FONT & AUDIO
Principals call on PPS board member Paul Anthony to resign
The group representing Portland Public Schools principals is calling on school board member Paul Anthony to resign over what the group deems to be inappropriate and demeaning behavior toward school administrators, the interim superintendent and other board members.
"We don't believe this district can go forward as long as Director Anthony is in a position of governance," said Raddy Lurie, Alameda Elementary School principal and co-president of the group, the Portland Association of Public School Administrators, which issued its demand in a letter sent Wednesday.
The move is fairly unusual. Not since 2001, when Derry Jackson made anti-Semitic remarks from his position on the board, has there been a credible demand to remove a sitting school board member in Portland Public Schools.
And the principals' move comes at a pivotal time for the district, which just persuaded voters to approve a $790 million school construction bond but lacks a permanent school superintendent. Anthony, a former parent activist elected to the school board in 2015, hoped to persuade colleagues to make him the next board chairman. In July, three newly elected board members will join him on the board, replacing two incumbents who opposed Anthony's approach. Reached Wednesday, Anthony said he did not yet have a response.
The Portland Association of Public School Administrators, which represents principals, vice principals and assistant principals, is not nearly as powerful as the Portland Association of Teachers. The principals' group, known as PAPSA, is not a union, and principals do not enjoy the kind of job protection that teachers have. But the group has at least one powerful tool at its disposal in its dispute with Anthony — Anthony's own words.
A Salem attorney who has represented PAPSA in the past recently demanded the district turn over months of correspondence, including emails and text messages, from Anthony's accounts.
More than 2,000 pages of correspondence from September 2016 to March 2017 were released to the attorney, Nathan Rietmann, under the Oregon Public Records Law. The records show Anthony does not hesitate to insert himself in questions about small matters, including the location of school-bus stops. He does this over the objections of staff. At times, he simply goes around staff.
The emails and texts, which The Portland Tribune learned about and asked to review this month, also show Anthony routinely describes school-board colleagues, the interim superintendent and PPS principals using rude or even vulgar terms. The documents show he's shared PPS correspondence labeled "privileged" or "confidential" with PPS's most acerbic critic, parent activist Kim Sordyl. And the documents show that Anthony has refused to discuss his behavior with colleagues and school district administrators, even when they've warned him that his actions could bring lawsuits against the district.
"I wasn't going to be bullied," Anthony said in an interview.
Asked in that interview about this conduct, including his pattern of intervening in principals' decisions at their schools, Anthony maintained a measured but defiant tone, saying there wasn't anything he would do differently. But he also acknowledged his method's inherent shortcomings. "I would hope it's an approach I would not have to take," he said.
The principals' group argues that Anthony's behavior, including his private conversations, spill into the public sphere and cast employees in poor light, making hard jobs even harder.
Lurie, the Alameda principal in Northeast Portland, pointed to a statement Anthony made last month to The Oregonian about the district's failed search for a superintendent. "We need someone who can address our issues with honesty and integrity and own up to what's wrong," Anthony told the newspaper. "And if we can't have that, we aren't going to be able to move forward."
Anthony's text and email correspondence demonstrates the "antithesis" of honesty and integrity, Lurie said.
Text messages and insults
To many parents in PPS, Anthony is a hero for his vocal and, at times, withering criticism of school administrators' performance. He's also very approachable. The 49-year-old father of three is an active presence at community events and on Facebook chat groups about PPS.
In text messages and emails, Anthony goes further, veering into name-calling and insults.
He dubbed interim Superintendent Bob McKean "Lockdown Bob" for his role in preventing Benson High School students from participating in a September protest.
Last fall, after he lost a school board vote regarding a legal settlement with a teacher who alleged sexual assault by a co-worker, he referred to McKean's administration as "Lockdown Bob and his Merry Band of Perverts."
Most of Anthony's email and text messages with disparaging comments went to Sordyl, the parent activist who, with Anthony, helped build a Facebook group called Parents for Excellent Portland Principals four or five years ago. Also called PEPP, the group frequently posts photos of PPS administrators, along with sharply worded critiques of their job performance.
Anthony, in the recent interview, said his comments were never supposed to be made public. "Those were text messages to someone I consider a personal friend," he said. "They were things I expected to stay personal."
In those private messages, he didn't mince words. "Bob obviously has an invisible sign on his ass that says 'Screw Me,' " he wrote in another text criticizing the interim superintendent. "Pam Knowles is a complete bitch," he wrote of the two-term board member.
In February, after a majority of the board opted to keep its superintendent search mostly confidential, Anthony teamed with Steve Buel, another board member, to pen an op-ed in The Oregonian criticizing the arrangement. The other five members of the board wrote an opposing opinion column.
"Pussy-ass, coward-ass, pussified pussies," Anthony wrote in an email to Sordyl, using a line from "The Newsroom," an HBO drama. "I really don't like that as an insult, but sometimes it just seems too appropriate."
Anthony complained about his own sidelining, too. "I work with idiots, and I'm marginalized," he wrote in May.
"I'll keep you informed daddy," Sordyl wrote back.
Reining him in
Anthony didn't limit his insults to other elected officials or public figures.
And some of his undiplomatic statements can't be chalked up to blowing off steam.
"I am at Hosford," Anthony wrote in an email to Buel in September. "The principal sucks."
That same month, school district leaders privately brought their concerns to Anthony about his behavior and public statements about employees. They hadn't yet seen the emails or text messages requested by the attorney who had worked for PAPSA.
Tom Koehler, the school board chairman, and Sean Murray, then the head of human resources, asked Anthony to meet with them discreetly to discuss "the strategies that you're choosing to carry out your board responsibilities," Murray wrote in a Sept. 21, 2016, email.
Two months earlier, Anthony had taken the unusual step of filing a federal civil rights complaint against the district for racial discrimination against students, alleging that the district didn't provide equal access to high-quality courses across the district's schools. He took that step, he said, because his colleagues on the board weren't interested in tackling the issue with him. "I think they found it too overwhelming," he said.
But Anthony bridled at the perceived criticism, accusing Koehler and Murray of threatening and bullying him for being an outspoken critic of the district.
"I believe I need legal representation," Anthony responded via email before canceling the meeting scheduled for the next day.
Separately, he complained by text message to Sordyl, calling school district administrators and Koehler "little shits."
"I bet you a nickel this mess is actually about you going after (board member) Amy Kohnstamm," Anthony wrote to Sordyl, who has sharply criticized Kohnstamm's board leadership on the PEPP Facebook page.
"U could tell Sean (Murray) u want to meet w him to discuss how he's chosen to carry out his duties as HR director and the risk of liability it's caused the district," Sordyl responded.
"Coincidentally, I was just thinking about that," Anthony texted.
Threatens board chairman
Two days later, Anthony sent Koehler a testy follow-up email.
"You are permitting Sean's obvious attempt to retaliate and bully me over my public comments," Anthony wrote. "District staff and particularly HR and Legal have a long history of attempting to bully and shame parents and the board in order to silence critics, limit proper board oversight, and divert attention from scandals. I have learned from painful experience that the only way to deal with a bully like Sean is to stand up to him."
Anthony then threatened Koehler. "Because you have decided to persist with this issue, I am going to show you exactly what that looks like: it will be highly embarrassing, and I will make it very public," he wrote. "I believe the press and the public will be very sympathetic to a public official who engages openly with the public and the press, seeks out citizen comments on areas that are of obvious public concern — regardless of how controversial or painful they might be — and who comments publicly in public forums, particularly when District staff is attempting (to) divert attention from their own failings and bully me into silence."
Months later, in December and again in February, Anthony sent Sordyl emails from the district labeled "privileged" or "confidential" concerning the seemingly awkward legal position that Anthony's civil rights complaint had created for the district. One, from interim General Counsel Stephanie Harper, simply asked Anthony to set up a meeting with her. The second informed Anthony he couldn't talk to federal investigators without her permission because anything he said could be held against the district. This week, Anthony said he didn't think the contents of the emails should have been confidential and he felt he could waive the attorney-client privilege. Asked whether that put the district at further legal risk, Anthony said, "I don't think that it does."
It's not a surprise principals are unhappy with board members who insert themselves into the day-to-day affairs of schools, including how they grade students' performance and how they allocate their staff. In November, McKean, the interim superintendent, publicly aired administrators' grievances in a work session with the board, saying the meddling harmed the district by muddying its lines of communication and making it hard for people to prioritize their work.
In December, an outside consultant hired to help the district recruit a permanent superintendent pointed to board members' interference as a source of "significant angst and turmoil" among staff. That same month, PAPSA sent Koehler, the school board chairman, an eight-page later threatening legal action against PPS if board members continued to interfere and publicly denigrate principals. "PAPSA members cannot focus on their work, make tough decisions and otherwise do what is needed to advance the educational mission of PPS when they have reasonable cause to be concerned that they are being targeted by board members," the letter read.
That letter named only Buel as a concern. Privately, though, PAPSA zeroed in on Anthony through its records request. Buel defended his actions and Anthony's. "He's doing what he's supposed to be doing," said Buel. "He's paying the price for it because principals want you out of their business."
The emails released as part of the records request did nothing to persuade principals that the problem had gone away.
Ockley Green intervention
Last fall, some parents, teachers and Anthony trained their attention on Ockley Green Middle School in the Jefferson High School attendance zone and the subject of a lot of tinkering by PPS.
Principal Rene Canler arrived at Ockley Green in 2016 with stellar reviews as an elementary school leader. He faced hurdles at Ockley Green almost immediately, beginning with an unexpected surge in fall enrollment.
The emails suggest that Anthony still seemed to think of himself as a parent activist. "Things are happening," he wrote to one parent concerned about overcrowding, "but we've got to keep the pressure on."
Worry eventually turned from class size to discipline matters. In early February, Anthony wrote to Antonio Lopez, assistant superintendent, with a message from a staff member that was conveyed to him by a parent. It alleged that Canler was violating district policy by imposing a "time-out room" for troublesome students to use during lunch. "I think this needs to be dealt with very quickly," Anthony said.
"I will get on it," Lopez replied.
Two days later, Lopez reported that the principal hadn't implemented the room and didn't plan to. But then Anthony heard from another person that the principal gave students in-school detention during lunch. "Rene isn't getting the message," Anthony complained in an email to a fellow board member.
Later that month, PPS put the principal on indefinite leave.
Anthony, in defending his actions against PAPSA's complaints, said PPS lacks systems to respond quickly and appropriately to problems. That's why he gets involved, he said.
But asked whether PPS would have removed Ockley Green's principal if he hadn't intervened, Anthony contradicted himself. "I don't know," he said. "I do hope my being there was incidental and that the system would have responded appropriately."
This week, PPS concluded its investigation of Ockley Green's principal, clearing him to return to work at PPS. He won't return to Ockley Green, however, which could mean students there will experience more change.
Meanwhile, some of Anthony's current colleagues on the board are joining PAPSA in voicing concern about Anthony's continued service.
Julie Esparza Brown, who joined the board in 2015 at the same time as Anthony, called his actions "unethical" and "highly problematic." Pam Knowles echoed the call for Anthony to resign, saying his behavior was contributing to a hostile work environment for employees and preventing the district from functioning properly. She added that it wasn't personal. "I'm a politician," she said, alluding to Anthony's attacks on her. "I have really thick skin."
Koehler, the board chairman who leaves office at the end of this month, said Anthony's actions raised serious legal and ethical questions for the board going forward.
"Paul needs to look himself in the mirror and decide if he wants to continue as a board member," Koehler wrote in a statement this week. "His conduct revealed in the emails and texts is not appropriate as an elected official or model behavior of citizenship for our students and this school district."
He added: "It will be extremely difficult to find a new superintendent if the behavior of undermining and meddling continues."