but also happened to feel confident that given the right team, he could make his daring vision a reality.

“The key to my willingness to do this isn’t just that he has good ideas,” says Ron. “It’s that he intends to execute them. And if I didn’t believe he intended to execute them, I wouldn’t be helping him.”


Education Evolution

Upon his election last November, Gov. John Kitzhaber established three transition teams to examine ways to improve the state’s education system: early childhood, K-12 and post-secondary.

Lynne Saxton co-chaired the early childhood team and Ron Saxton co-chaired the K-12 team.

A few months later, the transition teams morphed into new entities, with new casts of characters. Ron Saxton moved on to the Oregon Education Investment Team, as did Lynne Saxton’s former co-chair, OHSU’s Pam Curtis, and 10 other state leaders in education and business.

Ron Saxton’s former co-chair, Springfield School Superintendent Nancy Golden, was named the governor’s education adviser. Lynne Saxton became the head of the Early Learning Design Team.

That 28-member team and the Performance-Based Budget Design Team, led by Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council, will report to the Oregon Education Investment Team.

Last modified onThursday, 19 November 2015 14:39

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