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Portland Schools End Up in National Spotlight After Suing Parent Activist, Reporter Over Public Records

By Beth Hawkins | October 17, 2017

There isn’t a molecule of Kim Sordyl’s being that is what Oregonians call “Portland Polite.” By trade, she’s an employment attorney and courtroom litigator. A giant thorn in Portland Public Schools’ side for the past four years, she’s perfectly happy to use her skills to help parents who feel their complaints are being swept under the rug.

The administrators Sordyl has called out on Facebook, in news stories, or at school board meetings are legion. She’s impervious to suggestions she has defamed anyone. And frequently the issues she bird-dogs turn out to be real problems involving mismanagement, waste, or indifference to the mistreatment of students.

Sordyl’s latest scrap with the district has drawn national attention. Seeking to block a public records request that could reveal embarrassing information, the district has sued Sordyl and longtime Portland education beat reporter Beth Slovic.

While it’s still rare enough to make headlines, increasingly government agencies are suing people who ask for public records. In some instances, people have lost those suits even in cases where courts have agreed they have a legal right to the information. In addition to the cost of defending themselves, this can mean paying the legal bills of the public agency that sued them.

“These lawsuits are basically the government weaponizing something that’s supposed to be to the benefit of the public against the public,” says Adam Marshall of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“The basis for all democratic activity really starts with information. For a government entity to sue someone who is just trying to figure out what their government is doing is, frankly, despicable.”

Portland Public Schools officials say the suit is their only avenue to clarity on the legal status of the records in question. Releasing the list of names of district employees on paid administrative leave, which both women requested separately, would violate the employees’ privacy, they say.

“The district is not seeking to silence Beth or Kim,” said Director of Media Relations Dave Northfield. “An appeal can only come in the form of a lawsuit against the requestors. A court of appeals option would be great to have.”

But it’s a change, Sordyl and Slovic each contend, from the district’s past interpretation of Oregon’s open-records law. Until things became contentious, they both say, the district agreed that although the circumstances leading to the leave were private personnel matters, the names were public.

Not only has the 48,500-student district routinely sent out news releases saying individuals have been placed on leave pending investigation, past lists have brought to light instances where employees sat at home — or, in one case, in jail — drawing full pay for upwards of two years.

Adding to the tensions is fallout from an August investigative report by The Oregonian newspaper, which documented a decades-long district pattern of turning a blind eye to sex abuse allegations. The district fought the reporter who broke that story, Bethany Barnes, for five months not to release the records that revealed years of complaints against teacher Mitch Whitehurst that were never properly investigated. Portland Public Schools were eventually ordered to produce the documents by a county district attorney. The abuse revelations followed a 2016 scandal involving lead in the district’s drinking water.

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The number of district employees on the payroll but not on the job has been the subject of ongoing controversy in other districts. New York City’s notorious Absent Teacher Reserve pool (which includes teachers whose jobs have been eliminated) cost $151 million last year, for example. Los Angeles Unified will pay $15 million this school year for its “teacher jail,” where employees being investigated for disciplinary reasons are assigned.

Slovic’s curiosity was piqued in 2015 by a story she wrote for Portland’s Willamette Week, where she was on staff, about an African-American teacher Portland schools had recruited from Atlanta as part of a diversity push. In the wake of tensions with racial overtones, the teacher was put on leave before the end of her first year.

Slovic had heard the teacher wasn’t the only district employee in limbo, so she asked the district for the names of everyone on administrative leave. When she got it, she noticed the name of a school psychologist who had been on leave — mostly paid — from her $80,000-a-year job for more than two years.

In the fall of 2016, Slovic again requested the list of names to see whether the psychologist’s case had been resolved and was told that the district had changed its interpretation of the law. The reporter was able to review other records to learn that the psychologist was on leave for a third consecutive year for disciplinary reasons, after which she was returned to the job.

“Her extended leave raises a whole host of public policy questions,” says Slovic.

School Board Chair Julia Brim-Edwards, one of several new board members sworn in over the summer, did not respond to a request for comment.

As it happened, Sordyl had been seeking the same information as Slovic and had also been denied. A stay-at-home parent since her first child was born, she has two kids in Portland Public Schools. “I was the mom who brought in the giant salad for the teacher appreciation lunch,” she says.

In the 2011–12 school year, the district had an ombudsperson who began creating a database of parent complaints to look for patterns. When the parent representative’s position was eliminated, Sordyl said she began hearing outrageous stories on the parent grapevine.

Many of the complaints involved tensions among adults that made the school day miserable — or worse — for students. Complaints ranged from changes to extracurricular offerings to verbal abuse of elementary pupils by a teacher. Race factored into some.

In one case, parents petitioned the district to remove an elementary school principal who refused to follow up on their concerns. The principal was removed from that post and reassigned. After problems surfaced at the new school, another petition circulated, and the principal was put on leave and ultimately resigned.

Among the patterns Sordyl says she began to notice: Rather than resolve issues, the central office would put employees on leave. By denying the records requests, the district’s lawyers and human resources administrators are in effect denying the public information about decisions they advised or participated in, Sordyl notes.

In March of this year, Sordyl emailed Slovic to say she was taking the next step laid out in Oregon law, which was to appeal to the Multnomah County district attorney, the same official who ordered the release of district records in The Oregonian’s teacher sex abuse investigation. Slovic filed her own appeal.

By the end of the month, the district attorney had sided with the women. Most of the names on the list, Slovic says the DA noted, were known because the district had announced at the time it happened that they were placed on leave.

A month later, Slovic was making dinner one night when a man on a bike showed up at her front door. It turned out he was a process server, bringing paperwork announcing that Slovic was being sued by Portland Public Schools.

She was working as a freelancer when she made the 2016 request, so for a little while it looked like Slovic was going to have to find the money to defend herself. The Society of Professional Journalists sent her information on getting grants to pay an attorney, and Facebook friends offered to crowdsource the expense. In the end, the Portland Tribune, where she now works, volunteered to take on the suit.

Sordyl, meanwhile, has had to hire her own attorney.

In most lawsuits in the United States, each party bears its own fees. Because they are seen as so vital to democracy, public records laws give people who must sue to have the laws enforced the ability to recover their costs from the agency that failed to produce the information. Lawsuits like the one brought by Portland school officials flip that equation, says Marshall.

“It’s destructive not only for the requestor but for the public at large, because it has a chilling effect,” he says. “It can create a situation where people don’t want to request records because they are afraid government will come after them.”

And adding insult to injury, the requestor’s tax dollars are underwriting the gambit.

“The government entity is expending time and money on this issue and on lawyers, and that’s public money,” says Marshall. “So now they are expending public time and public money to keep the public from knowing what public employees are doing.”

Slovic is undeterred. In August, she reported that a teacher on the list she obtained in 2015 was still on administrative leave and had been paid almost $76,000 a year even as he was in and out of jail on charges that included assault and drunk driving. In March 2016, the district renewed his contract through June 2018.

Separately, soon after the district sued Slovic and Sordyl, it was sued by a high school athletic director who said the announcement that he had been placed on leave defamed him. Portland Public Schools is working on a settlement in that case.

Meanwhile, Sordyl’s activism gained her a non-voting seat on the state Board of Education. A Democrat, she is the designee of Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who recently announced his office would audit Portland Public Schools. Her lack of “Portland Polite,” she says, is rattling the other board members.

By suing her, Sordyl says, the school district has unwittingly increased the amount of attention the news media and others are paying to the issues she’s raised.

“I don’t think they realize every time they attack me it results in a news story,” she says. “I’ve grown very thick skin. I am an alligator now.”

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