Here's a question we're asking ourselves at the Spotlight this past week: Is the Scappoose School Board signaling a retaliation against us for reporting May 26 that two board members had approached Superintendent Stephen Jupe to discuss his exit from the district?
It certainly looks like it on the surface.
At the Scappoose School Board's May 22 meeting, the board moved to go into a closed executive session for the purpose of evaluating Jupe's performance. Members of the news media are allowed to attend closed sessions, as Spotlight reporters routinely do, though we are asked not to report on the discussion that takes place during executive session.
Governing bodies such as school boards are prohibited from making final decisions in executive session. To make a decision, the board must return to open session, make a motion, and then record the vote in public. Arriving at a final decision in a closed session is a violation of Oregon's public meetings law.
We firmly believe the school board violated the executive session privilege and Oregon law at the May 22 meeting and reached a final decision regarding Jupe's employment. Indeed, we later raised the issue with a public meetings expert, attorney Jack Orchard of the firm Ball Janik LLP, who agreed with our assessment.
We raised our concerns with board Chair Joe Lewis and Vice Chair Phil Lager in the days following the meeting. For us, it was clear the board decided Jupe's stint as superintendent for the Scappoose School District, one way or another, was over.
If a governing body violates the executive session privilege or veers outside of the stated legal reason for going into executive session, news media may report on the content of the session. That's a tough call to make, however. Over the past 10 years, in only one instance — during a period when the Scappoose City Council was embroiled in a battle with its city manager and the council violated the executive session privilege — have we bluntly reported the content of an executive session.
Though news media are discouraged from directly reporting on executive session content, a professional and ethical consideration we take very seriously, there is no rule prohibiting journalists from following up on information learned in executive session. And if information gathered from an executive session meeting is discussed outside of that meeting or can be independently confirmed, it's fair game.
In response to our inquiries, Lager confirmed with reporter Nicole Thill on Wednesday, May 24, that he and Lewis had met with Jupe on Tuesday, May 23, as a follow up to the board's decision it made in executive session, which was to give Jupe the option to resign or to terminate his contract. During the interview, Lager said that the board wasn't firing Jupe unless he decided not to resign. "The ball is in his court to make his own decision," Lager said.
Lewis, during a May 25 phone call he initiated to the Spotlight, confirmed Jupe was presented with employment options, including resigning or terminating his work contract.
Ultimately, the story we published stated Lager and Lewis had a follow-up meeting with Jupe, who at the time was presented with employment options, including the option to resign (see "Future uncertain for Scappoose superintendent," May 26).
We believe the Scappoose community deserves an opportunity to understand the reasons why the school board was quietly navigating the ouster of Jupe. Even now, following the board's approval Monday to negotiate a severance agreement with Jupe, the board has been tight-lipped about its reasons. We are expected to just accept that the board, out of the blue, has decided to sever ties with Jupe.
Of note, Jupe received a positive performance review last year, has one year remaining on his employment contract, and has a track record of overseeing some of the highest graduation rates in Oregon while supervising the Scappoose School District. On the surface, it looks like Jupe is doing the job he was hired to do. What changed? We believe the public has a right to know, and that the elected school board members should be held accountable as such.
And that brings us back to the question of whether the board broadcasted future retaliation against the Spotlight at the June 12 meeting. At that meeting, Lager asked to remove a consent agenda item naming the Spotlight as the newspaper of record for the district. It was the sole agenda item on a lengthy list removed for further consideration.
Approval of the Spotlight as the newspaper of record has been relatively routine. As the Scappoose School District's newspaper of record, the district places legal notices required by Oregon law in the Spotlight. The Spotlight receives revenue from the district for publishing those notices. It's not a huge amount of money, but every little bit helps fund the Spotlight's news and advertising operations.
Of greater value is that the Spotlight, in addition to reporting on the numerous events and activities within the Scappoose School District — in this issue alone we have two front-page stories about administrative and school-based events, as well as special section dedicated to the Scappoose High School graduating class of 2017 — publishes important legal notices about district operations, which can be found in the same location as other news relevant to the Scappoose community.
In the lead up to this year's approval, Lewis, in an email correspondence, wrote he believed the Spotlight "torpedoed the career of our current, highly productive Superintendent."
Following the June 12 meeting, Lager in a correspondence with the Spotlight wrote there was "some serious damage done with the last article on Mr. Jupe's future with our district. That honestly left a bad taste in my mouth."
When asked, Lager said removing the consent agenda item, one of thousands customarily approved in bulk, for later consideration was "routine." It isn't.
Placing the events in context, it appears the school board is attempting to hold our coverage of the severance with Jupe hostage, yet another example of a misguided effort to control a free press.
It will not work.