Sordyl and Slovic case:  How public records requests shed light on problems at PPS. Change next?

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Kim Sordyl did not want to spend her time and energy fighting Portland Public Schools.  However, years ago, she noticed significant issues with PPS.  She followed all proper channels, which lead to dead ends and revealed a culture that protected the paid grown ups over children.

She did not quit.  Year after year, she battled abuse, hypocrisy, and ultimately, bad outcomes for children.  She worked to elect different board members and a Secretary of State who might bring fresh eyes to the problems.  Sordyl continued to obtain public records to highlight problems.  She shifted from the quiet and ineffective lawyerly approach to more strident language to call out the outrages, leading to The Portland Tribune headline:  Kim Sordyl, Mean Girl or Champion.

At some point, PPS decided challenge Kim Sordyl when she and reporter Beth Slovic both sought PPS’s information on who it had stashed on paid administrative leave – wasting money to pay people to do nothing instead of addressing whatever problems put the teachers or staff on administrative leave.

Portland Public Schools refused to disclose this information, which PPS had disclosed in the past.  It was not a controversial request, I believed.  Sordyl and Slovic appealed to the District Attorney.  The District Attorney ordered disclosure.  But PPS decided, instead, to sue the mom and the reporter.

Publicly, PPS claimed it needed to sue to obtain “clarity” on what the law required.  Well, that is what PPS should be paying its own lawyers for – to give legal advice.   The District Attorney issues his opinion:  the records were public and must be produced.  PPS did not like that answer, apparently, so it sued, which put the mom and the reporter to a choice:  give up or hire a lawyer.  They found lawyers willing to help under contingent fee agreements, including me.  We answered PPS’s court challenge.  We won the release of records and an award of attorney fees.

Portland Public Schools has a lot of needs: better facilities for students, better teachers, more school days . . . .  It should not have wasted $280,000 to fight the release of number of employees on paid administrative leave.  Here’s The Oregonian article adding up the costs.

Some believed PPS sued Sordyl reasons other than “clarity” on a point of law – including to intimidate a vocal advocate for children who battled school district leaders and employees for years.   PPS denied that.

Suing an unpaid children’s advocate raised concerns with Oregon’s Secretary of State, who then audited Portland Public Schools.

The “blistering”audit proved everything Kim Sordyl had been saying for years, Portland Public Schools has failed students.  According the Secretary of State:

  • High funding but low results.
  • Less money going to instruction than peer districts.  Kim Sordyl has argued PPS wastes money, and the Secretary of State confirmed examples, including $13,000 on a retirement party
  • PPS avoids accountability, and Oregon’s Dept. of Education does little to hold PPS accountable.

So, it is perhaps a sweet and ironic justice that PPS’s lawsuit against a mom and a reporter to obtain “clarity” resulted in getting much more clarity than it ever anticipated – from the Secretary of State audit – on topics beyond whether it must disclose who it is paying to do nothing.

But here’s the problem.

Will the audit collect dust or will PPS improve?   PPS says, “that was the old regime.”  And yes, some people fled in embarrassment.  But the institutional pressures remain to continue the same ol’, same ol’.   Who will be the next “mean girl or champion?”  Who will be the next mom and beat reporter to uncover problems and push for better futures for our children?  Voting more money is not enough, we need more Sordyls and Slovics and lawyers willing to help them.  Otherwise, entrenched powers paid with taxpayer money will outlast volunteers with no public pensions, who must move on to other aspects of their lives.

Jeff Merrick, Oregon Litigation Attorney
©2018 by Merrick Law, LLC. and Jeff Merrick. The above is not intended as legal advice. It is for general information purposes only. Reading it or attempting to contact me does not mean I am your attorney. I only represent people after we sign a written contract.
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