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Portland Public Schools and its former interim chief Yousef Awwad dispute the motivation for his November firing

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO  - Yousef Awwad, formerly head of Portland Public Schools business operations and a two-time interim superintendent, is locked in a legal battle with the district. Both the school district and its former interim chief appear to be arming for legal battle in the aftermath of the release of nearly 2,000 pages of documents.

Yousef Awwad, who was Portland Public Schools' interim superintendent for two periods during the last two years and fired Nov. 9, says he did nothing wrong and is the victim of a personal vendetta by Julia Brim-Edwards, the school board chair.

Brim-Edwards, on the other hand, said she had no choice but to go to two vice chairs and legal team after receiving word of three separate complaints of impropriety. The school board's executive committee then conceded to the legal team's hiring of independent investigator Renee Starr to look into the complaints last August.

The Starr report is a succinct three-page document that largely exonerates Awwad. It is backed up by interviews with 15 people, pages of documentation and a forensics search of Awwad's Internet history, text messages and social media accounts for terms like "sex," "excitement," "seductive" and "intercourse."

The district released hand-written notes from a conversation Brim-Edwards had with a friend, who recounted allegations from a woman close to Awwad of things like "conversing with young women; picking up women on PPS trips" and of having a fake online persona. The investigator did not find any evidence of that.

Starr did find that Awwad demonstrated a "questionable lapse in judgment" by approving the recommendation of a promotion of his girlfriend, Donna Chu, from director to senior director. But Starr said she did not find evidence of other sexual escapades from the chief. Rather, she found Awwad, Interim CFO Ryan Dutcher and Interim Chief Human Resources Officer Sharon Reese were understandably frustrated by a lack of standards for the title of "senior director," not just with regard to Chu.

The documents released by the district include huge amounts of email, text and other documentation but the argument does not appear to be over.

"There's no evidence of any sort of retaliatory action," Brim-Edwards said, pointing to pages of emails with other board members and evidence of the process she followed.

However, Charese Rohny, Awwad's attorney, sees something entirely different in the documents.

"From the way the investigation began in secrecy to its conclusion, and now to the delay (in providing public records), it demonstrates that much of this investigation was mishandled," Rohny said. She added that the evidence provided in the documents has cemented their decision to file a suit against the district.

Questions over Guerrero's motivation

A still-unanswered question is why Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero suddenly fired Awwad.

"The decision regarding Mr. Awwad's employment termination was mine alone," said Guerrero in a statement released with the documents.

The documents show the school board drafting a letter to Awwad in October with the results of the investigation, an admonishment and an invitation to work for many more years at the district.

A district timeline released with the 2,000 pages of documents suggested there was never a final version of the letter because Awwad and his attorney refused to agree to edits or meet with the board.

However, in an Oct. 25 email provided to the Tribune, Awwad's attorney did propose apology language and conveyed a request to meet with the full board in executive session.

"The following week," said Awwad's attorney Rohny, "Mr. Awwad advocated for proper procedures and contracts again, this time on a new issue."

In a new complaint to the district, Awwad recounted that right before he was fired, the new superintendent complained that his first paycheck didn't include payment for work prior to his official Oct. 1 start date. Awwad, as the district's head of operations, refused to authorize payment for work that he saw as outside of the board-approved contract. His attorney suggests this was a possible motivation for his termination by Guerrero.

Michelle Cole, a spokesperson for the school district's law firm, said Superintendent Guerrero doesn't remember talking to Awwad about the payment. She also provided an undated letter, signed by chair Brim-Edwards, authorizing hourly work between Aug. 14 and Sept. 30. She said it was transmitted Aug. 26.

So while the reason is still under dispute, it is clear that on Nov. 1, a flurry of emails began regarding the Awwad investigation between Brim-Edwards and Stoel Rives attorneys, who make up the board's legal counsel. The subject line is blacked out.

Late on that Sunday night, Nov. 5, the head of Human Resources, Kylie Rogers, emailed the superintendent's assistant asking for an urgent meeting that Monday "to follow up on the YA investigation."

The released documents then show a Nov. 8 meeting between the superintendent, his chief lawyer, and the head of the finance department.

The next day, the superintendent fired Awwad.


District releases report nine months after requests

It is curious that the district did not release the three-page Starr report until Monday, July 9, and only then in a mountain of other documentation. The documents were also not released through the district's public records custodian but through Harrang Long, an outside law firm.

Dave Northfield, then a PPS spokesman, texted school board Chair Julia Brim-Edwards on Oct. 9 that "reporters also want to know when they will get a copy of the report." She responded: "It is my expectation that the board is not planning to release the report."

Brim-Edwards says now that the report was privileged as attorney-client communications but "there was a decision made" to release all the documentation PPS could on this case.

Questions to the district about that decision were directed to Michelle Cole, a public relations professional employed by Harrang Long.

"There was a combination of factors at play," Cole responded via email. "The district experienced major turnover in key staff during this period. There was a question as to whether the report was privileged that took some time to resolve."

Cole added: "The superintendent and board are well aware that PPS cannot build trust without transparency, and that includes the timely processing of public records requests."

There are several redactions in the released materials, not all of which are required by Oregon Public Records Law. For example, the names of the people Brim-Edwards texted with or about regarding the allegations against Yousef Awwad could have been released if the district saw "clear and convincing evidence" of public interest in their release.

"The district also could have withheld the entirety of the complaints," noted Cole, "but chose to disclose all but the identities of the person who came forward and the other people who provided information."


Timeline

March 7, 2017: Prim Kolar, likely a pseudonym, writes to five members of the school board claiming that several employees are concerned about a relationship between Yousef Awwad (then Deputy CEO) and Donna Chu (a finance director).

March 15, 2017: Then-board member Steve Buel responds that he looked into it and doesn't see a problem; that Awwad is "a really good man."

July 6, 2017: An unnamed friend of newly installed board chair Julia Brim-Edwards follows up on a previous text to warn her off hiring Awwad as a permanent superintendent.

July 8, 2017: Brim-Edwards talks on the phone with the friend who relays serious allegations of sexual impropriety from a mutual acquaintance.

July 13, 2017: Awwad, as interim Superintendent, approves Chu's promotion from director to senior director at the recommendation of Ryan Dutcher, Chu's boss. The change brings her to $133,000 per year, a 10.8 percent salary boost.

Aug. 3, 2017: A mysterious letter sent to the board office from inside PPS headquarters alleges "several people are unhappy with the ethics and leadership" of Awwad due to his relationship with Chu and the promotion of a "culture of fear." Brim-Edwards notifies co-Vice Chairs Rita Moore and Julie Esparza Brown.

Aug. 9, 2017: Board recommends selection of investigator Renee Starr to look into the three complaints.

Sept. 2, 2017: Chair Brim-Edwards gets a second anonymous letter, very similar to the first, which vaguely describes additional complaints and questions that the investigation might be missing.

Oct. 2, 2017: Starr delivers her report.

Oct. 12, 2017: Board leadership prepares a draft letter admonishing Awwad for not disclosing his relationship with Chu but stating that they "…look forward to many more years of your valuable contributions…" The letter is never released.

Nov. 3, 2017: Brim-Edwards and Stoel Rives lawyers set up a meeting together.

Nov. 5, 2017: HR chief Kylie Rogers asks for an urgent meeting with the superintendent.

Nov. 9, 2017: Awwad is fired.

Jan. 5, 2018: Awwad sends an 11-page letter detailing his allegations and intent to sue.

July 9, 2018: District releases 2,000 pages of documents on the case in response to several public records requests.


Shasta Kearns Moore
Reporter
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