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Malheur Enterprise investigation shines light on school district’s leadership dispute

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  1. Freedom of Information
The newspaper, represented by RCFP attorneys, successfully sued for records concerning discrimination allegations against board members.
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On Jan. 20, the Malheur Enterprise published an investigation that provided an in-depth look into long-running disputes between board members and administrators at Oregon’s Ontario School District — tensions that have overshadowed important policy debates during a global pandemic and raised concerns about the example the school system’s leaders are setting for children, teachers and the local community.

The Malheur Enterprise’s investigation was based on documents Reporters Committee attorneys helped the newspaper obtain through a public records lawsuit against the district. Using those records, Les Zaitz, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, revealed details of a gender-discrimination complaint filed by administrators against three board members and the subsequent fallout. The conflict had resulted in the censure and subsequent resignation of two board members.

As Zaitz reported, “The newly-released records along with other documents disclosed in recent months provide new details about the strains between the district’s paid leadership and the volunteers serving on the school board.”

Key findings

The records obtained by the Malheur Enterprise included a detailed investigative report into a gender-and sex-discrimination complaint that Superintendent Nikki Albisu made against the school board members. Here are some notable findings:

  • Staff at all levels justifiably feared unlawful retaliation by the accused board members, who “demonstrated behavior indicative of a willingness to make unfounded and retaliatory complaints.”
  • One accused board member committed egregious violations of policy by engaging in disrespectful, bullying behavior that had a significant negative impact on staff. Some experienced vomiting, panic attacks and other health issues when preparing for board meetings.
  • Albisu “demonstrated objective success” in her role as a school administrator, raising doubt about the legitimacy of the accused board members’ low evaluations of her performance.

How RCFP attorneys helped

While investigating the conflict between board members and administrators at the Ontario School District, the Malheur Enterprise filed Oregon Open Records Law requests for any complaints made against board members and reports created as a result of the board’s investigations into the complaints.

The board rejected the paper’s requests, claiming that disclosing the records would, among other things, violate personal privacy and attorney-client privilege.

Last June, Ellen Osoinach, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Oregon, filed a lawsuit against the board to release both the complaints and investigative reports.

“The public has a right to know details about misconduct allegations that led the Ontario School Board to censure several board members for violating its nondiscrimination policy,” Osoinach told the Malheur Enterprise at the time. “The school board’s refusal to hand over the records requested by the Malheur Enterprise not only violates the state’s public records law, it also deprives the public of important information about elected officials’ documented abuses of power.”

In response to the lawsuit, the school board released the administrators’ complaints last November, but the board continued to refuse to release the investigative reports.

During the lawsuit’s discovery process, Osoinach and the Malheur Enterprise continued to seek information and learned that Albisu had filed a formal discrimination complaint with Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries. In defending itself against the BOLI complaint, the Board attached its internal investigative report as an exhibit to a legal brief. The Board conceded that sharing the investigative report with people outside the attorney-client relationship (i.e. BOLI and Albisu) removed any privilege it might have otherwise had.

“This successful outcome is a great example of why it’s so important for journalists and news organizations to push back when public officials refuse to hand over records,” Osoinach said. “Thanks to the persistence of the Malheur Enterprise, members of the local community can now see for themselves how the Ontario School District managed serious allegations of misconduct by the board’s elected officials.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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