When people don’t get real answers to their questions, suspicions and conspiracy theories find fertile ground.
For Bear Creek Elementary School parents, the information gap is vast as they contemplate the situation of Principal Matt Montoya.
Montoya, who has an enthusiastic group of supporters, was placed on paid administrative leave in late June by the Bend-La Pine Schools administration. District officials refused to say why, because it’s a personnel issue.
Into that information vacuum came reports from Montoya’s wife that he might be fired based on job performance issues. For parents who believe Montoya has been good for Bear Creek, that didn’t add up. But no details were forthcoming from the district, leaving the parents frustrated and angry.
Bend-La Pine Superintendent Ron Wilkinson said legal advice prevents the district from saying more. Montoya’s personnel records are protected by state law, Wilkinson said, and the district could be accused of violating his rights to privacy and confidentiality if it talked about the reasons for its actions.
Wilkinson said he pressed legal advisers recently to agree to reveal the fact that Montoya had filed a discrimination claim against the district after he was placed on leave. Wilkinson said that was the only way to explain the delay in resolving the situation while that complaint is investigated.
But saying more could violate the law and jeopardize possible settlements, he said, and ignoring legal advice could violate requirements of the district’s liability insurance.
The result is terrible public policy, in which taxpayers are blocked from critical information about how their public servants are operating, and some parents are alienated from the school district. They lack information they need to evaluate where the fault lies.
Rick Kaufman is executive director of community relations for the Bloomington, Minn., schools, and consults with districts across the nation on school communications. He said the Montoya case sounds like the classic type that frustrates many districts and communities. Minnesota tried various legislative changes a few years ago, he said, but one supposed solution only caused other problems. School districts walk a tightrope, he said, between employee rights and the need to inform parents and taxpayers.
The Oregon School Boards Association advises its members that it’s good employment practice to keep discussions about employee performance confidential, according to communications specialist Alex Pulaski. OSBA attorney Lisa Freiley said the laws involved are complex, both at the state and federal level. In some instances, she added, information can be released after investigation is complete, particularly with prominent officials.
We’d argue that a school principal is a fairly prominent person, and we urge Bend-La Pine to make every effort to find a way to make results of its probe public. In the meantime, honesty and healthy public discourse are the losers.