PPS, in legal leap, claims its ombudsman is not its own
New board leaders with Portland Public Schools said this summer they would elevate the district's ombudsman, its internal watchdog for resolving complaints from parents and others, to promote accountability.
This fall, they revamped district policy on the release of public records, promising to be more open.
But behind the scenes, staff lawyers and outside counsel working on behalf of the school district were taking a different path.
The lawyers' goal? To block release of public records from the very office school-board members were seeking to advance.
How? By arguing that the ombudsman's office isn't actually part of PPS and that PPS didn't have to turn over its records to parent activist Kim Sordyl.
If PPS's argument seems illogical to you, you're not alone.
On Thursday, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill issued a five-page order that flatly rejected the arguments from Mark Comstock, a Salem lawyer PPS hired to argue unsuccessfully that the ombudsman occupies an independent office separate from the district.
Among other things, the order notes:
In practice, an ombudsman is supposed to act like an independent watchdog for an organization. Even if that were the case at PPS, that wouldn't shield the office entirely from the requirement that it publicly release records that aren't, for example, protected by student privacy laws.
"Whatever administrative protections are in place to provide the ombudsman with operational independence, these do not serve to establish a public records refuge within that office," the district attorney wrote. "Records maintained by the ombudsman may well be exempt in some, or indeed many, circumstances given the nature of her work, but that is an argument that PPS must make in each case to overcome the presumption that public records shall be disclosed."
PPS's written arguments aren't part of the public record. But Underhill's order makes clear PPS claimed the ombudsman's office was a separate agency from PPS and that it, therefore, did not possess the records Sordyl wanted.
Underhill continued: "PPS asserts that it 'cannot' provide us with the records, but has provided no source of law, board resolution or other state or local regulation that supports this position. Repeatedly stating that a department is 'independent' does not make it so."
The order also points out that PPS undermines its own case that the ombudsman is independent by acting on behalf of the office to block release of its records.
That inconsistency in the district's stance jumped out to Duane Bosworth, a Portland media lawyer who frequently works with news organizations to ensure public agencies act transparently.
In response to the order, PPS must turn over the records Sordyl requested.
PPS has seven days to decide whether to comply—or to sue to keep the records sealed.
PPS is already suing Sordyl (as well as the Portland Tribune) to block release of a list of teachers on paid administrative leave in 2016. Comstock is arguing that case on behalf of PPS as well.
In this case, Sordyl is seeking results from a survey the ombudsman's office conducted among people who used her services.
PPS school-board members, in response to complaints from community members including Sordyl, have said they want to improve the function of the ombudsman's office. Sordyl said she wants the survey results to help her reform the district's methods for resolving complaints—a system that critics call confusing with results that are unsatisfying.
Dave Northfield, a district spokesman, said Friday the district would comply with the DA's order, which allows PPS to share the documents while withholding the names and contact information for complainants who expected confidentiality.
He didn't immediately know how much the district had spent on outside lawyers to keep the ombudsman's records secret.
This is just the latest skirmish between Portland Public Schools and the public over records.
Also on Thursday, the Oregonian wrote that PPS spent $11,000 on outside lawyers from the Portland firm of Miller Nash to squash release of records concerning the sexual misconduct of a former teacher.
The school board this fall rewrote the district's policy around public records to say that it favored disclosure even when the public records law may allow the district to keep a document secret. The board is expected to vote on that rewritten policy this fall.