A polarizing figure, Sordyl says she is so aggressive because she cares about Portland Public Schools

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Northwest Portland resident Kim Sordyl has been a major critic of the district, but some say her methods are unfair and defamatory. If you have read online media coverage of Portland Public Schools in the past few years and scrolled down to the comments, you will likely recognize the name Kim Sordyl.

A parent of two elementary school kids in Northwest Portland, Sordyl has been a vocal and extremely active critic of the district since she learned of allegations of verbal abuse of students by a teacher at Ainsworth Elementary School three years ago. She has orchestrated media stories, ushered in new board members, and organized activist groups. Most obviously, she posts widely and repeatedly on social media, naming and tagging individual employees, board members and others whom she feels are incompetent or unethical:

“In what universe do you resign and then stay in your position with a shadow making sure you don’t make things worse? Why is PPS paying for a Principal + a Principal shadow?” Sordyl wrote on Facebook regarding Rieke Elementary School’s principal Rebecca Torres.

“’Friends and Family’ rewards program needs to end. Portland Public Schools is NOT your personal business or bank account,” Sordyl wrote regarding PPS’ Chief of Community Involvement and Public Affairs Jon Isaacs.

Isaacs announced his decision last week to take a public relations job at Uber after three years as the top district spokesman. He currently is part of an investigation Sordyl spearheaded into an $11,000 contract that produced a nine-page spreadsheet of election results, reportedly by a friend of his.

District spokeswoman Christine Miles chuckled when asked if the investigation had anything to do with Isaacs’ resignation, announced March 29 to take effect April 25.

“I know the timing looks funny,” Miles said, but added that the opportunity of a “better job, more pay and more time with your family” happened to come up. She also said the investigation would continue even if Isaacs left before its conclusion.

“(Isaacs’ announcement) was a shock to all of us, and disappointing, too, because this department has grown by leaps and bounds,” Miles said. “Very happy for him.”

Sordyl vs. Isaacs

A transplant from the Detroit area, Sordyl’s vitriol and personal attacks may be unusual and uncomfortable to a district used to “Portland nice.”

“It doesn’t feel very Portland-like. But it still needs to be done,” says school board member Paul Anthony. “I think the important thing is that Kim has, from the very beginning, really brought a spotlight to management issues. Those are really important, and that’s an area that the district has been very weak for many, many years.”

Sordyl went on “The Lars Larson Show” on March 25 blasting Isaacs for the $11,000 no-bid contract.

“I don’t think he has to justify it because the school board doesn’t hold him accountable, the superintendent doesn’t hold him accountable, and so he doesn’t have to come up with a justification for it,” she said on the show.

Isaacs declined to comment for this story, but the intense scrutiny appeared to reach a breaking point for Isaacs.

In an email sent March 26 to Sordyl from his personal account, he wrote:

“Just letting you know that you can block all of the defamatory things you have posted about me all you want. I have screen shots of what matters. They have all been passed along to my attorney. Have a nice life.”

Sordyl had filed the complaint with six other parents; four of them asked for their names to be removed, fearing retaliation after his note.

Isaacs later sent Sordyl an apology, explaining that her social media posts about him had caused him a “very high level of personal stress and anxiety” and that he wished he had chosen his words better.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Public Schools critic Kim Sordyl crouches in her closet to show the files of public documents she keeps on the district.

Advocate and organizer

Sordyl is not the average parent-advocate jockeying for her own kids’ future. In fact, almost none of her advocacy has been about her own kids.

A former litigator and clerk for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh, Sordyl moved to Portland in 2002 and worked as an employment attorney at Barran Liebman before her first baby.

Now a stay-at-home mom, she has collected dozens of disgruntled parents’ stories, dozens of pages of public records, and knows a remarkable number of controversies from the district’s past and present.

Sordyl says she spends about 30 hours a week on PPS activism and is contacted by two or three new people each week who are frustrated with the district.

“I work on it every single day of the week. Every day,” she says. “My husband keeps asking me when I’m going to get paid for this stuff. I’m always spending money on this stuff.”

Sordyl and her husband, vice president at a Wilsonville-based robotics company, live in a nicely appointed Pearl District high rise with a panoramic view of the city.

She admits they could afford to send their kids to private school and kiss all the trouble goodbye.

“I’ve had friends, other lawyers, who have said: ‘Two words: private school’ and I say: ‘(expletive) you.’ I care about this city, and I care about these schools.”

What does it take to make change?

In the district’s eyes, her commentary reached a tipping point last November when Sordyl sent an email to several district employees accusing Senior Director of K-12 Programs Sascha Perrins of covering up allegations of child abuse during the Ainsworth controversy. The district investigated what it says were complaints of classroom management and does not agree that any wrongdoing occurred.

“That’s the worst thing you could ever say to an educator, that you covered up child abuse,” Miles says, noting that Perrins and Sordyl are both mandatory reporters to the Department of Human Services for suspicions of child abuse. (Sordyl says that since she did not have any direct contact with the children, she could not make a report.)

PPS administrators and several board members sat down with Sordyl and her attorney on Feb. 19 to discuss a letter the district sent her after the allegations that appeared to threaten legal action.

“Although we welcome your participation and input, if you continue to engage in personal attacks and defamatory statements, we will take necessary measures to protect our employees,” reads the letter signed by General Counsel Jollee Patterson and Chief Human Resources Officer Sean Murray. “The leadership of the District will no longer tolerate destructive conduct which harasses our employees and impairs the work done on behalf of students.”

(District officials have since said that they do not plan any legal action against Sordyl.)

During the Feb. 19 meeting, Patterson, PPS’ top attorney, said Sordyl was in a class of her own.

“This is the first time (in 15 years as General Counsel) that I’ve ever had to be in a situation sitting down with a member of the public regarding the continued severe, negative impact on our employees,” Patterson said.

The meeting turned into a debate on whether negative or positive criticism was more effective at creating change in the district.

“As an activist in this community for a long time, I have never seen anyone be very effective at moving goals or at reforming institutions by intense negativity and personal attacking,” said board member Amy Kohnstamm. “What I have seen be effective is figuring out how do you collaborate to create the reform that you are looking for?”

Fellow board member Mike Rosen, formerly a city employee and a longtime schools activist, retorted that PPS has an “entrenched unresponsive bureaucracy” and public employees should expect public scrutiny.

“I think the first refuge for people who don’t want change and don’t want to hear it, is to accuse the people that are sending the message of being bullies or being unreasonable or not speaking according to the unwritten standard of how we conduct ourselves in Portland,” Rosen said. “People are allowed to be angry. People are allowed to talk specifically about public officials and say why they are frustrated.”

A lightning rod

School board member Steve Buel, who was not at that meeting, says he can see both sides. He has been an outspoken critic of the district, too, but feels things have improved a lot recently, particularly around employment issues.

“I think that often people within the school district overreact and are too defensive,” Buel says. “If she has a good point, then we should be looking into it. If she’s doesn’t have a good point, then we move on.”

Buel says Sordyl is a lightning rod for negative feedback, which colors her perception.

“I think a lot of what Kim Sordyl sees and works with are people who really have not been treated well with the district, so what she sees are really the worst aspects of PPS,” he says. “If you only see those things, of course you are going to be pretty negative.”

John Hirsch, a friend and former neighbor of Sordyl, was active for several years as part of a group called the Eighty Percenters for Educational Excellence, referring to the roughly 80 percent of Portland taxpayers who do not have children in public school. Hirsch says being nice or offering free consulting services was not effective for him and he eventually gave up.

“I got smiling faces and ‘thank you’ and ‘we’ll look into it’ and nothing happened,” he says. “It’s just a culture of glacial change.”

Slow response

Sordyl says she has identified a pattern to district officials’ reaction to criticism or complaints.

“One is delay, one is name-calling, one is completely ignoring people who file complaints,” she says. “I think this is a PPS-specific culture. How they are rewarded, trained and taught to deal with problems. And it comes from the top.”

Miles, the district spokeswoman, says that’s just not true. Often, a lot is going on behind the scenes to resolve issues and it isn’t always being communicated to the complainant.

“Sometimes it looks like we’re dragging our feet, but it’s called due process,” she says. “And, yes, even we get impatient sometimes at how long it takes to make a decision. ... I can completely see how people would see that we’re slow or unresponsive.”

Miles says social media is a whole new world and the district, like most places, is struggling with how to use it in a professional setting and how to appropriately respond to comments there.

“It’s disturbing to our employees when they see their name, their profession being mischaracterized,” she says. “We’re not saying we’re perfect by any means, but our employees do deserve respect of what they do.”

Smith ‘needs to be fired’

Sordyl believes her statements are fair comment on the work of public officials and their use of taxpayer money.

After the Ainsworth episode that first got her involved in advocacy at the district, “at every level they engaged in a cover-up and what I’ve seen since then is that’s how they handle every problem,” she says.

Sordyl is adamant that Superintendent Carole Smith and many of her administrators need to leave or change significantly in order to change the culture of PPS.

“I think Carole Smith hires and promotes people who engage in hiding and denying problems and protect her,” she says. “If that’s the kind of behavior you reward, that’s the kind of administrators you are going to get.

"People say to me, ‘But Kim, Carole Smith is so nice,’” Sordyl says. “Hiding abuse is not nice. The hunger games over the boundary review is not nice. It’s not enough to smile and hug people. What she’s done is really mean and it’s a dereliction of duty. She needs to be fired. The top administrators who continue to violate the law need to be fired.”

Sordyl says she doesn’t fear retaliation against her or her kids and believes she’s setting a good example to them of speaking up.

“And I’m not afraid. I tell people: don’t be afraid of these people,” she says. “Let’s get it.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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