Schools, Special Reports

Ontario officials balk, stall on school superintendent’s evaluation records

ONTARIO – Missing or destroyed public records at the Ontario School District have left the community without a full record of the recent favorable evaluation of Superintendent Nikki Albisu.

A top district official provided conflicting explanations over the past month for what records were destroyed and why.

An investigation by the Enterprise also established that at least one member of the Ontario School Board had disposed of notes from the evaluation. The school board chair, Bret Uptmor, retrieved a key evaluation document from his recycling bin to fulfill a public records request from the Enterprise.

The school board earlier this year evaluated Albisu’s performance with suggestions for improving her work. She has been superintendent since 2013.

Such a review “is one of the school board’s most important responsibilities,” according to the Oregon School Boards Association.

But the school district took weeks to produce records about the evaluation. Three school board members responded to requests for their records by turning over what they had to the school district, not to the Enterprise.

Under Oregon law, records held by governing agencies such as the school district are open to the public, with some exceptions. That also applies to those who serve in public office.

A state court once described the purpose of public records law as giving the public “an opportunity to determine whether those who have been entrusted with the affairs of government are honestly, faithfully and competently performing their function as public servants.”

In January, the Ontario School Board, consisting of Bret Uptmor, Blanca Rodriguez, Matt Stringer, Mike Blackaby and Antonio Sunseri, agreed how they would review Albisu.

According to public records, the review started with each board member completing their own workbook, provided by the state school boards association.

The 36-page workbook guides board members through a five-part process, including one where board members score and comment on the superintendent across eight standards.

On Feb. 21, the board met in executive, or closed session, to share their evaluations and agree to a single form to provide Albisu. The superintendent attended part of the session, providing records for the board to consider.

The next day, the Enterprise sought the board’s evaluation. That is a public document, according to the Oregon School Boards Association.

Taryn Smith, public relations coordinator for the Ontario School District. (Ontario School District photo)

Requests for district documents are processed by Taryn Smith, the district’s communications and public relations coordinator. She reports to Albisu.

Smith said the board would release the evaluation “once it was made a public document” after a public board vote on the evaluation, which occurred Feb. 26. 

But the evaluation wasn’t made public then.

Instead, the school board issued a one-page press release summarizing its conclusion that Albisu was nearly perfect in her performance. The board has not discussed Abisu’s contract and whether that earned the superintendent a boost in her pay of $145,300, according to Smith.

Two weeks later, on March 14, Smith released to the Enterprise the three-page evaluation, the press release about the evaluation and emails regarding the scheduling of the executive session between the board and the district. She also released documents Albisu had given the board, which included nearly 40 pages of content that included, among others, records from professional development sessions, a program from the Technology Expo at Ontario Middle School in November and an agenda from a new teacher orientation.

Smith didn’t provide documents from the school board members requested by the Enterprise. She indicated there were none to share. She said the board’s secretary, Andrea Salazar, told her she “verified with board members that any notes were discarded after the meeting.”

The school boards association states on its website that “board member’s notes may be public records.”

There is no question they are, according to the state Office of the Public Records Advocate.

According to Yufeng Luo, the state’s deputy public records advocate, destroying board member notes can be a crime in Oregon.

After the Enterprise reported the apparent destruction, Smith provided the Enterprise a different explanation about the documents.

She said in a March 19 email that the only documents the district collected and destroyed were extra copies of what Albisu submitted to the board for her evaluation. Smith didn’t explain why district officials retrieved the copies or why they had to be destroyed.

She revised her explanation once again in an April 26 email to the Enterprise after being questioned again about the public records.

This time, she explained that “the only document from the evaluation meeting was the board secretary’s notes that she compiled to create the final evaluation document.”

No such notes were disclosed to the Enterprise.

Smith said that Salazar’s notes “were a working document that she edited into the final evaluation.”

On March 25, the Enterprise sent Uptmor, Stringer, Rodriguez and Blackaby a request for their records from the evaluation. Sunseri had resigned from the board  after the evaluation and after the Enterprise’s request to Smith for records from the evaluation. None of his records have been provided by the district.

The Enterprise also submitted a renewed request to Smith for the board records.

Rodriguez responded the following day, saying she had “disposed” of her notes and used a “hard copy” of the evaluation workbook.

Rodriguez said she has participated in the superintendent evaluation for the last five years and has disposed of her handwritten notes each time.

“This is the first time that the media has asked for the physical documentations on the superintendent evaluation,” Rodriguez said. “Moving forward, I will keep my written notes.”

Smith said the district had no record of Rodriguez’s workbook.

Rodriguez was the only board member to directly respond to the Enterprise’s records request.

Uptmor, who didn’t acknowledge whether he had any records, said the Enterprise would have to go through Smith to get his records.

More than three weeks later, on April 18, Smith released 44 pages of records from board members, including material sent to her by Uptmor, Blackaby and Stringer. The disclosure was contrary to her statement a month earlier that such notes had been “discarded.”

Uptmor explained in an email to the Enterprise on Thursday, April 25, that he had disposed of his workbook because he “doesn’t like his desktop getting full of files.” He retrieved the notebook from a recycling bin and turned it over to district officials. 

Smith provided handwritten notes and comments turned in to her by Blackaby. Missing was his scoring of Albisu on each of the eight standards.

In his notes, he praised Albisu in the one area that the board as a whole criticized – “communication and community relations.”

“The board does see that the relationship with the media is flawed and needs to improve,” the final evaluation said. 

But Blackaby wrote that Albisu has “worked hard” to cultivate good relationships with the local newspapers, the Malheur Enterprise and the Argus Observer. He wrote, without providing evidence, that it’s been difficult to correct inaccuracies in newspaper articles and that “demands for instant responses have been stressful.” 

He wrote that “parent involvement is a priority, and efforts are made to include them in school functions and decision-making,” he wrote. 

Comments that Stringer turned over to Smith show a different private assessment.

Albisu is “not engaged enough in the community,” he wrote.

He noted that people complain to him about Albisu’s “lack of visibility or exposure.” 

“I know that they have known this as a weakness and just continue to complain,” Stringer wrote. “I honestly don’t know if this is still a real issue or if the community has just black-balled her for this no matter what she does.”

He wrote that communication and community relations have come up in her last two reviews and included in her goals. 

He wrote that Albisu needs more personal contact and suggested the district advertise an in-person gathering where she discussed the state of the schools.

Stringer rated Albisu perfect for the standard on “effective organizational management.”

He disparaged those who criticized some of the district’s educators. 

“There is some talk of bad teachers, ‘not the cream of the crop,'” Stringer wrote. “I don’t know how much choice there is. And complainants don’t have the knowledge base to do this.”  

Stringer wrote that Albisu “seems inclusive” but he gets the “indication that teachers won’t talk to me through fear of recrimination if things get back to the district office.” 

Mike Blackaby, an Ontario School Board member, provided handwritten notes and comments about his evaluation of Nikki Albisu, the school district’s superintendent to Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations manager. Missing from Blackaby’s comments and notes was his individual numerical rating of Albisu. (The Enterprise/FILE)
Blanca Rodriguez, an Ontario School Board member, is the only elected official to respond to the Enterprise regarding the newspaper’s public records request for documents related to Nikki Albisu, the district’s superintendent’s evaluation. Rodriguez told the newspaper she “disposed” of her handwritten notes . (The Enterprise/FILE) 
Matt Stinger, an Ontario School Board member, was among those elected officials who did not respond directly to a public records request from the Enterprise regarding Nikki Albisu, the district’s superintendent’s. Instead of releasing the records to the Enterprise, Stinger forwarded the records to the district’s public relations manager to consider what to disclose. (The Enterprise/FILE)
Records for Nikki Albisu, Ontario School District superintendent’s evaluation are either missing or destroyed. Meanwhile, a top district official – who reports to Albisu – provided conflicting explanations over the past month for what records were destroyed and why. (The Enterprise/FILE)


Ontario School Board gives Albisu a near-perfect evaluation

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