Oregon lawmakers don't usually pass bills aimed at one person. But House Bill 4013, now in the Oregon Senate, impacts one person. And it's not the governor or a business leader, but a non-voting member of the State Board of Education named Kim Sordyl.
Sordyl is a divisive figure, based largely on her take-no-prisoners approach to confronting problems in Oregon schools. Her career as an education activist started six years ago, when kindergarten parents at her son’s school were complaining about bullying from a teacher.
Sordyl said that when she began pushing Portland Public Schools for an investigation, she received some advice from other parents who’d complained before:
“People told me in the beginning, 'Kim, you have to be patient, you have to be polite, you have to be nice to these people, or they’ll marginalize you,'” Sordyl said.
But Sordyl said administrators took advantage of her and people who played nice.
“They would lie to me, they would brush me off, they would use all sorts of horrible tactics,” she said. “I got fed up with it. So the more they tried to bury the problem, the louder I got — and that’s what would get action.”
Sordyl says too much money goes to outside contractors, some with close ties to district leaders. She argues unions have too much control, and that parents and students don't have enough. She’s a frequent requester of public records from Portland Public Schools and will push relentlessly for information she suspects the district is hiding.
She lays her aggressive approach at the feet of leaders in Oregon’s largest school district.
“PPS created this persona,” she said. “I wasn’t always this way.”
Sordyl has an outsized presence on Facebook, where her comments can spark emotional and divisive reactions. Some teachers and parents contend she's guilty of the same “horrible tactics” she accuses administrators of using. A blog from another education advocate deplores Sordyl as a “bully’s bully” and an “equal opportunity maligner.”
Sordyl has seen that blog post and said it was based on a misunderstanding for which she later apologized.
Until recently, Sordyl’s focus was Portland Public Schools. But in 2016, the self-described “moderate Democrat” campaigned for Republican Dennis Richardson in his run for secretary of state. After he won, Richardson called her.
“He told me that he had a position on the [State Board of Education], as ex-officio,” Sordyl said. “And that he could designate someone, and he asked me if I would take the position.”
It’s a non-voting position on a board that navigates state-level education policy and supervises the Department of Education. The board doesn’t control state education funding, and its effect on local schools is pretty limited.
In her time on the board, Sordyl has often questioned ODE staff and pushed her colleagues to be more active through steps such as examining the education department’s budget. Department staff attempted to change the board’s policy handbook to remove Sordyl, but shelved the effort after the secretary of state’s office objected.
Now the bill moving through the Legislature would remove Sordyl by limiting State Board of Education designees from the secretary of state and treasurer to state employees from their offices if they're not going to serve on the board themselves. Treasurer Tobias Read has designated his policy director Kim Olson to attend when he's not able.
Sordyl is a stay-at-home mom with a law degree. At a hearing earlier this month, several of her allies testified against the bill. Portland parent Caroline Fenn told the House Education Committee to avoid legislating against the efforts of one person.
“It’s a bad idea for legislators to be in the position of silencing citizens," she said. "This kind of activity is called a witch hunt, and we’ve seen it before in some of the darkest days of our nation’s history."
Fenn was joined by Portland school board member Mike Rosen who told lawmakers that Sordyl’s relentless advocacy and demanding tactics could help state education officials improve schools.
“I suggest that you not move this bill, but instead ask that the Department of Education to up its game," Rosen testified. "Under Kim’s assertive urging, that’s what the Portland school board has done.”
Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, said she didn't know who Kim Sordyl was and that the bill was not intended to push a particular person off the state ed board.
Oregon legislators put the secretary of state and treasurer on the state board as ex-officio members in 2009. The law left flexibility for the elected officials to designate representatives if they weren't going to attend board meetings themselves.
At the recent committee hearing, Doherty said that legislators wanted to add expertise in civics and finance from the secretary of state and treasurer, respectively, when they added them to the board almost a decade ago.
“When this bill was put in ... the legislative intent is that the designee would be somebody from the office of the treasurer or the secretary of state,” Doherty said.
But the legislative record is not completely clear on that original intent. A hearing in May included a member of the treasurer's staff who said designating a person from outside the office was "an option."
In the initial hearing in February 2009, state senators asked the same question.
“Do you anticipate that the designee is someone who is also an employee of the secretary of state’s office or the treasurer’s office, or someone you designate who you think would do a good job, but doesn’t necessarily work in the office?” asked then-state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, now a member of Congress.
Then-Secretary of State Kate Brown equivocated. At first, the future governor said she might name a staff member from her office. But then she thought it over further.
“I’m in contact with a current doctoral candidate who is very interested in both education and the civic engagement components," Brown said. "This might be a very unique post for her as well."
Kim Sordyl has plenty of “civic engagement” experience in her six years as an advocate. Sordyl says what legislators and bureaucrats don’t like is her confrontational style. But she says playing nice isn’t working for anyone.
“It’s gotten us to the bottom in education in the United States is what it’s done,” she said.
The bill is in the Senate Rules Committee, with less than two weeks left in the session. So Sordyl will know by mid-March if she’s still got a seat on the state board.