The Oregon Department of Education has fired a high-ranking administrator with little fanfare after mounting complaints about alleged bullying and harassment of colleagues and questions about his attempts to use state education money for a special program in Lake Oswego.

Until March 12, Mitch Kruska had been director of programs, secondary transition and alternative assessment for the state education department, meaning he was responsible for oversight of numerous aspects of special education and programs for potentially vulnerable students, such as incarcerated youth.

In a letter to Kruska dated March 9 and obtained by OPB through a public records request, state leaders told Kruska he was being dismissed for “inability or unwillingness to fully and faithfully perform the duties of the position satisfactorily.” The 12-page dismissal letter was signed by the head of the Oregon Department of Education, Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill. It’s part of an investigative file totaling hundreds of pages released to OPB on April 13 in response to a public records request.

OPB reported in December that Kruska had inappropriately touched and had unprofessional discussions with a junior female employee and her partner at a bar during an out-of-town education conference, according to investigative records.

ODE had investigated Kruska’s behavior and substantiated several allegations from that conference in June 2016, which later-released documents show to have taken place in Seaside, Oregon.

Kruska, who witnesses said may have been drunk at the time, was reported to have made homophobic comments such as telling the women that, “Lesbians aren’t really gay, they’re just desperate.” He also insinuated sexual interest in the junior ODE employee, telling her he liked “beautiful strong women” and that the employee was “on [his] list.”

As Kruska, the employee and her partner prepared to leave the bar, Kruska slapped the employee on the butt, according to the ODE investigation.

The Oregon Department of Education investigated allegations of sexual harassment against Mitch Kruska in summer 2016.

The Oregon Department of Education investigated allegations of sexual harassment against Mitch Kruska in summer 2016.

OPB

When interviewed by investigators, Kruska’s response was mostly a combination of denying or not remembering the allegations.

ODE’s summary memo declared Kruska’s actions “inappropriate,” “unprofessional and disrespectful,” but ODE issued a “reprimand in lieu of salary reduction” rather than fire or suspend Kruska. Kruska’s direct supervisor, Assistant Superintendent Sarah Drinkwater, also directed Kruska to attend a workshop on “Maintaining a Harassment-Free and Professional Workplace,” which occurred in October 2016, according to ODE documents.

ODE Response Seen As Inadequate

Blowback from that decision appears to be part of what ultimately ended Kruska’s career at the state education agency.

In the days following OPB’s story in December, top state officials received at least eight messages of concern about Kruska’s continued role as a director in charge of programs serving vulnerable populations, according to the records released to OPB.

Four of them came on Dec. 13 or 14, 2017, immediately after the story came out:

  • Gill heard from Blake Whitson, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 22,000 state workers including many at ODE. Whitson expressed “deep concerns” that Kruska’s comments and behavior “do not create a safe and welcoming environment for those working under him or for any employee of this agency.”
  • Gov. Kate Brown’s education policy advisor, Lindsey Capps, received an email from an official at the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette who wrote that “the people of Oregon deserve better than having a man with numerous accusations of sexual assault/harassment overseeing the sexual health/violence programs for Oregon public schools.”
  • Jessica Duke with the Oregon Health Authority, another state agency, called Kruska’s supervisor, Drinkwater, to ask whether Kruska would be involved in an upcoming interview panel. Duke planned to withdraw OHA staff from the panel if so.
Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, is pictured at the Oregon Capitol in this undated file photo. 

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, is pictured at the Oregon Capitol in this undated file photo. 

Casey Minter/OPB

  • ODE acting Chief of Staff Cindy Hunt wrote to other top officials at the agency about her “significant concerns that Mitch Kruska will be able to perform his responsibilities as a Director in this agency.” Hunt referenced concerns she was hearing, including from state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who serves on the Senate Committee on Education. Later, Gelser wrote to ODE herself to say Kruska didn’t have the “credibility” to be brought before legislative committees to represent the department. (Gelser has been a driving force behind the state Legislature’s attempts to clarify and strengthen its own policies about sexual harassment after accusing now-former Sen. Jeff Kruse of a yearslong pattern of inappropriate and unwanted touching.)

The OPB story and the ensuing concerns within the agency also led to the surfacing of other complaints among agency employees about Kruska’s professional and personal conduct.

One education department colleague said Kruska pressured other ODE employees to drink alcohol he’d bought when he purchased a round of shots at a bar one evening after a 2014 conference in Hood River. One employee who refused to drink said Kruska held that against her, later allegedly referring to her as “conservative” and “stuck up” to a mutual colleague.

Kruska’s official response to the latest charges came from his attorney, Larry Lindner, in a letter dated Feb. 28. The letter says Kruska denies buying rounds for the group, and does not remember the person who accused him of insulting her for not drinking.  Lindner’s letter also argued the department was essentially firing Kruska over bad publicity related to the October 2016 reprimand.

Kruska’s Problematic Legislative Agenda

Last December, as ODE was wrestling with the fallout from its handling of Kruska’s behavior at that June 2016 conference, his colleagues also were dealing with multiple questions about his professional priorities. The newly released investigative files show Kruska was accused of pushing for policy changes and state spending decisions that were beyond the scope of his responsibility.

In one case, Kruska directed one of his employees to work up a legislative proposal for the 2018 session that could help fund education programs under his authority at ODE, related to providing teachers for youth in juvenile detention or corrections. In messages involving Kruska and the head of a separate agency — the Oregon Youth Authority — suggest Kruska was working with one of his employees to put a bill together.

Kruska didn’t appear to directly inform his supervisors that he was talking to other agencies about a legislative proposal that could tie up education department resources and potentially conflict with other department priorities. They weren’t happy when they found out.

“I’m still amazed that they moved forward in promoting a [legislative concept] without any consultation with us,” Rick Crager, ODE’s assistant superintendent of finance and administration, wrote to Drinkwater in the weeks leading up to the 2018 session.

“If this is floating out to a broad audience, we may need to do some damage control,” Crager continued. “If the Governor’s Office finds out we are floating a LC without their buy in or authorization, this could get sideways with us.”

The Oregon Capitol in Salem.

The Oregon Capitol in Salem.

John Rosman/OPB

Without sign-off from his supervisor or any involvement of the governor’s office, OYA acting Director Christine Kirk balked, and the effort stalled.

When ODE officials asked Kruska about his legislative effort, he said he was trying to address declining funding for education programs for youth in corrections.

“Look, we have a real serious concern about the fact that the number of kids being incarcerated keeps going down, and the money we are drawing from the state school fund is not sufficient to provide the education program any longer,” Kruska said, according to interview notes.

“What do you want us to do?” he asked, suggesting he was trying to come up with a plan.

Robinswood: Kruska Attempts To Divert Money To Lake Oswego Program

In another complicated and protracted instance, Kruska attempted to circumvent legal and regulatory hurdles to fund an education program for kids in a newly opened foster care facility in Lake Oswego.

Robinswood is a group home for children in Oregon’s foster care system; it’s operated by the nonprofits New Avenues for Youth and Youth Villages, and overseen by the Oregon Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority.

Kruska wanted to use Department of Education money designated for long-term care facilities to fund educational programs at Robinswood.

The response letter that Kruska’s attorney submitted in late February 2017, pointed out that Robinswood was “sponsored” by one of the agencies mentioned in state statute. The problem is that the long-term care and treatment funds that Kruska wanted to tap can only go to programs on a select list of about 40 programs in Oregon.

Robinswood is not on that list, and according to the press release when it opened in August 2017, it was meant to provide “short-term housing and youth-centered placement services,” not long-term care.

An employee who worked under Kruska and was kept anonymous in ODE records pointed out the distinction repeatedly to Kruska. But Kruska alternately ignored the concerns and complained the employee should be more “solution-oriented.” When the employee had an official visit to Robinswood and continued looking into Robinswood’s possible eligibility for long-term care funds, Kruska sent the person text messages, saying, “I need you to be quiet and listen,” according to state records.

At the same time, Kruska was not informing Drinkwater about his efforts to direct money to Robinswood or the objections of his staff member. Apparently without Drinkwater’s knowledge, the Multnomah Education Service District had drafted a memorandum of understanding with New Avenues for Youth to provide education services, based on assurances from Kruska that the program could be funded as a long-term care facility.

Kruska’s attorney says his client alerted Drinkwater to what he was working on, which basically amounted to matching up educators from a program that was closing with vulnerable students who needed teachers. In the investigative interview, however, Kruska conceded that the youth at Robinswood could go to school in Lake Oswego, though he discounted that possibility.

“Could Lake Oswego make resources available? Lake Oswego made it clear they did not have the resources to provide to these kids,” Kruska said.

The Lake Oswego School District has one of the lowest poverty rates in the state, with less than 8 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch due to low family income. Youth served at Robinswood are part of a foster care system, rife with financial difficulties, highlighted most recently in a state audit.

Kruska’s answer came as part of a lengthy interview with Drinkwater and ODE’s human resources director, Krista Campbell, on Jan. 17, 2018.

The two state officials came with a list of 117 questions — some with multiple parts — that provided the basis for their interview with Kruska. Many of them concerned Kruska’s attempts to spend long-term care funds on Robinswood. At one point, Kruska was handed Robinswood’s license and asked if it identified the facility as a long-term care facility that might be eligible for the funding source Kruska was trying to use. He read out loud what it said: “Homeless runaway transitional living shelter.”

Kruska defended what he was doing, saying, “I felt it was our responsibility to provide that support.”

But Kruska’s employee — and, later, investigators — pointed out that making such a change would open the door to other districts seeking similar help. Kruska conceded he knew of at least one district that had already asked.

Drinkwater and Campbell pressed Kruska on his management of his staff member, whose job included the long-term care program. The employee said Kruska used bullying tactics such as raising his voice and shutting down conversations, while making decisions without the employee’s input. When asked if this was bullying behavior, Kruska admitted, “I would say from [the employee’s] perspective, that’s probably how it felt.”

Statements to investigators suggest Kruska was looking to address a well-known problem: that children in state care too often spend time in shelter, or hotel rooms, with inadequate educational opportunities.

Kruska attempted expedite education funding for Robinswood by giving it an institutional ID that had been used previously by a different, recently closed program. Kruska’s staff person cautioned Kruska that such a logistical maneuver is usually reserved for a program that’s changing names, for instance, but staying in the same location and providing the same service. The staff member warned Kruska that institutional IDs were not supposed to be used  for a completely different program at a separate location.

When Drinkwater ultimately learned of Kruska’s effort to fund Robinswood in early 2018, she sent messages to the agencies involved, saying she was going to “undo the agreement.”

The loss of funding for Robinswood was met with shock and disappointment.

“Actually, for me this is a huge surprise,” Peter Rosenblatt, an Oregon Department of Human Services treatment services program manager, wrote Drinkwater on Jan. 8, the same day Drinkwater announced the move.

The Oregon Department of Human Services building in Salem, Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Human Services building in Salem, Oregon.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Contract Overages And Management Failure

Two other findings in the state records suggest Kruska was falling short in fulfilling his regular responsibilities.

On Dec. 7, 2017, after ODE employees had been informed that records had been released to OPB about sexual harassment allegations — but before a story had been published — another employee at ODE filed a complaint about Kruska. In it, she alleged Kruska had harassed and ignored her and may have discriminated against her in relation to her membership in the Oregon National Guard by questioning time she was dedicating to military duties. In some cases, Drinkwater also raised questions, and called the employee’s colonel, according to investigative records.

The employee said Kruska would enter the work area she shared with other members of Kruska’s team, and Kruska would speak with the other members but avoid any interaction with her.

She said she “went months” without being given work, while her colleagues were assigned things to do. The employee reported that she would complain to human resources but take a circuitous route to get there, because she noticed Kruska would follow her to the human resources offices.

When the OPB story published on Dec. 14, 2017, the employee felt she was the person Kruska allegedly boasted of isolating by putting “that bitch in a box.”

State officials investigating the complaint told Kruska to work from home and warned him not to communicate with fellow state staff members, except for his supervisor. Later that day, he was reported for texting an ODE staffer in his office, “Have you been told not to communicate with me?” Records show that when Kruska had been previously duty-stationed at home in March 2017, he had asked a junior staffer if “HR had contacted [her]?”

On top of the blowback from the OPB stories, the concerns about Robinswood and another employee complaint, ODE officials recently began questioning apparent overspending in a program he supervised involving education programs at hospitals.

In January 2018, officials calculated the contracts were “overcommitted by $347,000,” despite receiving an increase in state funding.

Kruska’s Last Word

On Feb. 20, 2018, Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill sent Mitch Kruska an 11-page letter, labeled “Initiation of pre-dismissal process.” Investigative notes indicate Kruska declined to appear in a pre-dismissal meeting on March 1, instead relying on the Feb. 28 letter from his attorney. Kruska’s termination took effect on March 12.

Oregon Chief Innovation Officer Colt Gill visited Madison High School in Northeast Portland on August 31, 2016.

Oregon Chief Innovation Officer Colt Gill visited Madison High School in Northeast Portland on August 31, 2016.

Rob Manning/OPB

“Your conduct and performance have caused the agency to lose the trust we placed in you to perform your duties as a Management Services employee in a responsible manner,” Gill wrote March 9.

ODE released these hundreds of pages to OPB on April 13, in response to a public records request. The release of the documents and the public airing of Kruska’s controversy emerged as one of the biggest criticisms that Kruska leveled at ODE.

The letter from Kruska’s attorney, Larry Lindner, alleges his client’s dismissal is a “second bite at the apple” — in essence, punishing Kruska for the public criticism that arose after OPB’s story last December.

“Regardless of ODE’s preference to re-discipline Kruska for the past investigation and appease those that have complained including the media, it is nonetheless a clear violation of the law,” Lindner wrote.

Lindner’s letter also defends Kruska’s professional accomplishments at the department, highlighting, for instance, his client’s critical role in creating a new program to implement a legal settlement related to work opportunities for disabled people. His attorney argued Kruska worked with Oregon legislators to address problems in the long-term care program, leading to an increase in teaching staff.

The letter also casts blame toward Drinkwater. Lindner contends that Kruska was not set up for success.

“When Kruska came to ODE, he was intentionally given three of the most difficult employees in the Special Services unit by Drinkwater,” Lindner says in his Feb. 28 letter. Further, Kruska’s attorney wrote that Drinkwater didn’t provide Kruska’s staff with any information during his administrative leave, when he was investigated in 2016.

“This created a tremendous amount of frustration and anger on behalf of his staff,” Lindner said.

Kruska earned $122,340 per year.