Activist says state audit 'vindicates' concerns about PPS
This story has been updated.
Portland activist Teressa Raiford feels vindicated by an audit by the Oregon secretary of state's office, released Wednesday, Jan. 9, that shows systemic and entrenched poor outcomes for students of color in Portland Public Schools.
Raiford said she remembers calling for an audit at a school board meeting and being dismissed. She said fellow activists and outspoken teachers have been retaliated against and now hopes that this report will show the benefits of speaking out.
"I want them to be vindicated by this, too," she said.
Raiford, who has already declared her candidacy for Portland mayor in the 2020 elections, was the only invited speaker at the secretary of state auditors' press conference announcing the report. The conference was held at a North Portland community center for activists called the Dismantle, Change, Build Center. Auditors presented their findings beneath the banner of Don't Shoot Portland, a Black Lives Matter organization founded by Raiford.
She called out the school district for contractor-friendly terms that she considers "exploitation" and "criminal negligence."
Auditors struck a more measured tone. One quote the auditors highlighted from an unnamed Oregon Department of Education official: "There's a lot of patience in this system for mediocre performance."
Asked whether the timing of the release — just before the 2019 legislative session started — was intentional, Audits Division Director Kip Memmott said the audit was planned far in advance and audits come out of the office almost every month. He added that "we want to maximize the impact of the audits at a time when (legislators) can action it."
Audit Manager Andrew Love added that auditors were not advocating for less funding for public education, but rather better controls.
Memmott responded to criticism from PPS officials who spoke out during a Tuesday press conference detailing recent accomplishments and complaining about information they felt was omitted from the report.
Memmott said he empathized with how difficult it was to have the district's dirty laundry aired, but he vowed regular and robust follow-up reports to show how — and whether — efforts of the current administration in PPS were helping.
"Audits are a snapshot in time and that's what frustrates people," he said, noting that the audits were conducted according to best practices. "Audits are tough and transparency's tough."
Auditors highlighted questionable purchase card expenses, such as a $13,000 Portland Spirit river cruise ship party for the district's 2017 retirees, complete with Hawaiian flowers and crystal clock retirement gifts. PPS employees also spent $1.4 million on Amazon orders of school supplies and other goods but auditors found there was little oversight of this practice and worry that "inappropriate purchases will go undetected."
Oregon Education Board member Kim Sordyl, a Richardson ally who has raised many of these sorts of issues for years, said she was particularly frustrated by the finding that students of color fare worse in PPS than in similar districts.
"We've spent millions and millions on 'equity' and the Equity Department and yet we're worse than all of these other districts," Sordyl said.
Although auditors do not have any enforcement capabilities — beyond potential additional public shaming from future reports — Raiford threatened legal action against the district to correct the identified deficiencies.
"We wanted this audit. We wanted this audit so that we could seek accountability from our lawmakers and the people that enable them to create policies that we feel oppress us," Raiford said. "One of the first things I'll be doing is sharing it with our board and one of the second things I'll be doing is sharing it with my attorney."
UPDATE (1/10/19): A quote about patience for mediocrity in the education system was misattributed and has been corrected in this version.