Oregon City School Board now subject of state ethics probe
Having recently convicted Oregon City High School's equestrian coach on four violations of state law, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission is now turning its attention to whether the school board broke any laws in voting not to fire the coach.
Oregon Government Ethics Commission Executive Director Ron Bersin said that the state agency has launched a preliminary investigation into whether the Oregon City School Board violated state statutes related to executive sessions. Such meetings are permitted to be held in secret without disclosure of their content to the public, but only under certain circumstances.
In December 2019, various equestrian students provided oral or written testimony against their coach during a closed-door Oregon City School Board executive session, appealing the OCHS athletic director's decision to retain Angie Wacker as coach. Board Vice-Chair Martha Spiers notified the parents that the board had voted to sustain the athletic director's decision after they "deliberated and considered the complete facts, including all presentations made by the complainants and the rebuttals offered by the coach and her supervisor."
Spiers wrote, "The Board voted to sustain investigative findings and resolution of Andy Jones, Athletic Director, and will retain Angie Wacker as coach."
Oregon ethics commissioners have received a complaint that the OC School Board didn't follow the state laws for executive sessions on Dec. 16, 2019. According to state law, "No executive session may be held for the purpose of taking any final action or making any final decision," which stands in contrast to the statement that the board voted to retain Wacker.
Oregon City School District spokesperson Lisa Normand said the district is committed to upholding Oregon's public-meeting laws. She said school board members and the superintendent are welcoming the ethics commission's review of the executive session and will cooperate with any recommendations for following state law during future meetings.
"The school board acted in good faith while deliberating on a board appeal to reconsider the resolution of a complaint filed against a coach," Normand said. "The school board voted to sustain the decision made by district staff, and thereby determined it would not consider any further action toward overturning the decision made by district staff. Had the school board determined to reopen the complaint, rather than sustain the decision already rendered, a resolution would have been placed on a future board meeting for public deliberation."
Spiers led the closed-door meeting to consider complaints against Wacker because one of OCHS equestrian team's advisors also served as the school board chair for 2019-20. School board member Evon Tekorius, whose daughter was on the team, submitted a letter of support for Wacker and participated in the board's appeal hearing. Given her personal interest in the outcome, Tekorius let Spiers as the vice-chair oversee the board's appeal hearing.
Both Spiers and Tekorius are up for reelection in May, but neither has filed to retain their seats for another term. March 18 is the last day for candidates to file for the special districts election that includes the OC School Board.
"If we made a mistake, we will certainly own it and put some controls in place to make sure it doesn't happen again," Spiers said.
If state ethics commissioners determine that OC School Board members were in violation of executive-session laws, the board members could face civil penalties up to $5,000 for each violation. Bersin said that he couldn't confirm how many potential violations the school board faces from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, noting that state law mandates that the preliminary-review phase of ethics investigations stay confidential.
Range of investigations
In reviewing Wacker's employment as equestrian coach, the school board met in executive session, to consider a "complaint appeal," according to the agenda for the December 2019 closed-door meeting. The school district's meeting agenda cited a portion of state law that allows governing bodies to hold an executive session "to consider the dismissal or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent who does not request an open hearing."
Wacker as the equestrian coach is an OCSD staff member, against whom a complaint was lodged, and she did not request an open hearing, Normand said. Wacker, the OCHS athletic director and student/parent complainants attended the closed session.
Oregon law states that "the governing body of a public body shall provide for the sound, video or digital recording or the taking of written minutes of all its meetings." For the Dec. 16, 2019 meeting, there is no video or audio recording available for the school board's closed-door hearing on Wacker's complaint appeal or its subsequent open work session on the district's website. School board minutes from subsequent public meetings, including Jan. 13, 2020, never approved meeting minutes for the work sessions or executive sessions during which a vote on the "complaint appeal" took place.
OC School District officials say there's no state-law requirement for school boards to approve minutes for an executive session.
"Most boards do not review or vote to approve executive session minutes," Normand said. "Many boards, including Oregon City School District, audio-record executive sessions and keep them as the only minutes."
Pamplin Media Group has requested the audio recording of the school board's meeting to retain Wacker and a copy of the athletic director's written investigative findings on Wacker, which were submitted to the school board prior to their 2019 meeting. Despite the large amount of public interest in the case, district officials are currently withholding the audio recording and the written investigative report, citing state laws that allow for the secrecy of some personnel records and board meetings to consider dismissing employees.
Normand said the school board will consider voting to release all records in the Wacker case, out of consideration of public interest and transparency. State law encourages public agencies to be as transparent as possible and allows public officials the discretion — at any time they wish — to release records that might be exempt from mandatory disclosure, if public officials feel that the release of the records passes the public-interest test.
Investigative findings on the OCHS equestrian coach completed by the athletic director were submitted to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. Clackamas County's district attorney could mandate the release of the athletic director's investigation, if the DA finds that the ethics commission's subsequent conviction of Wacker makes the investigation report of great public interest, but school officials now have the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to transparency without a mandate from a state prosecutor.
Wacker and OCSD officials are currently undergoing separate investigations by the Oregon Department of Education, and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. State officials received registration materials for Beavercreek-based Wacker Performance Horses LLC on Aug. 5, 2020, after the formal launch of the ethics probe and years after Wacker's equestrian business had been receiving payments from OCSD.
Since Pamplin Media Group broke the story about Wacker's ethics violations and years of doing business without a business license, an investigation by NW Horse Report uncovered allegations by a parent that Wacker fraudulently altered checks. Copies of these checks originally made out to Wacker Performance Horses raised the possibility of Wacker altering checks by crossing out the business name and placing her own name in order to deposit them with US Bank. Typically banks require documents with the Secretary of State in order to open accounts under a tradename like Wacker Performance Horses.
Oregon City School District's checks to Wacker were also made out to "Wacker Performance Horses" prior to Wacker incorporating the company name, district officials confirmed. It's unclear how Wacker was able to cash these checks from the school district.
For their alleged mishandling of the Wacker case, Oregon City Superintendent Larry Didway, OCHS Principal Carey Wilhelm and Athletic Director Andy Jones are under investigation by the Standards and Practices Commission. The commission has the authority to determine that district officials' actions in the Wacker case involved a gross neglect of duty, which would require finding "serious and material inattention to or breach of professional responsibilities." Trent J. Danowski, deputy director of state's professional practices division, said the agency can't comment on current investigations that may result in the suspension or revocation of the license or registration of a teacher or administrator.
Oregon's Department of Education was charged with overseeing a separate investigation into suspected concussions Wacker allegedly didn't report to school authorities. Oregon law states that if a coach suspects a student has received a concussion, that injury must be reported and the coach must follow Return to Participation guidelines.
District officials took responsibility for the potential concussions that went unreported to the state, telling state investigators that the injuries were "addressed, reported and documented" by Wacker, according to OCHS HR Director John Ogden.
Since the ethics commission's conviction of Wacker, two of her former students have come forward with their own accounts of Wacker's role in their equestrian injuries, which have been published by Pamplin Media Group. Parents and students in support of Wacker have also been published in this newspaper's opinion section.
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