Portland Public Schools' human resources director and an assistant superintendent were deeply involved in making the call not to fire, suspend or demote an $85,000-a-year manager who bullied his staff, made offensive remarks and gestures to colleagues, was called out for poor management and directly disobeyed his supervisor.
The case, documented in records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive through public records requests, shows in vivid detail the way a culture of poor accountability and lack performance standards hampered the state's largest school district from making inroads in the community and gaining parents' trust.
Human Resources Director Sean Murray and Assistant Superintendent Harriet Adair told school-family partnerships director Richard Gilliam he had to undergo training and would no longer be allowed to supervise anyone. But they kept him employed, with the same title and salary -- just less responsibility.
Interim Superintendent Bob McKean made clear in a scathing Nov. 21 letter (PDF) to Adair that she utterly botched the handling of Gilliam's discipline. The district turned over that letter Friday in response to a public records request. In it, McKean said Murray gave Adair a clear recommendation that Gilliam be fired before McKean took the interim post in August but she didn't agree and didn't do it.
Gilliam resigned last month after Willamette Week revealed he'd been convicted in 1997 of patronizing a prostitute.
Adair, who earns $149,000 as one of three assistant superintendents, announced last moth she will retire in June. Her decision came after McKean said he would move most of her power and responsibility elsewhere. Adair is the most senior member of the district's leadership team, having worked for Portland schools for nearly five decades.
That Portland Public Schools made Gilliam a manager who managed no one was first reported by Willamette Week in November 2016.
Alerted by parent Kim Sordyl that Gilliam's conduct in a community meeting she attended seemed to frighten his own staff, The Oregonian in mid-October asked for records of investigations into Gilliam. The district acknowledged it had some but refused to release them.
This month, the Multnomah County district attorney's office forced Portland Public Schools to release those records after Sordyl filed an appeal.
The records include two damning investigations, including one done by an outside workplace investigator, that conclude Gilliam was an inept manager of his multicultural and bilingual staffers, bullied colleagues and subordinates, was untruthful and alienated parents representing diverse Portland families.
Murray and Adair talked to Gilliam about those problems, stopped him from coming into contact with most of those employees and ordered him to undergo training on decision-making, cross-cultural communication and managerial skills. But they kept him in his well-paying position.
McKean said in his letter to Adair that he felt he was personally forced in October to get her to follow through on removing Gilliam from managing employees. Even after he gave her those orders face to face, she did not inform Gilliam in person or in writing for weeks, he wrote.
Adair did not respond to requests for comment. Murray said he was not inclined to discuss personnel matters but noted the district secured Gilliam's departure without a lawsuit.
Neither Gilliam nor a lawyer who represented him could be reached for comment.Richard GilliamPortland Public Schools
Gilliam got his foot in the door with Portland Public Schools working as community engagement director on the district's successful 2012 bond campaign. The district then hired him as an outreach coordinator to families around Jefferson High. Adair quickly promoted him, without evidence of robust qualifications, to serve as director of school and family partnerships, leading outreach to parents of minority, refugee and second-language students.
Records show in that role he harassed and intimidated his staffers, including mocking their English skills, poking them and physically invading their space in a threatening way.
McKean told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an email that he would not tolerate the kind of behavior described in the investigations into Gilliam.
He said that structural changes he's made, including eliminating Adair's role as assistant superintendent, and her subsequent retirement effective in June are unrelated to Gilliam.
McKean letter's to Adair reflects this. In it he praised her longtime service to the district, thanked her for her dedication, and noted she had "mentored more students and staff than can be counted."
The Oregonian/OregonLive has been unable to reach Gilliam. An attorney who has represented Gilliam has not responded to email or phone messages. That attorney, Beth Creighton, told Willamette Week in November that Gilliam's staff made up allegations of mistreatment because they were angry he'd been holding them accountable. She also said the district's investigations into Gilliam, who is black, had been racially motivated.
The district mothballed him after the internal and external investigations, involving interviews with multiple district employees, found Gilliam lacked competence and credibility and created a hostile, fearful workplace for his staff.
The district launched an internal investigation in June 2015 after an employee complained about Gilliam.
The internal investigator, whose report (PDF) contains numerous misspellings and grammar mistakes, recommended an outside investigator be called in after three more of Gilliam's employees said their boss bullied and blamed them for his own forgetfulness.
All of the employees had been with the district longer than Gilliam; two of them have more than 20 years of experience in Portland Public Schools.
Around that time a community member also filed a formal complaint about Gilliam's conduct with employees and members of the public. In the complaint, she said she'd put off writing the district about her concerns in the hope that someone would take action, but that after more than a year and a half the situation had only escalated.
Marta Guembes, an advocate for second-language students and employees who has served on district committees, said she'd seen Gilliam berate staff and added that he'd treated her and other community members unprofessionally.
When called out, Gilliam would invoke the Adair's name and that of certain human resources employees to justify his behavior, she said.
"It is documented that abuse and bullying continues to occur and that Richard Gilliam's supervisor and other district administrators, including individuals in Human Resources fail to take action," Guembes wrote. "A number of complaints have been made regarding Mr. Gilliam's behavior. One would expect the unacceptable behavior would diminish: however, a recent blow-up has the community buzzing about the ways in which Mr. Gilliam interacts with his staff."
The outside investigation (PDF) by Workplace Solutions Northwest didn't probe whether Gilliam had been protected by Adair and Murray, but did implicate a senior human resources employee, who was paid to leave the district last year.
Investigator Jill Goldsmith found a flashpoint in the department tumult when Gilliam accused three employees in August 2015 of not working days he thought they should have in the summer. He and Mary-Elizabeth Harper, then Portland Public Schools senior manager of employee and labor relations, brought the employees in for interviews.
One of the employees characterized those meetings this way: The interviews were akin to the interrogations he faced leaving the Soviet Union because he was a Jewish refugee.
Two employees felt so anxious about these meetings they tried to have coworkers attend as witnesses, which incensed Gilliam and Harper, Goldsmith wrote.
One employee asked a manger from another department to come to her meeting. Harper told The Oregonian/OregonLive she felt it was unprofessional for a manager from another department to observe how Gilliam managed his own staff, so she asked her to leave.
According to the report, the nervous employee and the department manager knew each other through a professional group for the district's Latino employees. The two explained that connection as the reason Gilliam's employee wanted the manager there for support.
Harper, who is black, told the investigator she believed the manager would lie about the meeting because "Latinos are interested in discrediting African American employees." She told Goldsmith this was "the Latino hook up," according to the investigation report.
"What I told her was in my experience at (Portland Public Schools) there seems to have been some tension between African Americans and Latinos. That's what I said to her," Harper told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "(Portland Public Schools) spends lots of money on equity, they spend lots of money on diversity and inclusive programs, and it's wasted money because there isn't any real buy-in."
Another employee summoned by Gilliam to explain herself also felt anxious and tried to have a coworker to sit in. She asked if she could reschedule the session so her lawyer could attend. Harper yelled at her for the suggestion and Gilliam then yelled at the coworker to leave, the investigator concluded. Afterward, the coworker made a report to human resources that Harper had been heated and Gilliam had been physically domineering.
Asked by Goldsmith about these employees' allegations, Gilliam accused them of bribing an investigator for the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights while there was an ongoing complaint against the district. This allegation did not make sense, Goldsmith concluded, because the investigator he named did not work for Department of Education.
Other employees overheard Gilliam and Harper's sessions with subordinates and corroborated that the pair had yelled. Gilliam and Harper insisted they'd been professional.
Goldsmith concluded Harper and Gilliam "behaved in an unprofessional and hostile manner" and Gilliam's failings at management basics such as clear communication and attention to staff caused the entire drama.
In response to the investigation, Adair and Murray sent Gilliam a letter in January 2016 proposing he be stripped of supervisory duties and undergo management training.
Still, problems persisted.
Gilliam went on medical leave for a time and after he returned later in 2016, tensions with his staff and the community had not healed.
In light of this, Adair told him not to go to a community committee meeting and he told her he agreed with her call. Gilliam went anyway and his presence deeply upset community members and staff.
Adair admonished Gilliam in an email for a defying a direct order but agreed with his point that this had been the first time he'd disobeyed her.Interim Portland Superintendent Bob McKean, shown during a November visit to Scott School in Northeast Portland, felt he had to crack the whip on Assistant Superintendent Harriet Adair to get her to discipline family partnership director Richard Gilliam.Beth Conyers for Portland Public Schools
In October 2016, after McKean ordered them to do so, Adair and Murray permanently revoked his supervisory duties. He was also ordered in writing to undergo more training and warned him to be professional.
Days later, yet another employee reported Gilliam to human resources, records show. An employee from another department reported he was worried because Gilliam had chastised him for turning on lights in the cafeteria so he could see while he ate lunch. The employee said he wanted to document the incident in case he had a more serious run-in with Gilliam.
That report set off a flurry of emails involving Murray and Adair. Ultimately, Adair learned from the lunchroom user that Gilliam hadn't been hostile, according to Adair's notes.
It was Gilliam's 1997 prostitution conviction surfacing in December, not his job performance, that proved his undoing.
When hired in 2013, Gilliam lied on forms asking him to disclose prior convictions. He wrote he had none and somehow also cleared a background check, records show.
Gilliam falsely told Willamette Week he disclosed his conviction to the district. He told the news outlet he had been a victim of racist policing and felt he had to plead no contest to a crime he did not commit.
When Murray learned of the conviction from Willamette Week, he asked Gilliam about the falsehood. He told Murray he thought the conviction had been expunged and had therefore assumed he could answer no when asked about prior arrests. The conviction had not been expunged.
District spokeswoman Courtney Westling told Willamette Week in December and The Oregonian in January it was impossible to know if Gilliam had disclosed his conviction because the relevant paperwork had been destroyed. But the release of Gilliam's personnel file, which came on Feb. 3 in response to a Jan. 6 Oregonian/OregonLive public records request, revealed both that the document had not been destroyed and that Gilliam lied.
Gilliam resigned on Jan. 19.
The ordeal is a black eye on the district's human resources department, which is working to fill dozens of managerial vacancies. Murray, who has helmed human resources since 2012, wrote to The Oregonian/OregonLive that "it is the role of the Human Resources Department to provide support and advice to all our supervisors and administrators on making their performance management decisions when employees' conduct does not meet the high expectations that we hold for our staff."
For almost three years, Harper had been part of that mission in a senior-level role.
According to the posting for Harper's job, which is still open, she was tasked with handling personnel investigations, which could be "highly complex," resolving employee issues, advising administrators on how to handle employee issues, and was expected to "lead and participate in developing and implementing programs which sustain a richly diverse, inclusionary workforce and supports the district's education and equity initiatives."
Murray declined to discuss how he responded to Harper's mismanagement as revealed in the outside investigation. He noted the district secured her departure "without prolonged or costly litigation."
A settlement agreement obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive shows, however, that the district paid her $24,000 to resign. Under terms of that agreement, Murray cannot speak negatively of her.
Harper said in an interview she felt Goldsmith's report was exaggerated and questioned its integrity. She said the district threatened her with a five-day suspension, but that never happened and she wasn't disciplined.
Harper said Gilliam's employees were retaliating against investigations she and Gilliam had done into their conduct. Goldsmith's report notes none of the employees had been disciplined.
She went on medical leave in January 2016 and quit in September, she said. A condition of the settlement was that she not disparage the district.
She's now looking for work. Her doctor, she said, forbid her from going back because Portland Public Schools was too toxic.
"It was toxic because of the lack of leadership there. Why do you think all of these people have left the district? They're just boom, boom, boom -- gone. Haven't you seen that trend? Don't you think there's got to be something going on there?" Harper said. "The district is not well-run. That's all I can say."
-- Bethany Barnes
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