Salem-Keizer superintendent Christy Perry has a check-in video call with Schirle Elementary special education teacher Annie Hatzenbihler on Tuesday, April 14. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

In 2016, Heidi Sipe faced a challenging year as superintendent of the Umatilla School District. She was dealing with changes on the local school board and among staff and seeking advice for how to run her eastern Oregon district.

Christy Perry, superintendent of Salem-Keizer Public Schools, was always willing to help.

“She would give a listening ear and she would give me ideas and support me in whatever idea I ended up going with,” Sipe said.

Perry this week was named Oregon Superintendent of the Year for 2021, selected by a group of the state’s 195 superintendents who serve on the Oregon Association of School Executives Board.

Sipe and other superintendents who selected Perry said her willingness to help them with their work and share good ideas across Oregon schools, as well as her work to advance racial equity in Salem-Keizer, inspired their choice.

“A mentor doesn’t help people become just like them. A mentor helps people become a better version of themselves,” Sipe said.

That leadership was something superintendents across the state relied on when Gov. Kate Brown ordered Oregon schools to close in mid-March.

“Christy was one of those people that would regularly reach out to other superintendents, facilitate a conversation so we could take the best ideas from each other,” said Mike Scott, Hillsboro school superintendent.

Perry, an Oregon native, came to Salem-Keizer in 2014 after working as the Dallas School District superintendent. She has framed much of her work as superintendent around equity, creating a new executive position and department to improve the education for students of color and other students historically not well-served in local schools.

Earlier this summer, she made headlines across Oregon when she stood up to the Salem-Keizer School Board – her bosses – by publicly saying they were failing to listen to students of color regarding police in schools.

The school police issue remains unresolved - a student advisory committee Perry created to discuss the future of police in schools is still meeting but hasn’t recommended changes yet.

For other school leaders, Perry’s public statement was a powerful example of standing up for students and among the reasons they selected her for the award.

“She was courageous in a way that all superintendents need to be courageous,” said Craig Hawkins, executive director of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators.

The Salem-Keizer administrators who nominated Perry also spoke of her work to keep educators feeling connected after schools closed in the spring.

Perry used weekly virtual staff meetings to share updates and answer questions. She wasn’t afraid to be human or less-than-perfect with her employees, nominators wrote.

“She also used these opportunities to share her own daily struggles and successes, staff celebrations and kudos, photographs of her 1-year-old granddaughter, her signature Converse tennis shoes, and always concluded each event with an all-staff dance party,” the administrators wrote.

Sipe said she appreciates that Perry leads with “humility,” often discussing her own mistakes with other superintendents.

Scott said “courage and integrity” define Perry’s leadership.

‘She is always going to do the right thing whether it’s a popular decision and opinion or it isn’t,” he said.

Superintendent Christy Perry receives the Oregon Superintendent of the Year award.

Perry received the award during a virtual district staff meeting Monday. She said she knew something unusual was happening when she logged on to Zoom and saw several superintendents from across Oregon on the call, watching as she updated her staff on the beginning of the year.

Then, Hawkins, state schools chief Colt Gill and Perry’s mother, husband and mother-in-law walked into her office to present the award.

“They did a good job surprising me,” Perry said.

She said she was most touched to hear about the impact she’s had on fellow superintendents she doesn’t know well. But the public recognition was a bit outside her comfort zone, she said.

“I just want to do the work,” she said.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.