Local government, Schools

EDITOR’S NOTE: How we reported on Ontario school closings

A tip in November called attention to plans to close two schools in the Ontario School District.

The word was that the staff at one school was told this was so. Closing a school is a big deal, and here’s how the Enterprise pursued the information.

Spurred by the tip, a quick check on Nov. 14 of the school district’s website and its Facebook page didn’t show information about such a plan.

Reporter Steven Mitchell, who covers education, reached out to Superintendent Nikki Albisu and Taryn Smith, the district’s communications manager. He used telephone messages, emails and texts. Mitchell explained he was tracking down reports of two schools closing.

They didn’t answer.

On Nov. 15, the principal at Cairo Elementary School, one slated for closure, told Mitchell to call Smith and hung up. Editor Les Zaitz emailed the superintendent that afternoon, explaining the Enterprise was seeking information about the reported school closures, recounting the hang-up response.

“We ARE NOT ignoring you and there is NO secrecy,” Albisu responded. “We ARE VERY BUSY and need more than a couple minutes to respond to your requests.  If anyone from the Enterprise had been following/attending our board meetings this topic would not be a surprise as we’ve been discussing it for months (and also did so years earlier).”

Albisu sent a direct link to a page on the district’s website, one not readily apparent. Anyone looking for the link first would go to the district’s home page, then click on “district,” then click on “grants and initiatives” and then on “elementary reconfiguration.”

Far down on the page was the disclosure: “Cairo and Pioneer school facilities will not immediately be utilized for students in the reconfiguration.”

When the Enterprise pressed for more information, Albisu responded by email on Nov. 16, indicating that communications from me were “aggressive,” condescending” and “threatening.” She went personal, saying the reporter had a reputation for being “lazy.”

“Because this is new news to the Enterprise does not necessarily mean it is new news to everyone,” she wrote. “Had your reporter had a slight ear or eye to Ontario School District’s web page, social media pages, or school board meetings he would be completely in the know of what is going on.”

She concluded, “I’m kinda pissed right now.”

Mitchell reviewed minutes and recordings of school board meetings dating back to September. That’s when Albisu presented a plan to change elementary schools. In no meeting of the board in September, October or November did Albisu appear to declare what the website said – that Cairo and Pioneer would be closed.

Mitchell reviewed the district’s social media pages. There was no information that those two schools would be closed. He reviewed all announcements on the district’s home page. Again, no word two schools would close.

Then, in a second email to me on Nov. 16, Albisu asked the Enterprise to hold off on its reporting about the school closures.

“We are still in the planning process,” she wrote. “My point is that the ME getting ahead of us and our communication of that to our board and stakeholders may be premature and cause confusion.”

She said nothing this time about closures being old news.

Four days later, Albisu took a similar tack with Mitchell. She was responding to an email from him that contained excerpts from a story about the closures for her to review fro accuracy. She cited no error.

“A bit bummed that you aren’t giving us an additional week to meet with the board and plan next steps as I asked,” Albisu said. “Also, no mention of the benefits to kids by this model?  I get that the “Closing Schools” title sells papers but it is a small part of what we’re considering.”

Albisu provided no more information about the planned closures.

That afternoon, the Enterprise submitted four public records requests. Under Oregon law, the public has a legal right to see most documents held by government. The reason is simple – to allow citizens to monitor how government and public officials are performing.

READ IT: Request for superintendent’s records

READ IT: Request for Cairo principal’s records

READ IT: Request for Pioneer principal’s records

READ IT: Request for school change records

The requests from the Enterprise were designed to locate any record showing plans to close the schools. They sought internal communications that might reveal how the plan for closing the schools came together.

“The intent is to obtain the record of how the superintendent has communicated with board members, as a group or individually, about the plan and includes communications related to possible closure of Cairo and Pioneer,” the request said.

The requests sought Albisu’s communications with the principals at Cairo and Pioneer.

The Enterprise also asked for “any memo, letter or other such written communication received or sent by the superintendent related in any manner to the potential closure” of both Cairo and Pioneer.

We also requested what records the principals at the two schools had about the plans for closure.

One month later, on Dec. 15, Smith sent the district’s records – 47 pages. She blacked out names of some school district employees and their email addresses. She did that, she said, to protect their privacy. When the newspaper challenged that, the district reversed course and released the information.

The records showed that Albisu had not written a single email or memo about the school closures since Sept. 1 – three weeks before the school board was briefed on the “elementary reconfiguration.”

READ THEM: Ontario School District documents

According to the district, Albisu didn’t write a single memo or email related in any way to the broader plan from Sept. 1 until Nov. 9. And then, she emailed only a one-sentence approval of an announcement of a community meeting.

More surprising was the district’s response to this request:

“Any record showing the authorship and other details related to this statement from the elementary reconfiguration plan as it stands on the OSD website: “Cairo and Pioneer school facilities will not immediately be utilized for students in the reconfiguration, but OSD will not sell or get rid of these buildings. They will serve as opportunities to enhance our district in the future.” This request includes but is not limited to any drafts of this statement, the date the final language was approved and by whom and the date the information was configured for the website.”

Nothing in the records the district later released touched on that request. Smith verified that the 47 pages provided to the Enterprise was the district’s complete response and no other records existed.

The district’s position is that school officials had no document anywhere describing the decision to close Cairo and Pioneer.

The Enterprise also reached out to the five Ontario School Board members, requesting any record they had about the closures. Two board members said they had no such records. Three ignored the request though they have a legal duty to respond.

On Dec. 18, the Enterprise sent detailed written questions about the closures to Albisu. She was asked about the apparent conflict between her claims that the closures were old news but then asking the Enterprise to stall its reporting.

Questions also were sent that day to the two principals. Among other issues, they were asked to verify that they didn’t have a single document concerning their school closing.

They were advised the deadline for their answers to be considered in a story was Dec. 28.

They did not respond.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected]

News tip? Send your information to [email protected].

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