District Attorney to Portland Public Schools: Get it Together on Records Requests

Rod Underhill admonishes PPS to improve its process for disclosing public records.

In an eight-page order issued Monday, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill strongly rebuked Portland Public Schools for failing to respond to public records requests in timely fashion.

Likening the school district to the troubled Cover Oregon, Underhill wrote that PPS can't point to problems it created as an explanation for why it can't fulfill statutorily required duties.

PPS has blamed a lack of adequate staffing on its inability to respond quickly to records requests, which have grown in volume since PPS acknowledged last spring that it failed to safeguard its buildings from lead contamination.

"We accept that with its current staff assigned to handle public records matters PPS cannot respond to these requests more rapidly," Underhill wrote. "However, that shortfall is the result of policy decisions at PPS and we decline to give them the benefit of those decisions in assessing the reasonableness of their response. It is a well-established principle in the criminal law that police may not create their own exigency in order to justify actions that would otherwise be illegal without the exigency."

In many ways, the order reads like a summary of PPS's current state of existence— a state of confusion and delays over everything from grade configurations at primary schools to the reconstruction of its high schools.

It noted, for example, that former Superintendent Carole Smith had issued recommendations to the School Board in July on how to better handle records requests—but offered no sense of urgency for implementing the recommendations.

"These suggestions are commendable and, if implemented, would likely mitigate the present situation," Underhill wrote. "But, unlike Cover Oregon, PPS has presented no timelines or firm commitments for action."

PPS spokeswoman Rosie Fiallo says the district knows it must do better.

"We recognize that our current structure and staffing levels are not adequate to carry out the function of responding to public records requests in the timely manner we want to," Fiallo says, "and addressing that internal operational function is among the priorities of the Interim Superintendent as he looks at other operational restructuring and efficiencies."

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