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Our View: Transparency messy, but necessary

Public outraged at school rankings debacle

Published on November 1, 2018 12:01AM

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill speaks with reporters last week in Portland about the state’s statistical school rankings.

AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill speaks with reporters last week in Portland about the state’s statistical school rankings.

A few words about government transparency: It makes democracy messy for government officials; it makes democracy inconvenient for those who hold power; it makes democracy work.

The Kate Brown administration got a quick comeuppance last week and a partial lesson in transparency.

The Oregon Department of Education quietly decided it was not releasing the annual school district report cards, as had been scheduled for last week, and instead would delay them until Nov. 15.

The public was outraged. Gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler seized on this — rightly so — as an example of Gov. Brown’s lack of transparency. At Brown’s direction, the department hastily reversed course and released the data, more or less.

The public now can use the Department of Education website to look up report cards on the performance of each school district and individual schools, but cannot run comparisons. State schools chief Colt Gill said programming required more time, which was one reason for the Nov. 15 release date.

The Oregonian newspaper proved him wrong. Overnight, its newsroom data team converted material into a useable, searchable format. The newspaper also deserves credit for breaking the original story about the delay, showing once again why a democracy needs a free press to serve as watchdogs.

It was not lost on anyone — except perhaps Gill, who said the outcry caught him off guard — that Nov. 15 is after the gubernatorial election in which education could be a deciding issue for voters.

This episode either was tone-deaf management by Gill or, as Buehler claimed, deliberate deception by Brown or her staff. In the end, as Gill said was the case, the data showed little new about Oregon schools. What Oregonians will remember, however, is that Brown’s administration intended to delay the data release, regardless of why.

Brown got a reprieve on another debacle. The Oregon Court of Appeals temporarily blocked a lower court ruling that would have forced disclosure of potential legislation being considered by her administration.

Those legislative concepts — more than 260 of them — might have revealed whether Brown was considering tax increases and other controversial measures for the 2019 Legislature. After ending the 2017 session by saying tax reform was a high priority for 2019, Brown has not followed through — at least not publicly.

Legislative concepts submitted by state agencies have been considered public records in the past, although little attention was paid to them. Now the Brown administration is making the dubious claim that they are protected by attorney-client privilege. Even then, Brown could choose to make them public.

It appears that political opponents wanted access to those legislative concepts, probably to use against Brown in the election. That is one of the risks a public official takes. Incumbency has a great advantage over challengers, but incumbency should never shield a politician from transparency.

Brown supporters will argue that Buehler is not being transparent, because he has not released his complete income tax returns, unlike Brown. They are right; however, there is a difference between public records and an unelected person’s private tax returns.

Candidates promote transparency when running for office, whether for city councils and school boards or the presidency and governorships. Once in office, they prefer the darkness of closed government to the sunlight of full disclosure. That shift might be understandable but it is inexcusable.

Full transparency must be the constant standard by which Oregon government operates.


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