District investigation finds student privacy violations at charter school
Molalla River School District in March completed an 8-month investigation into Renaissance Public Academy regarding emails among staff and board members that were suspected to have violated student privacy. With results in hand, on a split vote and amid discussions of terminating RPA's charter agreement, the Molalla River School District board instead decided to require RPA's board to take specific remedial actions by Sept. 30, 2019.
These required actions include: that RPA board members engage in several trainings at the school's expense, that they hire an outside expert to audit the failures identified in the summary report and that they provide formal quarterly reports in writing and to the MRSD board at work sessions.
The investigation centered on potential violations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law protecting the disclosure of students' personally identifiable information. MRSD commissioned attorney Rich Cohn-Lee to oversee the investigation and independent investigator Susan Nisbet conducted the investigation.
Molalla Superintendent Tony Mann provided a summary of Nisbet's findings to Molalla's school board on May 23, which also included findings from 2015 and 2017 investigations into the school, to help Molalla's board make a decision on how to go forward. He furnished the summary to RPA's board on May 30.
At the end of the summary is an "Administrative Determination" which reads: "Renaissance Public Academy board members and employees have, over a period of multiple school years, demonstrated a pattern of systematically violating the law and the Charter School Contract between RPA and the MRSD Board of Directors."
However, RPA leaders maintain that RPA has worked with the district over the years and has made all necessary corrections for forward momentum.
The Current Investigation
The current investigation stems from a complaint former RPA administrator Michael Gibson filed with the district at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. In the complaint, Gibson alleges that three people—a former administrative assistant, the then RPA Board Co-chair Kirsten Plumeau and the current RPA Board Chair Jeanna De Risio--secretly shared emails chronicling the office's daily school routines over a period of four months. Gibson said the emails contained information about student discipline, teacher evaluations and more.
"Needless to say, I was shocked, and distressed," Gibson said, "not only by the shear (sic) number of emails that were exchanged, but in the substance of the emails as well."
In his complaint, Gibson said he was concerned about FERPA violations and he claimed the board members created a hostile work environment for him by going behind his back.
Plumeau said since she knows that school board emails are public record, the emails were never intended to be secret.
Plumeau and De Risio said the emails arose from a concern that Gibson was working outside of the school's discipline standards and was keeping students out of class for too long for disciplinary purposes. They said these discipline concerns were addressed in public board meetings with Gibson present on multiple occasions, and Plumeau indicated she sent many emails on the topic directly to Gibson.
De Risio said that it is because of these concerns that she sought student discipline records from the administrative assistant. Both De Risio and Plumeau recall that the emails contained mostly students' initials and grade in school, rather than names, for the sake of student privacy. However, the administrative assistant did use names at times though she'd been instructed not to, according to De Risio.
Upon receipt of Gibson's complaint and at the recommendation of Attorney Matt Lowe, the RPA board opened an investigation into the matter. A 3-page executive summary of that investigation notes the emails reflect "a troubling pattern of communications between [the administrative assistant], as [Gibson's] subordinate employee, [Plumeau] and [De Risio]." It also shows the school's legal counsel was concerned about legal liability arising from allegations of a hostile working environment, violations of FERPA, violations of board policies regarding board member authority and responsibilities and other issues.
RPA created a list of corrective actions they would take, including that they would send a letter to families whose student's privacy was violated, according to a letter from RPA Board Secretary Douhet Wilcox to Mann in September. That letter was sent in 2018, and again in March 2019 with the appropriate attachments, according to the school's current administrator, Nicole Hans.
Both Hans and Wilcox indicated RPA has taken steps to correct, improve and move forward.
"We keep trying to work with them," Wilcox said. "When they have lists or whatever, we do what they ask us to. As far as we know, we're following all the standards that are required by the state."
Most of those involved are no longer at the school. The administrative assistant, Gibson and Plumeau all resigned from their positions. De Risio remains as board chair, and she said she has completed all board member trainings. Wilcox said she was not engaged in all of the emails, and there have been no issues with her remaining on the board.
De Risio expressed how the school is continuing to improve, largely thanks to Hans, the new administrator.
"She's changed the culture in the whole school and she's done a fabulous job," De Risio said. "She's changed the trajectory of where we're going and how we're getting there. And she's putting her symbol and her name on everything. And that for me is a huge step. Now, what I would like to see the district do is engage that."
Investigation Findings/ The Summary Report
But Molalla River School District continued its own investigation. The 17-page investigation summary that Mann provided to both Molalla and RPA boards is based on investigator Nisbet's findings and is separate from RPA's investigative findings.
In the report, both Nisbet and charter school liaison Dave Luce point to a struggle regarding RPA leaders cooperating with the investigation.
The report quotes Nisbet as saying, "Two variables impaired my ability to complete this assignment in a timely fashion: 1) conflicting information provided by RPA board members; and 2) refusal and/or delay on the part of RPA board members to provide requested information."
The report claims that despite multiple attempts from Nisbet to reach Plumeau, Plumeau did not participate in the investigation. Plumeau said she only received one email from Nisbet, and Plumeau did not feel comfortable sharing information with her. She informed Nisbet that she was no longer involved with the school.
In the report, Luce finds that the emails did violate FERPA laws and teacher confidentiality and that De Risio and Plumeau violated ethical standards for board members. He finds that the two did create a hostile work environment since they reportedly led the involved secretary to believe she was hired to spy on then-administrator Gibson. De Risio and Plumeau disagree with those findings.
Luce also finds Plumeau's actions may be reportable to the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission since he believes she is a TSPC-certified administrator in another Oregon school district. However, Plumeau, who has 25 years of experience in education, said she is not currently employed with a district.
Finally, Luce finds that the RPA board failed to follow their own complaint procedures regarding Gibson's complaint.
RPA Administrator Hans had a different opinion, maintaining that RPA's board acted quickly and fully in response to Gibson's complaint.
"Promptly upon receiving allegations of wrongdoing, the RPA Board worked with legal counsel to investigate and address the allegations," Hans said. "RPA has taken these allegations very seriously and has taken steps to address and resolve all concerns that have been raised."
The report details several other more specific findings, largely regarding De Risio and Plumeau, most of which De Risio and Plumeau said were either inaccurate or misrepresent the context of the situation.
Ultimately, in the summary report, Nisbet finds "a lack of appropriate school management and personnel training at various levels." She is quoted as saying, "Additionally, the emails demonstrate an acute disregard for the basic principle that board members function as a board, not as individuals, and have no authority as individuals."
This current investigation is one of three into the school over the last few years, the previous two occurring in 2015 and 2017.
After the 2015 investigation, the MRSD board renewed RPA's charter contract with conditions, one being that any significant failures to comply with law or contract may be grounds for immediate termination of the charter, per the report.
MRSD Board's Decision
With the full spectrum of investigative results in hand, on May 23, MRSD board members Jennifer Satter, Ralph Gierke and Chair Calvin Nunn voted against board member Craig Loughridge's motion to require corrections of the RPA board. The three made it clear they instead leaned in favor of a motion of intent to terminate RPA's charter contract.
"In this report, it's clearly highlighted: they've been given the opportunity to make improvements before, they've been instructed, they've been threatened with nonrenewal and they have completely disregarded making those corrections," Satter said. "I don't think that giving them more opportunities to make corrections is going to make a difference in that area."
Gierke said he was in favor of termination as a tool to force RPA to take corrective action. Nunn agreed.
"We've seen repetitively where they will not do anything unless they are forced to," Nunn said. "And the thing is, if we put the notice of intent to terminate on there, then they are forced to do it and make improvements. So I don't see any way to do it other than to force them with that legal timeline."
But the three were outvoted with yes votes from board members Loughridge, Mark Lucht, Neal Lucht and Linda Eskridge.
While the board members disagreed on what action to take, all acknowledged concerns at RPA. The four board members who voted to require corrections mentioned the idea of potentially not renewing the school's charter contract when it expires in July 2021 if corrective actions aren't taken. Eskridge even went so far as to suggest adding to the motion that non-compliance would lead to non-renewal, but that clause never made it into the motion.
Loughridge suggested all roads lead to "the same place" and that requiring certain actions and being patient are a less costly route.
"I just feel like if we say we're going to terminate, it's true that we can always change our minds later on, up to a point, but I think once you go down that road, I think it's really hard to unring the bell, so to speak," Loughridge said. "And I'm not willing to give them any more time, but what I think's going to happen is we're going to get to the same place whether we take this sort of more politically volatile action of giving a notice to terminate or whether we do this."
Neal Lucht discussed the potential for the charter school to be successful.
"To be clear, I'm passionate about them having a wildly successful charter school that we know they're capable of doing," he said, "if they would just get out of the way of themselves to do it."
RPA Administrator Hans responded to the MRSD board's talk of termination and non-renewal.
"I respect MRSD's oversight role as RPA's sponsoring school district; however, I disagree that any of the allegations that have been raised warrant termination or nonrenewal of RPA's charter," Hans said. "RPA is providing a valuable and needed service for students and families in Molalla and surrounding communities. Closing RPA would be an injustice and a disservice, to the community, school and RPA's students."
The MRSD board did not specify what consequences may occur if RPA's board does not comply with the requirements by Sept. 30, 2019.
Wilcox anticipates that RPA's board will fully comply.
"We will do what we do every time and that's do our best to comply with their requirements," Wilcox said. "And every time they make a list for us, we fulfill the list and do what they ask us to do. Whether we feel it's appropriate or necessary or not, we still do it."
He added, "We're striving to do our best. We feel that we have a successful school up there and would like to continue on doing it."