With anti-accountability lawsuit targeting journalist, parent, Portland schools gets it wrong: Editorial Agenda 2017
As public records skirmishes go, this one seemed fairly tame at first. Portland journalist Beth Slovic requested from Portland Public Schools a list of district employees who are on paid administrative leave, a category that includes those not working due to medical issues, pending disciplinary investigations and other reasons.
A longtime reporter who has covered the school district for years, Slovic had sought such information as recently as 2015 with no problem. But this time, the district denied her request and a similar one filed separately by parent activist Kim Sordyl. The two appealed the denials to Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, who agreed recently that the school district must turn over the data.
So far that's not too extraordinary. What is extraordinary is that even after the ruling, Portland Public Schools won't hand over the requested information. Instead, it plans to sue Slovic and Sordyl in the hope that a judge will reverse the district attorney's ruling which, PPS Interim Superintendent Bob McKean said, just didn't seem right to them. McKean couldn't explain the district's legal rationale to The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board. But he questioned whether they should have to release information that might prompt some members of the public to speculate about employees' situations before a disciplinary investigation has been completed-- even though the requested list would not even reveal whether someone is facing an investigation. "We want clarity around this issue," he said.
That "clarity" is already spelled out in Underhill's detailed ruling and in the example set by other public agencies that have released such information including, until now, PPS. The only lack of clarity here is in the muddled thinking of those leading the district who seem to believe that a fear of possible gossip is a legitimate reason to bar public scrutiny of Portland Public Schools' practices, policies and spending. The Portland School Board should immediately step in, halt the planned lawsuit and save the district from the embarrassment, expense and collateral damage to other priorities that pressing this case will cause.
Editorial Agenda 2017
Boost student success
Get Oregon's financial house in order
Help our homeless
Honor our diverse values
Make Portland a city that works
Expand access to public records
Read more about the editorial board's priorities for Oregon.
It's important to know what prompted these requests in the first place. Slovic, who previously worked for Willamette Week and is now a freelance journalist, wrote a story in December 2016 that a school psychologist for Sunnyside Environmental K-8 appears to have been on paid administrative leave for more than three years. That unusual stretch of time made her wonder how many others might be in that position at the district, she told the editorial board. She noted that New York's education department was infamous for pulling teachers who faced misconduct complaints out of the classroom and sending them instead to centers dubbed "rubber rooms." While they continued collecting their salaries, they languished in limbo for years in some cases.
Similarly, Sordyl, who has uncovered a number of shoddy practices at PPS as a parent activist, questioned whether the district was dealing with problem employees by putting them on paid administrative leave indefinitely.
These are legitimate questions that get to core issues of accountability, competence, management and fiscal discipline. As a governmental body, funded with taxpayer dollars, and vested with the public's trust to educate children, With anti-accountability lawsuit targeting journalist, parent, Portland schools gets it wrong: Editorial Agenda 2017 | OregonLive.com: