Portland Media Reported on Teachers Accused of Abuse and Assault Being Placed on Paid Leave. Now, District May Give Union Right to Block Such Disclosures

By Beth Hawkins | February 27, 2018

Updated March 2

First Amendment watchdogs in Oregon have raised a new alarm about their ongoing struggle to secure public records from the Portland Public Schools. The latest wrinkle: The school board recently approved a contract with its teachers union that would allow the Portland Association of Teachers to challenge the district on decisions regarding the public’s right to know when teachers are placed on paid leave.

Members of Oregon’s Society of Professional Journalists say they were recently prevented from addressing the school board about the possibility and complain that PPS leaders have made differing statements about the policy.

“They don’t have a very decent track record as a district in terms of responding to public records requests, so the fact that they’re willing to entertain this is very troubling,” Samantha Swindler, an Oregon SPJ past president and columnist at The Oregonian, told The 74. “The public has a right to know whether teachers are being paid not to teach.”

It’s not clear what district officials will negotiate with the union or whether the policy being drafted adheres to state public information law.

For three years, reporters and community activists have repeatedly pursued district records that ultimately reveal a pattern in which administrators place employees — some accused of sex abuse, assault, and other serious offenses — on paid leave for months or years without resolution. Oregon courts have consistently ruled that the information is public under state law.

Until the troublesome reports began appearing, the district interpreted state law the way the courts have: The fact that an employee is on leave is public information, even if the reason is often a private personnel matter.

Then last year, Portland Public Schools took the unusual step of suing Portland Tribune reporter Beth Slovic and a vocal and persistent parent, Kim Sordyl, for requesting records identifying employees on paid leave. District leaders contend that their aim is not to silence the women but to appeal a decision they don’t agree with and to have a higher court clarify what they see as a murky law.

District officials did not respond to questions from The 74 regarding this story. According to news reports, the newly reconfigured school board has said it is working on a new public records policy that presumes most information is public, “with a goal of maximum transparency,” according to The Oregonian. It’s not clear whether the language in the new teachers’ contract gives the union the ability to challenge parts of the policy or to reject it altogether.

It’s also not clear that the district could address the union’s concerns without contradicting state law.

“You can’t have a contract that overrides what’s required by a law,” said Adam Marshall of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “I find all of that kind of disturbing.”

But Dave Northfield, director of media relations for the Portland Public Schools, insists the public records policy being drafted will comply with state law.

In August, The Oregonian published an investigative report that followed five months of efforts by reporter Bethany Barnes to obtain records that showed that years of sex abuse complaints against teacher Mitch Whitehurst were never properly investigated. It took a court order to secure the documents.

At the same time, the Tribune’s Slovic reported that a teacher was being paid almost $76,000 a year while on administrative leave, even as he was in and out of jail on charges that included assault and drunk driving. In March 2016, she found, the district renewed his contract through June 2018. In December the teacher, who had been deemed a danger to students, agreed to resign and was given more than $19,000 in back pay.

In October, after a different former PPS teacher was convicted of sexually touching six girls in one day in the Oregon City school district, The Oregonian requested records related to the teacher’s time in Portland schools. District Public Records Officer Ryan Vandehey said he would delay releasing to the press and public the district’s settlement agreement with the former teacher.

“The district had to consult with the union before the record could be made public because of the union’s desire to bargain over the new public records policy,” The Oregonian reported at the time.

It’s not clear whether the consultation happened or what was discussed or decided.

The settlement, which turned out to be part of the file in the criminal case that led to the teacher’s conviction, revealed that the district made a deal with the teacher to keep his history of misconduct with students quiet. Presumably, this decision is why repeated complaints against the teacher didn’t stop him from going on to work as a substitute in Oregon City.

Over the summer, a newly elected school board majority pledged greater transparency and set an October deadline for the creation of a new, more open policy. But when a proposed teacher contract was released in early February several days before the board was scheduled to vote on it, it contained two new provisions that would make investigations such as the aforementioned much harder.

One new clause requires the district to put the letters formally placing an employee on leave in an investigative file, which is harder for reporters and others seeking public records to obtain than a personnel file.

Changing the place where a record is kept generally doesn’t change its status under the law, said Marshall: “You can call the record a ham sandwich, but that doesn’t make it a ham sandwich.”

The other provision in the proposed contract would have barred district administrators from saying an employee had been placed on leave. Oregon SPJ members and reporters told The 74 they were given conflicting answers by the district about whether this would silence PPS leaders and board members, or just principals and human resources officials.

The second clause does not appear in the final contract. In its place is a clause committing the district to allow the union to “bargain” about the public information policy still being drafted. The clause does not specify whether the union must agree to the new policy.

Northfield, the district’s director of media relations, explained that the district was responding to concerns raised by the union. “The district agreed with their concerns in some instances,” he said. “Therefore, the district agreed to language that said the administrator would only tell the local school community what they needed to know: that the teacher was not in the building so that the community knew that the issue had been addressed and student safety had been assured.”

He added that the district made it clear that the language does not prohibit district leaders from communicating to the media or the public about these issues.

“This is a good balance, one that was reached through collective bargaining,” he said.

SPJ board member Nick Budnick said the journalists’ group has been told PPS principals and other “administrators” will not be allowed to say an employee is on paid leave but school board members and district leaders will disclose that information. The SPJ members were not allowed to testify about their concerns, which they raised individually with board members and the district’s attorney, he said in an email.

“I’ve not seen anything from the Portland Association of Teachers confirming that they agree on that interpretation,” he added. “And it’s not clear to us what would happen if the language’s interpretation goes to an arbitrator.”

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