Bureaucracy or Community: PPS’ Struggle With Transparency Continues

From left to right: Attorney Jack Orchard, former Tribune reporter Beth Slovic, education advocate Kim Sordyl, and attorney Jeff Merrick at the Multnomah County Courthouse, May 11.
Photo by: Kim Sordyl

From the well-known crisis of lead in the drinking water to the sexual assault scandal surrounding former Marshall High School teacher Mitch Whitehurst, Portland Public Schools (PPS) has a poor track record when it comes to transparency. For many, it has begun to feel like PPS is not interested in open communication with the public. Earlier this year, PPS sued journalist Beth Slovic and parent advocate Kim Sordyl in an attempt to stop requests for public records, arguing that the records are exempt from disclosure due to the personal privacy of employees. This October, PPS lost the lawsuit and now owes over $250,000 in legal fees, all due to its effort to make it harder for the public to access information about teachers and staff on paid administrative leave. There is a culture of secrecy in PPS which has eroded trust among members of the public and the student body.

The burning question in the wake of this lawsuit is whether or not PPS will make an effort to improve transparency and the way they handle complaints and requests for public records. Sordyl, aforementioned parent advocate and avid spokesperson for increased openness in PPS, hopes that they will make better choices going forward.

Sordyl says that PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero has a big job ahead of him to fix the current issues with transparency. “He currently has a highly paid, uneducated staff member handling public records requests. This has resulted in slow, poor performance. The superintendent needs to require competent, honest, qualified and transparent staff all around.” Sordyl says that this will require a shift in culture, and that Guerrero needs to set high expectations for clarity. “He needs to enforce the rules, and reward those who achieve those goals. It’s not helping PPS to put the needs of poor performers over the needs of the greater community,” says Sordyl.

In November, the school board was set to vote on changing district programs’ graduation requirements, proposing to allow some students to attend high school half-time. This is a decision that is dependent on public feedback. The Board did not announce this decision to vote and failed to garner public comment. The secretive way PPS went about this process of making a major decision regarding Portland students speaks to a continued lack of transparency and a disregard for the voices of the public. Helen Jung, a reporter for The Oregonian, wrote an article that brought this issue and its impending vote to the attention of her readers. Consequently, the school board has now decided to allow more time for public input and discussion. PPS continues to hide vital information from the public unless a reporter brings it to light. The public should never have to dig when it comes to gaining information from PPS; the information should simply be provided.

There will always be issues within a bureaucracy as large as PPS, the largest school district in the state of Oregon. Because of its size, extreme clarity is necessary regarding conflict management that should remain public. This includes advertising the complaint process, communicating to the public the steps in the process of filing a complaint, and hosting a process that invites criticism of the district through public comment. When looking on the PPS website, it is difficult to discern from the organizational flow chart who one should go to with complaints and concerns regarding the district.

PPS created a complaint policy in 2014, after being found out of compliance with state law for not having one. In 2015, they hired an ombudsman: an informal, independent, neutral and confidential complaint resource for an organization. The ombudsman is expected to attend all board meetings and write up a yearly report consisting of changes PPS should make in response to public concerns. But, according to Kim Sordyl, Portland Public’s current Ombudsman—Judi Martin—is prone to brushing off complaints, and is not even listed on the organizational chart on the district website.

Martin says, “I abide by the code of ethics of the International Ombudsman Association and do not participate in formal processes. My role serves as an alternative dispute resolution resource for those who want assistance in attempting to address their concerns informally.”

Comparing Martin’s description of an ombudsman with the description for the same role within the City of Portland, there is an obvious difference in tone and understanding of what the job entails. According to the City of Portland’s website, “The Ombudsman is an independent advocate for a fair, reasonable and just City government. Our office responds to members of the public, businesses and City employees to resolve complaints about City services and practices. We conduct impartial investigations and resolve problems informally. We have the authority to recommend remedial action or a change in policy.”

The City of Portland’s language sounds clearer and more like an active advocate with an investigative role. The Ombudsman for the City of Portland even has a Twitter account, where they speak out about changes needed to be made in the Portland community. Take, for example, an October 22 post on the long waits for Portland police reports: “Producing police reports is a primary function of the police organization. Those reports are essential for victims to be able to vindicate their own rights in a variety of different venues.” When compared to Martin’s lack of a Twitter page and her passive voice within the PPS community, there is clearly a disparity between the two, and so the mission of PPS’s Ombudsman should model itself after The City of Portland’s when it comes to being proactive and vocal. Doing so will show the PPS community, students, staff and parents alike, that they have an advocate independent from the district; someone who is watching out for their community. Currently, the role of PPS’s Ombudsman feels weak, if not invisible.

It is likely that Martin’s role as ombudsman has been pre-defined for her by the district, making it hard for her to take a strong stance. The district needs to give Martin the freedom to have a public persona and make sure she knows that her role includes advocating and conducting investigations into informally voiced complaints, not simply directing them to other channels of resolution.

On October 2, after three years on the job, Martin delivered a cumulative complaint report to the school board. As part of the report— and as one of the roles of an ombudsman— she made three “observations and recommendations” regarding patterns she is seeing in the complaints she’s taken. According to a Portland Tribune article, “Martin recommends the district implement an effective communication training model — such as Communicate with H.E.A.R.T. (Hear, Empathize, Apologize, Respond, Thank) — to head off problems before they reach her office.”  While a communication model may be warranted, it’s disconcerting that she believes her role is to reduce the amounts of complaints that she has to deal with. As an independent resource, Martin should be most concerned about dealing with the complaints that do end up reaching her, not implementing a vague and dismissive conflict resolution strategy that would not resolve the majority of serious concerns (such as bullying and special education programming issues) that come from parents and citizens.

Instead of avoiding or muting complaints, the district should listen to the people who have something critical to say. Officials could learn a great deal about their district, and should invite people to report when something, or someone, is not working out. PPS needs to take every complaint and issue brought to their attention seriously and take direct action to process it.

Kim Sordyl still has hope that PPS can better themselves after the many times they have kept secrets and failed to process complaints in the past. She says, “Although I’m very critical of PPS, I’m also hopeful. If the current general counsel and HR Chief can bring in a strong team, then I think PPS will be more transparent. I have a lot of confidence in their ability to overcome the culture of secrecy. They are in the right positions to do it.” PPS shouldn’t be afraid of gathering all the opinions and viewpoints before moving ahead on new policies. The district must remember that concerned community members are not the enemy. They should listen to complaints and bring issues into the public eye not merely to avoid potential PR issues, but to incrementally improve the educational experience of students and build trust within the Portland community.

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