Records detail disputes, acrimony at top levels of Ontario School District

Ontario School Board members discuss matters in a 2021 meeting. (Enterprise file photo)

ONTARIO – The war of words within the Ontario School District continues, prolonging years-long tensions between school administrators and the board members elected to oversee them, according to newly-released public records.

At the center is Superintendent Nikki Albisu, who is pressing claims that she faced gender and sex discrimination while trying to fend off meddling by some school board members.

The district’s own attorney concluded last year in a 37-page investigative report that Albisu was “diligent, thorough, organized, credible and responsive” and that the Ontario school system “demonstrated objective success” under her guidance.

READ IT: Investigative report

But a new attorney more recently told a state agency that Albisu’s complaints were political, intended to evade control by the Ontario School Board.

“The source of the tension in that relationship was that Ms. Albisu had a different political perspective than did board members, and different ideas about how to run the school district,” the attorney said in a legal filing in November that was disclosed last week.

The more detailed window into the turmoil in Malheur County’s largest school district comes as the Ontario School Board released the report of its investigation into Albisu’s complaint filed in February 2021.

The board for months has refused to release the report but disclosed it recently, after the Malheur Enterprise sued to seek its disclosure.

The report is the latest document once withheld by Ontario school officials that has been released as a result of the newspaper’s litigation, being handled by the national Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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.

The school board last year generally kept silent about the investigations, providing only general statements.

That occurred in April 2021, when the board publicly voted to censure board members Eric Evans and Derrick Draper, who quit the board a result. That occurred in June 2021, when yet another internal investigation resulted in a public censure of Draper by the school board.

Draper didn’t respond to an email last week seeking comment, and Evans said he would let the district’s legal filing last fall speak for him.

Nikki Albisu is at the center of a long simmering dispute between administrators and some school board members. (The Enterprise/LES ZAITZ)

Last June, Albisu filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, contending she faced gender and sex discrimination on the job.

READ IT: Nikki Albisu complaint

She provided a blow-by-blow account of her dealings with the board, particularly with Draper and dating to 2018.

From that time, there were issues about teacher departures from Ontario High School, over a book being discussed by a private book club that included district administrators, and how the board evaluated Albisu’s performance.

Many of those episodes, which roiled the school district and the community, were recounted in detail in the investigative report completed in April.

The work was done by Portland attorney Jennifer Nelson, who said she reviewed minutes or recordings for board meetings covering 20 months, interviewed Albisu, five school board members, and 21 others, including other school district employees.

Her investigative report traces the fallout from a complaint presented to the school board in 2019 that was said to represent 14 of the Ontario district’s 18 administrators.

Draper and Evans said they believed Albisu had a role in the complaint.

Evans “acknowledged that he believes Albisu was involved with the complaint because it contained information ‘only she would know,’” the report said.

Evans said he thought the complaint was retaliation for “tough questions” he had been asking Albisu.

“He mentioned that a ‘reliable source’ (who he refuses to identify) told him that multiple administrators who purportedly signed the June 2019 complaint did so only out of fear of retaliation from the administration,” the investigative report said.

The administrators’ complaint ended in findings that there was insufficient evidence to support claims of bias by Evans or Draper, though it found Draper violated board rules. Evans later treated the report as vindication.

The later investigative report captured the impact of those findings on administrators.

One said that Evans and Draper “felt untouchable” as a result. Another said, “Everyone is afraid because we feel we’re on the verge of the superintendent being dismissed. They will remove her and then retaliate against the other administrators who supported her.”

The report concluded that Evans was “allowing his negative feelings about that complaint to influence his decisions as a board member” and that he “seems to view the complaint against Draper and him as merely political.”

But the investigator concluded that “Evans has again demonstrated behavior indicative of a willingness to make unfounded and retaliatory complaints.”

She wrote that she disagreed “with both Draper and Evans that Albisu is manipulating or lying to the board.”

Two months after that report, Albisu made her complaint to the state with claims she had faced discrimination.

She had harsh words for the 2019 report that largely cleared Evans and Draper. That report was handled by attorney Nancy Hungerford.

“Her report was a whitewash,” Albisu said.

Albisu’s labor complaint drew a 156-page response from yet another attorney representing the school district, Brett Mersereau of Portland.

READ IT: Ontario School District response

“The disputes between Ms. Albisu and board members were political in nature, and centered around issues of importance to the school district and the community in general,” he wrote on behalf of the school district in a filing dated Nov. 15, 2021.

He said Albisu was attempting “to transform an appropriate debate about the operations and policies of the school district into prohibited discriminatory speech…The fact that such debates can become heated at times, as this one clearly did, does not turn political speech into gender bias.”

The district defended Draper and Evans, saying Albisu was “labeling perfectly normal political statements” as something that was more sinister.

Officials at the Bureau of Labor and Industries wouldn’t comment last week on the status of its investigation into the complaint. 

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