The Portland school district and its teachers have had their share of bad publicity in the last few years. While the district has tried to keep the stories of its problems — and problem teachers — quiet, it’s been largely unsuccessful.
Now the teacher union appears poised to make it even more difficult for the public to discover just what’s going on in public schools. It got partway there in a contract the school board approved Thursday.
That contract requires the district to refuse to make public the fact that a teacher has been placed on paid administrative leave, no matter what the reason. And, when the district’s new public records policy is complete, the union has the right to go back and bargain over the conditions laid out in that policy.
If it’s successful in keeping personnel records secret, parents, even school principals, may never know when another Mitch Whitehurst, Norm Scott or Andrew O’Shea is among them.
Whitehurst was accused more than once over a period of years of sexual misconduct; district officials failed to take students’ complaints seriously, and it wasn’t until a male colleague complained that his behavior became public. Scott retired after accusations of sexual misconduct, though the district agreed to keep that information out of his employment record. It became public only after he continued his behavior as a substitute in another school district.
Then there’s Andrew O’Shea, a special education teacher placed on paid leave in 2015 for reasons still not made public. This much is known, however: Since then O’Shea has had several drunken driving arrests, including one in Deschutes County, and has been charged with domestic assault and violation of a restraining order.
Parents of the nearly 600,000 students in Oregon entrust their children to public schools each day, and they expect those kids to be safe. Yet if Portland teachers and their district agree to put stumbling blocks in front of those seeking information about teachers, that task becomes far more difficult. Worse, the drive for secrecy is likely to spread to other districts in the state.
Oregon’s public records law serves a valuable purpose when it comes to public schools, and making the release of otherwise public information more difficult, whether in Portland or Paisley, defeats that purpose.