State advises Ontario School Board to get public records training

Ontario School Board members were required by law to keep records used in their evaluation of the superintendent but that were in some instances destroyed or couldn’t be produced.

The Ontario School District has since been advised to see that board members get training on keeping records to comply with the law, according to Kristopher Stenson, state records manager of the state Archives Division. That is a unit of the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. 

The advice from the Archives Division, the state entity that oversees records retention and the destruction of public records, followed an investigation by the Malheur Enterprise that established at least one school board member disposed of notes from Superintendent Nikki Albisu’s evaluation.

That investigation also determined that the school board chair, Bret Uptmor, retrieved a key evaluation document from his recycling bin to fulfill a public records request submitted by the Enterprise. 

This is the second instance in recent years where the Ontario School Board’s handling of public records has been an issue. In 2022, the board released documents it had kept secret after it was sued by the Enterprise. The board paid $1,000 to settle the case.

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 board’s work on 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. That included Bret Uptmor, board chair, Matt Stringer and Mike Blackaby.

Under Oregon law, records held by entities 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.”

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

Stenson said in an email last week that that the Ontario board had not scheduled a training session with his office. He said the Archives Division provides self-directed training and webinars. 

Uptmor declined to answer questions about why the board did not comply with the law. He also wouldn’t answer questions about training because, he said, he had yet to discuss the issue with the other members. 

Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations coordinator and records custodian, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last month, Smith, who reports to Albisu, provided conflicting explanations for what records were destroyed and why. 

She did advise Stenson by email on May 7 that she would ensure the district incorporates public record and retention training for the board so that they “understand their duties in that regard.” 

She asked Stenson if he had additional recommendations to bring before the board. 

Stenson wrote that he recommends that anyone in a public position learn about retention schedules – the period for which public records must be kept before they can be destroyed. That typically spans several years. 

Stenson recommended that the district train new board members and new employees on public records law and retention and then have them review the law periodically. Stenson told Smith his office could also schedule a personal session with the members and that he did the same thing for Eugene School Board after the district “similarly ran into some public snafus.” 

“As a general rule of thumb, I advise public bodies to treat everything they create within a public meeting to be part of the record of that meeting,” Stenson said. “Not all of it will have super long-term value, but there has been case law over the years that consistently holds that all of that stuff should be considered public from go.” 

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