A two-year legal fight over Portland Public Schools’ handling of public records has ended with a financial hit to Oregon’s largest school district.
The legal debate dates back to November 2016 and involved two people familiar with requesting and analyzing education documents: Beth Slovic, who has been an education reporter for Willamette Week, the Portland Tribune and The Oregonian/Oregonlive; and parent-activist Kim Sordyl who sits on the state Board of Education as a non-voting representative of the Oregon secretary of state.
Slovic and Sordyl were seeking lists of PPS employees on paid leave.
The debate ended this week with a win for Slovic and Sordyl and a $200,000 legal bill for PPS, which officials said will have to come out of the district's main budget for instruction.
PPS director of strategic communications and outreach Harry Esteve told OPB “the money to pay the attorney fees comes out of our general fund.”
Sometimes school districts can pay legal costs through insurance policies.
"[W]e’re not insured for this kind of expenditure," Esteve said.
PPS received the records requests from Slovic and Sordyl, shortly after the district had hired interim superintendent Bob McKean. At the time, board members were searching for a permanent replacement for Carole Smith, who had resigned amid parent outrage over the discovery of lead in school drinking water.
The district rejected the request for a list of employees on paid leave, arguing they fell under exemptions to Oregon's public records law.
Slovic and Sordyl appealed the school district's decision to the Multnomah County district attorney, who concluded PPS was wrong and had to release the lists.
The school district wasn’t done, however.
PPS sued Slovic and Sordyl in state court to block the records’ release. Again, the district lost and had to release the records earlier this year.
"The D.A.'s ruling left some ambiguity about how we handle public records. We felt we needed clarity from a legal perspective and a contractual perspective," Esteve told the Portland Tribune. "Our desire is always to be as transparent as we can. … Now we have that clarity, and I think it's good for us and I think it's good for the public."