Oslo schools chief quits under pressure

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UPDATED: Astrid Søgnen, director of education for the City of Oslo, has finally agreed to resign her powerful post after more than a year of conflict and controversy. She’s not leaving entirely, though, and will keep her million-kroner-plus salary after being offered a different job in which she’ll “contribute to the cultural area” of the city’s administration.

Astrid Søgnen, a former Labour Party politician who headed the city’s school administration for the past 18 years, has been at the center of what’s been called an “uncomfortable situation” in the Oslo schools. Many in addition to city government leader Raymond Johansen, also of the Labour Party, had been calling for her resignation. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Søgnen made no secret of the fact she was pressured to step down after the leader of Oslo’s city government, Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, asked for her resignation earlier this autumn. Søgnen, who held her top post for 18 years, had been caught in a lengthy political conflict with the political leader in charge of education, Inga Marte Thorkildsen of the Socialist Left party. Commentators called the conflict “unprecedented” because it pitted the bureaucracy against elected officials, and therefore tested democratic principles. Søgnen, wrote political commentator Lars West Johnsen in newspaper Dagsavisen, failed to understand that democratically elected officials must always have the decisive power in the end.

“If only she had listened more … and accepted her place in the management hierarchy of the City of Oslo,” she likely could have remained in her position, Johnsen wrote. She was widely credited as being behind important reforms over the past 18 years in a school district with 15,000 employees, 90,000 parents and 180,000 parents and guardians. Few dispute she made Oslo schools stronger, only to get carried away “with feeling the education department was hers.”

Søgnen also had faced widespread criticism within the administration for being too authoritarian. Many teachers felt their freedom of expression was threatened, especially after a colleague was disciplined for revealing how unruly students can be and how school leaders often lacked control.

Johansen, noting that Søgnen would reach retirement age this November, called for her to step down but she refused. “It has not been my wish to quit as director of education in Oslo right now,” Søgnen confirmed in the remarkably candid press release sent out by the city Wednesday morning. “I am very proud of what we have accomplished over the past 18 years in the Oslo schools, and grateful for the contributions of teachers, school leaders, my people in the administration and all other employees at all levels.”

‘I have led in a good manner’
Søgnen went on to praise herself: “I believe I have led (the school administration) in a good manner and with good results for the students. I must nonetheless acknowledge that Inga Marte Thorkildsen wants me to move over to another position. I have therefore accepted that.” She said she has a specialty in literature “and will contribute to the cultural area of the city.” She declined to respond to questions from Norwegian media and thus left the department she ran by “slamming the classroom door behind her,” Johnsen wrote.

Johansen, who last week cleared Thorkildsen of any wrongdoing over the past year, and Thorkildsen herself expressed relief in the press release. “I am glad we have arrived at a solution in which Astrid Søgnen moves over to another position in the City of Oslo,” Thorkildsen stated.

No details of Søgnen’s new position were revealed, but newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported later in the day that she will be allowed to keep her annual salary of NOK 1,291,200 per year plus an extra personal allotment that was not disclosed. Since her new job hasn’t yet been defined, and won’t begin until April 1, it appears to have been created for her as a means of removing her as schools chief. She’ll likely be able to hang onto it for another three years, when she reaches the city’s maximum retirement age of 70.

Johansen stated that “Astrid Søgnen has done an important job for 18 years” and contributed “strongly” to “good results” for the Oslo schools. “I am grateful for that, but there is a time for everything,” Johansen said. “Both society and the schools are changing, and it’s time for new strengths within the administration.”

He stressed that “this has been a difficult process for everyone involved.” An announcement regarding Søgnen’s replacement was pending.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund