Former PPS head details allegations against new leadership
This story has been updated.
The former head of Portland Public Schools has revealed in a juicy 11-page letter that he intends to sue the school board and in particular board chair Julia Brim-Edwards for violating his rights of free speech and whistleblowing.
Yousef Awwad, who took interim control of the district twice since the lead-in-school-water crisis in May 2016, was fired without notice on Nov. 9. He had been under investigation for engaging in a consensual relationship with a subordinate. The relationship came as a surprise to the new board and leadership, though Awwad says he cleared it with his interim boss Bob McKean.
In the letter, Awwad says the investigation and subsequent termination were retaliation for raising concerns about failed superintendent candidate Donyall Dickey, Brim-Edwards' perceived conflicts of interest and, he alleges, illegal behavior.
In a statement Saturday, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said the board was not involved in his decision to terminate Awwad and declined to comment further on the personnel matter.
"As superintendent, I have the authority and the responsibility to shape and build my senior leadership team so that it serves the best interests of our students and the district," Guerrero says. "The decision to terminate Yousef Awwad was mine alone. Board leadership and members were not involved. As I've previously stated, this is a personnel matter and I won't comment on the rationale for the decision."
Awwad says that while he was Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Brim-Edwards twice unsuccessfully sought high-level administrative positions in the district. Awwad says he felt she wasn't qualified because of a lack of instructional experience. Brim-Edwards is a senior executive at Nike.
For this reason, he alleges, Brim-Edwards was "intentionally sabotaging him," and within three days of taking her elected position "immediately sought to discredit Mr. Awwad and destroy his PPS career."
Brim-Edwards, released a statement late Friday night that said Awwad has the facts wrong. A key distinction she made is that the superintendent hired in August, Guadalupe Guerrero, was free to make his own choices and did not consult with the board before firing Awwad.
"Allegations of misconduct were made about Mr. Awwad as early as July," Brim-Edwards writes. "A written complaint alleging an inappropriate relationship with a coworker he indirectly supervised, favoritism, and creating a culture of fear at the district was then sent to the district office in August.
"The Board had a duty to investigate the allegations made against him as the acting Superintendent," Brim-Edwards continued. "Mr. Awwad's claims are based on a mischaracterization of the facts."
According to his attorney's Jan. 5 letter, Awwad sees the investigation against him as a misuse of public funds and a violation of public notice and contracting laws.
Over the summer, Awwad says he learned that Brim-Edwards was on the board in the mid-2000s. Awwad alleges that was when the lead-in-water problems first surfaced. The district did experience a similar crisis in 2001 and 2002 which led to some remediation efforts and a public information campaign.
Awwad also writes that some allegations came during that period against Mitchell Whitehurst, a since-terminated teacher and coach accused of widespread sexual harassment. The letter provides no evidence that the allegations reached the board, however Awwad considered it a conflict of interest for the board chair's involvement in current investigations of those matters.
He also alleges personal discrimination; he is originally from the country of Jordan. Awwad says he was wrongfully terminated and alleges that the board actions to discredit him without a public apology interfered with another job opportunity. This could set up the amount he intends to ask the court for in damages. That would be in addition to legal fees, expert testimony fees and other costs, should he win.
Read the letter Awwad sent to the district Friday.
The Portland Public Schools board is embarking on a quest to develop a nepotism policy to avoid actual and perceived conflicts of interest in the 6,000-employee agency.
The moves come in the wake of a scandal involving a consensual relationship between the former interim leader of the district, Yousef Awwad, and a subordinate.
Julia Brim-Edwards, the board chair, said at a Friday morning task force meeting that the need for such a policy is long-overdue. This, she stressed, would benefit employees as well as the public to have a clear procedure for how family members and others can work together in the district.
In February 2017, the district adopted an administrative directive on consensual relationships but Brim-Edwards says they could not subsequently find any policy foundation for it.
The PPS legal staff at the Friday meeting also could not find any existing policy on avoiding conflicts of interest, either at a staff or board level.
"We should get one," said board member Rita Moore.
UPDATE (1/5/18): Rebuttals to Awwad's claims from Julia Brim-Edwards were added.
UPDATE (1/6/18): Clarifications were added to the paragraph on Brim-Edwards' alleged conflicts of interest. A statement from the superintendent was added.