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Portland Public Schools quietly settles costly employment dispute

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PPS put a school psychologist on leave for more than three years, then brought her back to work.

BETH SLOVIC - Theresa Seeley worked at Sunnyside Environmental School in Southeast Portland until 2013, when Portland Public Schools put her on paid administrative leave indefinitely. PPS recently brought her back to work, at West Sylvan Middle School, after more than three years.Theresa Seeley, a longtime child psychologist with Portland Public Schools, enjoys an unusual distinction. Slender and 53 with dusty blonde hair, Seeley has drawn a paycheck from Oregon's largest school district since the late 1990s. But from October 2013 to January 2017, she performed no work.

During the three-plus-years period, the district spent $180,000 on outside legal fees as part of its effort to discipline Seeley, after the Portland Public Schools Board voted in March 2013 to fire her. It also paid her annual salary of nearly $80,000 for at least 24 of the 39 months she didn't work. District officials have refused to say whether she was paid for the additional 15 months, despite a March 20 order from the Multnomah County district attorney that they do so.

In all, the district spent up to $440,000 while trying to fire Seeley — to no avail.

In the end, Seeley won. The district quietly returned her to work in January, placing her in a new school on the other side of town from her last one.

The question now is why? What does it say about the district that it spent so much and so long trying and failing to remove Seeley? Is this the story of an employee who, mistreated by administrators, fought and prevailed? Or was the school psychologist a bad fit with district managers who used scorched-earth tactics—and union protections—to save her job?

Or, lastly, did the district simply mess up by not following proper procedure to fire her?

Portland Public Schools officials won't say. Seeley and her attorney also declined to comment. On Feb. 13, 2017, a month after Seeley reported for work at West Sylvan Middle Schools, the two sides inked a settlement agreement. Portland Public Schools released the document but redacted most of the terms. Then, on April 28, both sides finalized a second agreement that said neither will talk. "All I am allowed to say is that the parties have resolved the matter," Seeley's attorney, Elizabeth Lemoine, wrote in an email.

In a district as large as Portland Public Schools, which has more than 6,000 employees, it's not at all surprising that disputes emerge. What is surprising is that the conflict between Portland Public Schools and its employee dragged on for so long and cost so much. And, for the public, it offers no clear evidence that the district has learned any lessons.

Andrew Davidson, the student member of the Portland Public Schools Board when Seeley was put on leave, now studies human resources management at Portland State University. Two years ago, he ran unsuccessfully for a full-fledged seat on the school board.

He said he doesn't blame the district for wanting to keep details of a personnel matter under wraps, but Portland Public Schools, suffering from numerous shortcomings that have eroded public trust, can't afford to be overly secretive. "That's what gives me pause," he said. "A lot of people have lost trust in the district. The school district needs to be especially forthcoming, because it needs people to trust it again."

Origins of the dispute

The problems started with a T-shirt. A student at Sunnyside Environmental School in Southeast Portland, where Seeley used to work, wore a shirt that advertised a brewery one day in 2010.

Seeley complained, saying the attire violated the student dress code.

But Amy Kleiner, then the assistant principal at Sunnyside, overruled Seeley.

Seeley had already worked for more than a decade at PPS, with no documented problems. And as a school psychologist, Seeley had an especially demanding job. She worked with special education students and those with individualized education programs. "I am considered to be a strong, talented and versatile school psychologist who can handle our toughest population of students," Seeley testified in front of the school board at one point.

But suddenly things went bad.

In 2011, when Kleiner became principal, Seeley filed an internal complaint against her, alleging she violated state and federal law by failing to process a special needs recommendation for a student. That was the first of three internal complaints that Seeley filed against Kleiner. She also filed a separate complaint with the state licensing agency for teachers against a colleague for racial discrimination, public records show.

In September 2012, Kleiner put Seeley on a plan of assistance, a tool that Portland Public Schools uses to help educators improve—or to help ease them out. The Portland Association of Teachers union, on behalf of Seeley, then filed its first two of seven grievances against the school district, alleging they'd violated the union contract.

That school year, Seeley also filed at least one more complaint specifically against Kleiner, accusing her of breaking the law by allowing a father whose child had a restraining order against him to enter the school. Seeley, in turn, was reprimanded four times for being "uncollaborative" with colleagues.

The Portland Public Schools Board voted on March 4, 2013 to end Seeley's contract at the district. Typically, that means an employee will stop working at the end of the school year. But for reasons that aren't entirely clear, Seeley doesn't appear to have left. The union filed three additional labor grievances after the vote.

And the problems didn't go away. On Oct. 8, 2013, Kleiner disciplined Seeley for using what was supposed to be a confidential listserve for psychologists to talk about a student. It's unclear what Seeley wrote or why it was apparently an issue. Seeley, who claimed Kleiner wasn't permitted to view the content of the listserve, then filed a complaint against Kleiner with the state licensing agency for educators alleging "harassment" and "violation of her ethical duties." The licensing agency dismissed the complaint. Kleiner declined to be interviewed.

A week later, Portland Public Schools put Seeley on paid administrative leave for what the district deemed unprofessional and uncooperative behavior with adult colleagues. Officials also told Seeley they wanted to investigate whether her participation over the previous summer in a child custody hearing involving Sunnyside students violated district policy. Seeley said she was merely helping a friend.

Around this time, Portland Public Schools' overall relationship with the teachers' union cratered. Within months, they would narrowly avoid a massive strike.

In September 2014, Seeley filed a complaint with the state's Bureau of Labor and Industries. BOLI dismissed her complaint in August 2015 for lack of substantial evidence.

In October 2015, she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district claiming, among other things, that the district retaliated against her for whistleblowing.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman would later side with the school district on all but one of Seeley's claims—that she might have been a whistleblower. A jury was set to rule on that question in a four-day federal trial scheduled for May 9-12.

That never happened.

On Jan. 11, 2017, Seeley returned to work with the district, moving from Sunnyside to West Sylvan. And three months later, Seeley and the district inked an agreement "in their mutual business interests" to stop fighting. That was the same agreement in which the parties also agreed never to speak of the matter again.

Davidson, the former student member of the board, summed up the drawn-out affair with equanimity.

"It sounds unfortunate for everyone," Davidson, 21, said.

Lack of transparency

Many of the details around Seeley's employment are unclear, and not just because of the non-disclosure agreement.

Portland Public Schools is currently suing the Portland Tribune and a parent activist to keep secret the names of teachers put on paid administrative leave. The district previously disclosed that information in 2015, which is why it's a matter of public record that Seeley collected a salary for at least 24 of her 39 months of forced leave.

Portland Public Schools released additional records about Seeley's employment but redacted significant portions of them, citing her personal privacy.

The president of the Portland Association of Teachers union, Suzanne Cohen, declined to be interviewed. "I'm not going to comment on a personnel matter," she wrote in a message.

But outlines of the dispute emerge in public records from federal court and the Bureau of Labor and Industries.

They offer clues but not proof that Portland Public Schools officials worried they would establish a dangerous precedent that would make it harder to manage all of its teachers.

The federal judge mostly sided with the district. Nonetheless, PPS waived its right to collect prevailing-party attorney fees from Seeley.

But federal court wasn't the only venue for Seeley's fight. As a result of the seven grievances against the district alleging it violated the teachers' contract, the union and district asked a labor arbitrator from the Oregon Employment Relations Board to hear their disagreement. According to the rules spelled out in the teachers' contract, the union and the district are supposed to share the cost of that process, which comes due even if the parties cancel.

The two sides did eventually cancel. But PPS agreed to pay 75 percent of the arbitrator's cancellation fee.

In the district's settlement with Seeley, PPS admitted no wrongdoing. Both sides also agreed that nothing about their dispute established precedent for other members of the teacher's union. "This agreement will not be used to construe or interpret the meaning of the parties' collective bargaining agreement, the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act or the obligations of either party and shall not become part of the past practice of the parties for any purpose," it read.

In other words, the district may have walked away from its discipline against Seeley, but it would not give the union any additional ground. "They don't want the fact that they took this action," said Rick Liebman, a Portland management attorney for 45 years, "to affect their right to discipline the next employee."