Fed up, Portland teacher files lawsuit over planning time, retaliation
A lot of teachers feel stretched thin, but a Portland teacher recently decided his lack of paid planning time merited the unusual step of filing a lawsuit.
Doug Saulter, a 26-year employee of Portland Public Schools, said in a Multnomah County Circuit Court complaint that he is provided only "seconds per student" to plan for an increasingly complex array of classroom needs.
Saulter formally warned the district in December 2016 of his intent to sue and from there, he alleges, things only got worse. The former César Chávez school science teacher tells the court that last spring a new principal tried to collect enough dirt on him to get him fired. Saulter has been on paid administrative leave since Feb. 16.
The result, Saulter argues, is $750,000 worth of actual and anticipated medical bills for anxiety, depression and stress. In addition, Saulter claims an actual or anticipated financial loss of $200,000.
"Mr. Saulter is motivated equally by what he wants to see in an improved and fair treatment of both students and teachers. And parents," said Saulter's Portland-based employment attorney Craig Crispin. "It's the whole school community that is being affected by the things that are being described in the complaint."
The nearly $1 million complaint touches on issues teachers inside and outside of PPS have been raising for years, as general education classrooms require increasing amounts of specialized instruction. Saulter alleges the district regularly violates the federal law requiring that children with disabilities receive individualized instruction, due to the lack of time to create such modifications. He also highlights the needs of English-language learners, talented and gifted students, students who are racial minorities, and students with violent or aggressive behavior.
"PPS has taken no effective steps to remedy its failures to support (Individual Education Plan) requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 and continues structural and systematic segregation by race of students assigned to neighborhood schools," reads the retaliation complaint filed Aug. 28. "Despite his complaints and opposition to unsafe and unlawful circumstances, plaintiff continued to be exposed to dangerous and unhealthy work environments, including physical battery, in his work in César Chávez school."
Crispin added that in the 2017-18 school year, "a lot of this stuff became worse" under the new principal TJ Fuller, who is named in the lawsuit.
Asked if Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero's tenure — who started Oct. 1 as the first new permanent superintendent in over a decade at the district — had any impact, Crispin said: "Whether or not the superintendent has any awareness of this particular situation, we don't know."
In a statement, school district spokesman Harry Esteve pushed back on the caseload management parts of the complaint, arguing that the weight of specialized instruction does not fall entirely on classroom teachers.
"Our special education students are supported every day by special education teachers, counselors and school psychologists, speech pathologists, physical and occupational therapists, special education teachers on special assignment, autism coaches, and special education program administrators," Esteve said in an email. "All of these support identification, evaluation and eligibility, as well as development and implementation of individual education plans. No teacher is left unsupported to develop support plans and there is building and administrative support in all phases of services delivery."
In addition, Esteve said ELL students and TAG students are also supported. District figures put the percentage of students with limited English proficiency at Cesar Chavez at 34 percent, with just 2 percent identified as TAG.
"We prepare educators at PPS with the perspectives and resources needed to ensure that our English language learners are ready to succeed in our schools and thrive in our community," Esteve said. "We collaborate with neighborhood schools to support programs where we can better address TAG students' needs, develop and nurture students who show potential for demonstrating high levels of critical thinking and establish a pathway to positive partnerships with families."
Crispin said Saulter wants a jury to hear about the emotional distress he feels he has endured and determine a fair compensation. The nearly $1 million calculation of damages is "a number" required by the courts, the attorney said, and could be changed by the jury.