Beset with repeated news stories about the internal struggles to fire employees who break policy or laws, the Portland Public Schools board declined to alter language in the teacher contract that could make it even more difficult to find out about such cases.
In a negotiated agreement, the Portland teachers' union won language in a new three-year contract proposal that significantly alters how Portland Public Schools teachers in trouble are treated and hampers the public's ability to get information about them.
The changes could make it much more difficult for cases like Andrew Oshea — a PPS special education teacher who was on paid leave for two years while in and out of jail — to come to light.
Indeed, newly released public records show the Portland Association of Teachers demanded that a new public records policy proposed by the school board in September be part of the bargaining process.
"Please confirm that the District intends to engage in decision bargaining over the proposed Board Policy, and will not adopt a policy until such bargaining is complete," wrote Marty Pavlik, a PAT consultant on Oct. 21, three weeks after the Sept. 26 reading of the draft public records policy. Pavlik subsequently sent a formal grievance on the issue.
The district has not moved forward since that time on updating its public records policy. It also appears not to have moved forward in its lawsuit against Portland Tribune reporter Beth Slovic and parent advocate Kim Sordyl. The pair requested a list of employees on paid administrative leave a year ago, but the lawsuit has had the effect of delaying the list's release, despite a district attorney's order that to do so violates Oregon Public Records Law.
In recent years, PPS has been the subject of numerous complaints and failed attempts to keep secret records that were eventually deemed open by the Multnomah County District Attorney. District officials have said the lawsuit is an attempt to get the court system to weigh in on the legality of releasing of these records, which the school district has routinely released in the past.
PAT President Suzanne Cohen said in early January that she didn't think the union had a problem with the draft public records policy as written.
However, documents show that as early as October, Cohen was copied on demands and threats of legal action over the proposed public records policy and the release of documents about Oshea. Cohen declined to respond to numerous requests for comment on this latest development.
Noah Barish, an attorney for PAT, threatened legal action against the district for releasing records about Oshea and demanded that they contact reporter Slovic to delete or return them. Slovic said the district never asked her to do that.
See the Portland Tribune stories on Andrew Oshea:
Ironically, Barish then used the public records law to request documents about requests regarding PAT members, including Mitchell Whitehurst, Adam Kennybrew and Norman Scott, who have been in the news over accusations of sexual misconduct.
The new labor union contract adds language on the criteria for paid administrative leave, including putting administrative leave forms in investigative files, rather than personnel files which are more easily released to the public. It also restricts administrators from even saying if an employee is on paid administrative leave.
"School and program administrators will not communicate that a professional educator is on administrative leave or disclose the reason for the administrative leave to staff, parents, students or the public," reads the tentative labor agreement, made public Monday evening.
Dave Northfield, a spokesman for the district, said the language would block principals, Human Resources leaders and others from revealing this information.
"As the Director of Media Relations and spokesperson for the district, I would speak to these cases as allowed by law and the PAT contract," Northfield said.
Oregon Public Records Law contains more than 550 exemptions, but the employment status of public employees is not currently one of them.
'No new restraint'
Asked Jan. 5 why the new public records policy had not yet been implemented, school board chair Julia Brim-Edwards said it was because a permanent policy-level change should go through the bargaining process with all of the district's unions.
"In the meantime, we are continuing to prioritize expedited responses to the full level of transparency," Brim-Edwards said then.
The board chair reiterated this philosophy when approached this week and added that she was not aware, as the person in charge of the committee drafting the policy, of any specific changes the union wanted to make. She said she would welcome input, but that it wouldn't necessarily change the board's decision.
"I've never sat at the table and talked with them about it," Brim-Edwards said, stressing: "There's no new restraint on the development of board policy."
In the draft contract, the union withdrew its demand to bargain over the public records policy citing unspecified anticipated changes to the proposal. But PAT reserved the right to demand to bargain again as soon as the new draft policy is released. Brim-Edwards said she anticipates it will come to the next meeting of the board's committee on policy and governance before it heads to the full board.
The school board is expected to accept the new teachers contract in a ratification vote Thursday evening at 5 p.m. in the Blanchard Education Service Center at 501 N Dixon St.
UPDATE (2/6/18): Updated with information from Dave Northfield.