PPS continues suit to deny records of paid leaves
This story has been updated.
Portland Public Schools continues to press a lawsuit against the Portland Tribune for requesting information the Multnomah County district attorney considers public: A list of district employees who have been placed on paid leave.
Court papers filed March 9 lay out arguments on both sides of the case.
The school district argues three separate exemptions to Oregon Public Records Law apply to this list: disciplinary actions, the personal nature of the records and the fact that they are contained in a teacher personnel file. The district argues a list of who is on paid administrative leave is derived from exempt records and therefore is exempt itself.
"Otherwise exempt material does not lose its exempt status simply because it is converted into a different format," PPS argued through its attorneys at Garrett Hemann Robertson, a Salem law firm.
Attorney Jack Orchard — representing the Oregon Publication Corporation, doing business as Pamplin Media, which owns the Portland Tribune — disagreed.
"Broadly speaking, there is no rationale for characterizing employment status as confidential," Orchard argued in filings. The attorney, from the Ball Janik firm in Portland, agreed with the county district attorney's assessment that an employee's absence from work is evident to many people and is unlike other personnel records.
Reporter Beth Slovic, who later went to work for the Tribune, requested a list of people on paid administrative leave Nov. 23, 2016. Parent advocate Kim Sordyl subsequently made a separate request on Jan. 5, 2017, for documents identifying all PPS employees on leave and the lengths of those leaves. The district denied both requests.
Both separately appealed PPS' decisions to the county district attorney, who granted their petition jointly on March 20, 2017. But the district sent notice March 27 last year that it intended to ask a local Circuit Court to review the district attorney's decision, effectively blocking release of the information.
"Journalists' ability to provide accurate coverage of PPS is hampered by PPS' denial of requested public information about operational matters having an impact on the educational process," Slovic argued in court filings. "This deprives the public of correct information about PPS."
Sordyl's attorney's arguments were more barbed: "The court should give PPS the clarity it seeks by telling PPS it cannot hide behind inapposite exemptions to shield itself from disclosing its own ineptness and malfeasance."
Tracy Williams, a PPS human resources employee, signed a statement in the case declaring that the application of paid administrative leave status is linked to investigatory and disciplinary proceedings. Williams said the list she prepares weekly to show who is on paid administrative leave is confidential and emailed only to 12 specific PPS employees, including the HR director.
The Portland district has multiple known cases in which employees were paid for long periods of time to not work while their cases were being investigated. These include former Kelly Elementary Principal Marti Diaz, who was on paid leave for almost a year following allegations of domestic violence; former Pioneer special education teacher Andrew Oshea, who was on paid leave for about two years while in and out of jail; and former school psychologist Theresa Seeley, who was on paid leave for more than three years. Most recently, the district confirmed to multiple media outlets that teacher Chris Riser was on leave for his role in a Feb. 9 Black Lives Matter protest at Ockley Green Middle School.
The district's management of people who were on paid leave is also part of another legal case PPS is currently tangling with. That would be the complaint brought by former Buckman Arts Elementary School Principal Robin Morrison, who argues the district owes her more than $500,000 for not employing her. She was on paid medical leave, paid administrative leave and an unpaid leave of absence since early 2015, before finally being told to reapply for her job in May 2017. She filed a lawsuit Jan. 8 in Multnomah County Circuit Court for $9,000 per month of lost wages.
A court date is currently set in the Slovic-Sordyl case for Oct. 12.
UPDATE (4/12/18): The district says it confirmed Riser was on leave but did not specify which type. This story has been updated to reflect that.