Our Opinion: PPS should drop lawsuit appeal
In her brief tenure as the new chair of the Portland Public Schools board, Julia Brim-Edwards already has set a clear — and appropriate — message that it's time to stop fighting old battles and, instead, focus on the future.
Brim-Edwards, a Nike executive who had served on the board from 2001-05, won her seat easily in May and quickly emerged as the best choice to chair the embattled board.
In an interview with OPB radio, Brim-Edwards said there are lessons to learn from the district's recent failure to hire a new superintendent and acknowledged the discord caused by public feuding between fellow board member Paul Anthony and the association representing school principals.
But she is pushing hard to get the board to move beyond finger-pointing and rehashing past mistakes as it renews its selection of a new superintendent.
The district administration should follow her lead and back off its stated intent to appeal the $1 million verdict a jury gave two African-American maintenance workers in May.
It's understandable that the financially strapped district vigorously fought the lawsuit.
But it has lost twice in court, and it is time to learn from the experience and move forward.
In their suit, Charles Morgan and Jason Williams alleged various troubling interactions with white co-workers and supervisors, which they brought to the district's human resources department, dating back to 2014. In March 2015 the district determined that Morgan had been subjected to "racial micro aggressions" but found no evidence of discrimination. Three months later they gave similar news to Williams.
This spring, the two men sued and in May, a Multnomah County jury found in their favor.
At the time, interim Superintendent Bob McKean said the district respected the jury decision and vowed to "continue to work with our communities and employees on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion."
That seemed to be the end of it.
But days later, lawyers for PPS argued in a motion that the jury instructions were confusing and jurors intended to award just $250,000 to each man. The judge ruled against them.
Then, in June, the district's hired lawyers filed a 34-page motion making a series of arguments, including that:
Last Monday, Circuit Judge Henry Kantor ruled against the district, reaffirming that the jury had properly awarded Morgan and Williams $500,000 each for enduring a racially hostile work environment that PPS administrators failed to fix. The judgment would stand.
As reported by Portland Tribune reporter Beth Slovic, the district's legal fees were approaching $500,000 as of mid-June.
It's time to cut those losses and avoid further damage.
PPS defended itself in court, saying it has a nationally recognized program for addressing race and equity in school systems.
Now the district is trying to knock down the jury award and Kantor's decision by saying the racist comments and threats Morgan and Williams experienced are simply "ordinary workplace stress."
After Kantor's decision was announced last Monday, a PPS spokesman said the district likely will appeal.
Given that the costs of this case, including lawyers' fees and the $1 million jury award, are now beyond the $1 million deductible in the district's insurance policy, there's not much financial cost to continuing the legal battle. But there's also not much chance of saving money should they prevail, since an appeal will likely drive their legal bills above $1 million.
What's more, there are other costs, not measured in dollars.
PPS insists it takes workplace discrimination seriously. But a predominantly white jury, after looking at the evidence, found otherwise. Continuing this fight only reinforces the image of a district that is unwilling to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes.