District takes another crack at resolving complaints
It's no secret that Portland Public Schools has plenty of critics.
As a district serving nearly 50,000 students and controlling billions of public tax revenue in the city, it's bound to have conflicts.
But when issues arise, many people say they even find themselves making complaints about their complaints. That's because they feel their concerns have been ignored or dismissed.
In a three-part series last spring, The Portland Tribune detailed the concerns of several parents and employees who said they have spent countless fruitless hours and even were banned from buildings for complaining to the district.
Now school board members have what they feel is a solution, about nine months after three newly elected members took their seats.
"There have been times where it almost felt like giving birth," said board co-Vice Chair Rita Moore, who was elected last year. "It proved to be a lot more complicated and required a lot more real thoughtfulness about how to make this process work for everybody, in particular work for parents and students."
Moore, who is part of the board subcommittee where the new policy was conceived, said she is pleased with the draft.
"I am hoping that this is going to signal to everybody — internally and externally — that PPS is going to be looking at complaints in a very different way than I think we have been looking at them before."
While the board continues to urge complainants to try to resolve their concerns as close to the source of the problem as possible, the policy is available for district-level concerns or those that don't get addressed at lower levels. The new policy lays out a 90-day timeline for resolution of formal complaints, but complaints have to be filed within two years of the most recent incident or within a year of the student involved graduating.
The first step of a complaint will be to submit one in writing to a complaint coordinator, a position that already exists and is held by Lidia Lopez Gamboa. In five days, the district has to acknowledge receipt of the complaint and, within 30 days, write a response that addresses all the concerns raised.
If that's not satisfactory, complainants can appeal to the superintendent and then the board.
The board will newly require an annual report on trends in complaints and emerging issues.
There will also newly be a process for submitting anonymous complaints, though school officials cautioned that sometimes complaints are impossible to investigate without more information and other times the very act of investigating an issue can suggest who the complainant is. There are also procedures outlined for who will investigate complaints regarding the superintendent or individual members of the board. Some complaints can also be appealed to the Oregon Department of Education.
This is not the first time the district has tried to improve its process for responding to complaints. It created a complaint policy in 2014, after being found out of compliance with state law for not having one. In 2015, it hired Judi Martin as an ombudsman, who — the board chair announced at the April 10 meeting — will now attend all board meetings.
In 2017, even district officials admitted the complaint process was confusing and assigned Senior Counsel Jeff Fish to lead a work group to rewrite the rules to make the process clearer to complainants and staff.
Assuming it is passed on its second reading, staff would develop new administrative directives after that.