Costs pile up for school employees on paid leave
This story has been updated.
Though some of the longest individual cases have been resolved, Portland Public Schools is still paying for a lot of no-work days for its employees on paid administrative leave.
In fact, according to an analysis of public records by the Portland Tribune, the district so far is seeing twice as many total paid administrative leave days this year than it had in 2017.
For cases resolved or ongoing by Oct. 23, the district had made a total of 49 employees stay home for more than 5,300 days, combined. For cases resolved in 2017, it was a combined total of 2,385 days for 39 employees.
It's important to note that these figures include regular non-work days, such as weekends, holidays and summer vacation, for which employees are not paid. Also, the district notes that 16 cases are still ongoing. Using this method of counting total paid administrative leave days means those cases might ultimately count toward 2019 — if they are not resolved this year.
In any event, that is a lot of folks in limbo for long periods of time. And Interim Human Resources Director Sharon Reese, who ultimately oversees the processes for paid administrative leave, says it's not OK.
"I think it's a long time," Reese said. "We have all sorts of systems barriers to moving fast — all sorts of 'process improvement opportunities,' I like to call them."
Reese said she is hiring for another investigator and a clerical position in the hopes of speeding up the process.
She also acknowledged that due to changes in PPS practice and policy, more people are being put on paid administrative leave probably than ever before.
"I think that's easier to trigger now. It's clearer now," Reese said.
School board member Julia Brim-Edwards said she sees two forces that could be contributing to the large amount of money being spent on people not working: a large backlog of cases and a lower threshold for triggering paid administrative leave.
"Our number one priority is student safety," Brim-Edwards said. "We're setting higher expectations. That's going to potentially result in more individuals being on paid administrative leave."
But Brim-Edwards said she has confidence that new administrators in the central office are working to clear the backlog and expedite the process.
"This is one of hundreds of things that need to be improved on so that we are using taxpayer dollars effectively," she said.
"Yes, there's been a ton of work that this team has been doing to try to clear that backlog," she said. "There's a certain amount of what they inherited when they came on board."
But many of the cases still in process started after Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero started implementing his new administrative team.
Keylah Boyer, a vice principal at Roosevelt High School, has been on involuntary paid administrative leave since June 20. She recently filed a $1 million lawsuit against the district for race and gender discrimination.
Diane Sykes, her attorney, declined comment on PPS practices in general but indicated she and her client were frustrated. Being on leave for nearly four months, as Boyer has been, as well as being told she would be fired July 27 but so far still being employed: "That has consequences professionally. That is obviously very distressing," Sykes said. "It's difficult to explain to a prospective employer what your job status is when you're in limbo."
What is paid administrative leave?
Reese said those placed on paid administrative leave can be there for a variety of reasons.
"The most common reasons someone is on paid administrative leave is we have removed them from the workplace subject to an investigation," she said. The length of the investigation and how many sources it draws from depend in large part on the nature of the allegations. The result can be that the district finds no evidence of wrongdoing, enough evidence for discipline or enough to terminate employment.
Asked to quantify the legal and contractual barriers to terminating an employee, Reese said: "If you had all the resources in the world, I think it would take a minimum of two months" to fire a district employee. However, she said often the to-be-fired employees leave of their own accord, rather than go through the full and semi-public process of being terminated by the school board.
Portland Association of Teachers President Suzanne Cohen said she is also concerned about how long the process takes. Cohen said the union negotiated for new language that requires the district to give an employee a letter if the administrative leave is expected to last longer than 10 days.
"Let's communicate what's taking so long," Cohen said, calling the delays "a waste of money."
Who is on the list?
The employee who had been on leave the longest is Madison High School girls basketball coach Jay Foreman.
Foreman declined comment for this article other than to say he is concerned about how long the process is taking.
He had been on leave since Jan. 16 and fired Oct. 12.
The Tribune was unable to confirm why Foreman was on leave. Some cases become public knowledge anyway.
Keylah Boyer, Roosevelt High School's vice principal since 2015, was put on leave June 20 and is now suing the district for $1 million over race and gender discrimination claims. The district says she retaliated against victims of sexual harassment.
Brett Christy-Hamilton came off paid administrative leave April 14 after more than a year. Christy-Hamilton was accused of sexually assaulting a young girl with disabilities while aiding her in the bathroom. The paraeducator counterclaimed that the district didn't provide him sufficient oversight and support to avoid what he considered false claims.
A lawsuit by the girl's guardian was dismissed from Multnomah County Circuit Court in August. Christy-Hamilton has so far not followed through with his threat to file a lawsuit, according to court records.
Long-time Grant High School theater teacher Chris Lane was also on the list for 505 days, second only to Andrew Oshea, a paraeducator profiled last year by the Tribune for being on paid leave for two years despite being in and out of jail.
UPDATE (10/25/18): After this story went to press, the district released a detailed spreadsheet of paid leave data. This story has been updated to reflect the more precise information.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.