For a year, an auditing team from the Oregon secretary of state’s office scoured documents and pored over financial records from a basement office at the Portland Public Schools headquarters building. An audit of the state’s largest school district has been on Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s agenda since he campaigned for the office in 2016.
The release of the audit’s findings has been rumored for weeks among well-connected school advocates. Critics of Portland Public Schools have suggested the findings underscore ongoing problems in the state’s largest district. At the same time, one Democratic legislator representing parts of PPS blasted the audit before seeing it, calling the document “overtly political.”
The audit’s contents have remained a well-kept secret, until Tuesday afternoon. That’s when PPS took the unusual step of preempting the audit’s release by holding a meeting with reporters.
Before that meeting, an official with the secretary of state’s office told OPB the agency had asked PPS not to discuss the audit with reporters until after it was released.
The secretary of state’s office shared a sternly-worded, six-paragraph letter signed by Richardson.
The letter says that sharing information before the release date and time reflects a “desperate attempt to distract from some of the highly concerning findings in the audit.” It goes on to allege a “disappointing act of bad faith” that “demonstrates an aversion to accountability that shows why this audit is needed.”
The secretary of state’s office initially said PPS didn’t respond, but Tuesday evening shared a statement sent by two PPS board members, Julia Brim-Edwards and chair Rita Moore.
“We clearly understand that the Secretary’s draft report is not yet public and we have no intention of sharing your findings prior to the scheduled release date,” read the statement.
“As is always our prerogative,” it continued, “Board and District leadership will continue providing our broader community with updates regarding our ongoing system improvements.”
PPS, for its part, limited its comments to general themes in the report and examples of how it has responded to those in the audit.
The district assembled Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, Deputy Superintendent of Business & Operations Claire Hertz, and two school board members, Chair Moore and the head of the board’s audit committee, Brim-Edwards.
Their view of an audit could be boiled down to two words: old news.
But the subtext and perhaps the urgency to get out ahead of the official release of the secretary of state could be summed up in just one word: fear.
Moore said that she is afraid community members may be misled by the audit’s “backward-looking” focus.
“It would be a tragedy, I think if people took from this audit a belief that things are not changing in PPS,” Moore told reporters Tuesday. “Because I think that is absolutely an inaccurate depiction.”
PPS officials said the audit could rattle confidence in public schools at the state level.
“I think it will undermine trust in the community,” said Brim-Edwards, in response to a question about what effect the audit might have as legislators consider significantly increasing spending on public schools.
PPS went through significant contortions to criticize the audit in advance of its release while not violating the protocol that the secretary of state has authority over how the audit’s findings and recommendations are shared. It provided its 27-page response to the audit’s recommendations — but redacted the actual recommendations authored by the secretary of state’s audit team.
Brim-Edwards and Moore argued that since the hiring of Superintendent Guerrero and his leadership team, problems are getting solved and systems are being put in place to address the problems the audit highlighted.
“I’m concerned that there’s a capturing of a moment in time that was two years ago, and does not reflect that we have made really significant progress and work is ongoing,” argued Brim-Edwards.
Guerrero and Hertz pointed to the recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which outside consultants concluded was “clean” of significant findings.
Some issues the secretary of state’s audit raised, Guerrero argued, were problems widespread among large school districts in the country.
“I’m not aware of any large urban district that doesn’t have an achievement gap. And if you see those that are showing acceleration, they’re implementing very systematically evidence-based practices that do impact student achievement,” Guerrero said, arguing PPS is moving in that direction.
While the district criticized the tone and focus the auditors used, officials said they didn’t find errors. They agreed with all of the numerous recommendations, though they said some of them had already been addressed. Officials said some improvements take time — such as aligning curriculum districtwide, after more than a decade of disorganization.
Part of the audit focused on the Oregon Department of Education, as well. The district didn’t provide responses to any of those recommendations.
But what PPS offered was a partial window into what’s likely to be a tough, lengthy audit into the state’s largest district. The full view comes Wednesday morning when the secretary of state releases the audit to the public.