Three Ontario school board members duck records law

ONTARIO – In an apparent violation of state law, three of five Ontario School Board members have yet to respond to a public records request from November seeking their documents about the impending closure of two elementary schools.

Bret Uptmor, the board chair, initially responded that requests for his records had to go through the Ontario School District. State law and the district’s own policy say otherwise.

On Nov. 20, the Enterprise filed a public records request directly with Uptmor, Mike Blackaby, Matt Stringer, Blanca Rodriguez and A.J. Sunseri.  The requests went to the email address listed for them on the district’s website. The requests sought any record they had related to the district’s plan to close Pioneer and Cairo schools as part of its elementary reconfiguration.

The request noted the board member records were needed to trace the district’s process that led to the statement on its website that “Cairo and Pioneer school facilities will not immediately be utilized for students in the reconfiguration.”

Blackaby, serving for a second time on the school board, Rodriguez and Stringer as of Friday, Jan. 5, had not responded to the request or provided records. They also haven’t responded to written questions about their failure to do so.

Under the Oregon Public Records Law, public officials in most circumstances have five days to acknowledge they have a request. They then have another 10 days to turn over the documents unless there are complicating circumstances.

To meet those requirements, the school board members were to have acknowledged they had the request by Nov. 29, giving allowance for the Thanksgiving holiday. They would have to produce documents or confirm they didn’t have any by no later than Dec. 13.

In a Nov. 27 email to the Enterprise, Uptmor wrote that all public records requests are run through the district office superintendent. He copied Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District to the response.

The school board policy, however, explains that written materials such as emails, texts and memos, are disclosable under the law. The policy also specifically notes that, “an individual board member may be considered a public body for public record purposes. Consequently, records created and retained solely by individual board members may be considered public records.”

On Dec. 15, Uptmor dismissed the reference to school board members as a “footnote in the policy.” and “This is for reference purposes for readers.”

Todd Albert, the state public records advocate, said the district’s policy requiring board members to turn over disclosable public records is not a reference point for the reader. It’s the law.

According to Albert, public records law applies to local elected public officials, not just those at the state level.

“A public official must undertake the same process as any public body to search for responsive records in their possession or control,” Albert said in an email to the Enterprise.

He said an elected leader must review the records and determine if they are confidential and should be withheld. The law requires a public official to explain why they are withholding any record.

Uptmor said he didn’t respond promptly to the request from the Enterprise because he does not “frequently check” his district email. He disclosed that district officials also send meeting announcements and other school board business to his personal email.

Smith said the district officials send district correspondence to the personal emails of board members at their request.

Under Oregon law, emails to a public official’s personal account are still public records subject to disclosure.

Uptmor confirmed on Dec. 28 that he had no records relating to the closure of Pioneer and Cairo.

Another board member, A.J. Sunseri, also said he had no such records.

Sunseri said he didn’t see the original request from the Enterprise because he had not been able to log into his district email account since being sworn in four months ago. He only learned of it when the Enterprise sent a message to his personal email.

Stringer emailed on Wednesday, Dec. 27, from his personal email, stating that he had not received the Nov. 20 records request. He didn’t respond to subsequent emails from the Enterprise that included a copy of the November records request and written questions. It’s unclear if Stringer had checked his district email.

Blackaby and Rodriguez, who didn’t respond to the original request, also didn’t respond to emails to their personal email accounts on Dec. 27. The later emails said the Enterprise was making one final attempt to allow them an opportunity to comply with the Nov. 20 public records request and answer written questions the newspaper had sent to their district email accounts.

In November, Blackaby denied there was any intent to shutter Pioneer and Cairo. He threatened to sue the Enterprise if his name was published concerning the topic.

But the district’s website reflects such an intention on a page describing what school officials term an “elementary reconfiguration.”

In a Wednesday, Dec. 27 interview, Sunseri said he did not know until recently that the district planned to close Pioneer and Cairo. He said the district’s online elementary configuration plan used more definitive language in its online plan than anything that had been discussed in a public meeting.

Sunseri said he learned of that website statement only when the Enterprise shared it with him recently.

Sunseri said that keeping information from people shifts the conversation about the benefits of the elementary reconfiguration into one about why the district appears to be hiding information from people.

Sunseri said while he is new to the board, he has sensed an aversion to being open and transparent within the school district. He said the aversion to openness isn’t healthy.

In 2022, the Enterprise sued the school board to obtain public records concerning an internal investigation. District officials settled the case by turning over the records and paying legal fees for the Enterprise. Blackaby was on the board at the time.


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

Ontario School District can’t document who decided 2 schools should close

Ontario considers closing Pioneer, Cairo schools when elementary shift takes hold

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