Oregon City School District apologizes for illegal board vote
Oregon City School Superintendent Larry Didway apologized last month for his role in the school board's illegal vote to retain equestrian coach Angie Wacker.
"I need to offer my sincere apology for failing to interrupt when the motion was made and subsequent vote was taken," Didway wrote to board members. "I should have realized this was a public meeting law violation as soon as the motion was made."
District officials provided Didway's March 3 email to Pamplin Media Group after this newspaper filed a public-records request earlier this week for the message to board members.
In the email, Didway called the state's investigation into the legality of the vote a "foregone conclusion," since the vote occurred during an executive session, a clear violation of state laws that prohibit such final decisions in closed-door meetings.
District officials have acknowledged that the board was not obligated to take any action on the complaint appeal, since the board was not in favor of overturning the district's recommendation to retain Wacker. Because the school district redacted all but the last five and a half minutes of the executive session audio that a county prosecutor ordered they release, the public had little context for why a vote was suggested during an executive session. In the email, however, Didway is now taking what he calls "full responsibility" for the illegal vote.
After talking with a state investigator, Didway recommended that each board member also send a personal statement that acknowledges and accepts individual responsibility for the error and apologizes for the unintentional violation of state law. He hopes that these letters will increase the chances that board members receive "letters of education" — essentially written reprimands from state officials — instead of fines.
"Our complete transparency, cooperation and submitted individual statements will significantly increase the likelihood the sanction will be educational rather than punitive," Didway wrote.
Since the illegal votes, each Oregon City School Board member has completed the Oregon School Board Association webinar training on executive sessions. During the audio of the illegal vote that the district attorney mandated the district release, Didway mentioned that the board would consider revising what School Board Chair Martha Spiers called its "clunky" complaint policy, along with reexamining the school district's social media policy.
"Any good leader would take responsibility for an error like that, and, in fact, several of us on the board have done the same," Spiers said.
Board member Pamela White was the sole vote against upholding the school district's investigation into an equestrian coach who recently was convicted on violations of state law.
District officials also have responded about why it violated its own complaint policy in the Wacker case. Their responses reveal that the school board has been given wide latitude in deciding complaints, and can choose to allow for a process outside of the recommended process laid out in the complaint policy.
According to the official OCSD Complaint Procedure the superintendent, not the athletic director, should have written the report prior to the school board hearing a formal appeal. "Step 3 (Superintendent) of the complaint process was skipped at the request of the complainants, and in consultation with board leadership," Normand said.
Not all of the complainants requested this flouting of the district's own policy, and those who did so only provided verbal comments, never in writing, according to district officials. Comments came from "at least one" complainant, Normand said, adding that the school board is the "ultimate authority" on adjudicating complaints.
Normand said another reason for appealing the complaint directly to the school board was because the superintendent and principal had been involved and consulted by the athletic director as soon as he received a complaint.
OCSD's complaint policy lays out a timeline of five to 10 business days after complaints are made for administrators to investigate them and make determinations in each step. This timeline was put in place to expedite resolutions in cases when formal complaints are made.
However, it was more than two months after the initial formal complaint that the school board took action and more than a month after the initial complaint about Wacker was filed, OCHS Principal Carey Wilhelm responded to questions about delays in responding to original complaint.
District officials said that "continuous and extraordinary volume of information and letters to review" was a mitigating circumstance that the public should be aware of for why the district extended the complaint-resolution timeline so long in the Wacker case.
Oregon City Athletic Director Andy Jones provided a report to school board members prior to their decision to retain Wacker, who provided comments in her defense that Jones lifted without attribution or changing pronouns for the report.
It remains unclear whether the school board members noticed these errors prior to their illegal vote, since the school district redacted the audio portion of their meeting during which they deliberated on the complaint.
District officials have admitted that Jones copied and pasted an email from Wacker into his draft investigatory report and forgot to change pronouns. District officials have provided emails from the coach to the athletic director responding to complaints between September-December 2019 that show how Jones plagiarized statements from Wacker for his report. (Note: This is a newly uploaded document with more names of students redacted after the district released student names in the initial public documents.)
Normand said Jones' plagiarism of Wacker "appears to be an error," implying that district officials do not suspect Jones of any intentional malfeasance in writing an investigatory report with obvious influence from the subject of the investigation. Although the superintendent and Oregon City High School Principal Carey Wilhelm reviewed Jones' investigatory report on Wacker, they did not notice these errors and correct them before the school board received the report. Normand also acknowledged that Didway and Wilhelm committed an "error" in not noticing Jones' influence from Wacker in writing the report.
Complaint appeal hearings by the OC School Board are rare. Two separate employee dismissals were appealed to the school board during the last four years, but the district's recommendation to fire these employees were upheld by a board vote during the public session of the Feb. 10, 2020, board meeting.
Listen to the final portion of the executive meeting on Wacker here:
Click on this link for Pamplin Media Group's analysis of the audio recording.
By Raymond Rendleman
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