Our Opinion: Portland school board talks transparency, votes for secrecy
You can't fault a labor union for negotiating the best deal for its members. But buried inside the latest three-year agreement between Portland Public Schools and its teachers is a clause that could keep the public in the dark about instructors who may pose a threat to the safety and security of students.
That particular contract language came out of a flawed process that is bad for everyone — the school district, parents, students and taxpayers. And frankly, it erodes the public's trust in the vast majority of teachers who do extraordinary work every day, while it protects a handful who ought to be chased out of the profession.
At issue is a provision in the contract limiting the disclosure of information about teachers who have been removed from classrooms and put on paid leave.
Despite the more substantive topics in the contract — such as a cap on classroom size and a retroactive pay hike — this one provision should have been enough to send both sides back to the bargaining table, as it suggests that the union and the district are attempting an end run around state public records laws.
Prior to the school board's vote on the contract, Open Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for the right to government information, expressed its "deep concerns" about the effort to place "additional hurdles to releasing information of significant concern to the public."
The Society of Professional Journalists asked the school board to remove that clause or at least delay the vote until it could be discussed publicly.
Instead, the board refused to let SPJ — or anyone — offer public comment and unanimously passed the pact.
We understand why the union, board and even some teachers, would like to keep certain documents hidden away. In the past six months, both the Portland Tribune and The Oregonian have reported about teachers whose behavior has endangered students and members of the public.
In both cases, the teachers were put on paid administrative leave. In both cases, the district fought efforts to release school records related to the teachers' conduct.
We're not talking about conduct that is merely embarrassing. Under the terms of the contract, a teacher may be put on paid leave for only four reasons: the alleged behavior is grounds for firing; the teacher's presence may interfere with an internal investigation; the teacher is likely to repeat the alleged misconduct; or the teacher's removal from the school "is appropriate to maintain the safety and security of students and/or staff."
Board members swear they're not trying to hide anything by restricting the disclosure of information about administrative leaves.
But it's now clear that the district has been stalling efforts by journalists and activists to clarify its policy governing public records, while negotiating in secret, through collective bargaining talks, to make it more difficult to get them.
When the discussion over the policy shut down after an October public hearing, district officials told the Portland Tribune that it had nothing to do with union resistance. Yet, we later learned that the union had filed a grievance to block the public records policy and included language in the current contract giving the union the explicit right to challenge any changes to the district's public records policy.
By agreeing to that clause, the district has implied that the policies ensuring government transparency can be bargained away during union negotiations.
Luckily, it's not easy to keep public documents hidden.
We asked three attorneys well-versed in Oregon public records law to give us their take on the board's action. Jack Orchard, Duane Bosworth and Jeff Merrick all agreed that elected officials and government agencies can't ignore the law just because a contract purports to let them do so.
"Logically and legally, one cannot avoid a duty imposed by law by agreeing not to comply with the law, whether it is prostitution or the duties imposed by the [Oregon] public records law," says Merrick, who successfully sued Multnomah County for public records that the county had promised a to keep secret in its contract with a private contractor.
Bosworth and Orchard agree. "No contract can supersede the records law," Orchard says. "There is only one set of rules—those adopted by the Legislature."
Even though the contract language probably won't hold sway in court, it seems to set up yet another hurdle — and expense — for those who are trying to hold the district and its employees accountable.
Faced with evidence that it employs teachers who pose a threat to children, the board continues to ask students, parents and the public to trust the district to handle things secretly.
Our view is that trust must be earned — and, in the case of PPS, verified.