Portland Public Schools will likely appeal the recent Oregon secretary of state's finding that Superintendent Carole Smith and other PPS staff violated election laws by advocating for the two school bond measures this past spring.
The finding, issued Monday, declared that the activities by Smith and the others 'did constitute advocacy in support of Ballot Measure 26-121 and 26-122,' the $548 million construction bond measure and the local-option levy.
District leaders are consulting with attorneys at the Miller Nash firm, its external legal counsel, about their legal options, Shelby says. PPS has 20 days to request a hearing.
'We're leaning that way,' district spokesman Matt Shelby, one of the five staff members slapped with a violation and $75 fine, told the Tribune on Tuesday. 'We're disappointed in the finding because we made quite an effort to run things past our internal counsel and external counsel - and at times the secretary of state - to make sure we were operating within guidelines.
'We feel we made a good faith effort to do so; we're interested in hearing more from the secretary of state's office about their concerns,' Shelby adds.
A secretary of state compliance officer cited that Smith and the PPS staff members violated the Oregon statute that 'prohibits public employees from political campaigning while on the job during work hours. Employers may not require public employees to perform work duties related to advocating a candidate or measure.'
Notices were also issued to two PPS clerical workers but withdrawn because of another statute that 'allows a mitigating circumstance if the public employee was asked to perform clerical tasks relating to the prohibited campaign activity.'
The investigation stemmed from complaints filed by five individuals. Among them: North Portland activist Richard Ellmyer and Eric Fruits, parent organizer of the 'Learn Now, Build Later' campaign - the only group to form in active opposition of the school construction bond.
According to Shelby, the secretary of state's office contacted PPS this past spring, 'asking for just about everything we produced that talked about the bond - any hardcopy flier, brochure, e-newsletter article, web stories we had up. It was a lot we provided them.'
A few weeks later, he says, the PPS staff received a questionnaire asking if they were involved in drafting any of the materials PPS published, and if they did so during work time.
Shelby says he and his colleagues ran everything past Jollee Patterson, the district's legal counsel, also named in the finding.
During the campaign, 'We were operating with the knowledge there were these (election) guidelines,' he says. 'We also owed it to our community to explain to them what the bond would pay for and what it would cost, and we did that. I know we didn't shy away from the fact it was a $548 million bond, with $2 per $1000 of assessed value to homeowners.'
The elections rules are at times ambiguous, he says. 'The whole thing's up for interpretation. You're operating in a very large gray area.'