Two Unrelated Cases Highlight Holes in Portland School District’s Background Checks
Portland Public Schools is under the microscope at the moment, after two unrelated cases came to light indicating potential holes in the district's employee background check policies. According to a recent report from Willamette Week, the two cases involved a pending hire for the district’s general counsel position and a district administrator, respectively.
The first incident occurred in November when the district was in the process of hiring an attorney to serve as general legal counsel for the district. Portland Public Schools extended a tentative job offer to Wes Bridges, a lawyer who hails from Florida. Bridges had previously served as the attorney for the school board of Florida's Polk County School District. In 2009, though, he pleaded no contest to charges of violating public records law during his work for the Polk County School Board.
According to the Willamette Week report, it wasn’t Portland Public Schools’ background check policy that uncovered Bridges’ conviction, but investigations by the media. Bridges subsequently withdrew his name from consideration, but Willamette Week says that the incident caused local journalists and community members to question the background check policies and procedures in place at PPS. As the largest school district in the state of Oregon, PPS serves some 48,500 students across 85 schools.
The second question brought Portland Public Schools and its background check policies even more under the microscope. This case involves Richard Gilliam, a district administrator who was disciplined and stripped of most of his duties a few months ago after what the Willamette Week report described as “complaints from subordinates.” Despite these complaints, though, Gilliam is still employed with PPS.
Gilliam has been working for Portland Public Schools since the summer of 2013. At the time, he passed his background check with no apparent red flags. As it turns out, though, Gilliam pleaded no contest to patronizing a prostitute in 1998 while living in Chicago. Under Oregon state regulations, individuals with such convictions (or pleas of no contest) are supposed to be automatically disqualified from holding a teaching license. It's not immediately clear whether or not the same stipulations apply to individuals seeking administrator licenses
and there is no clarity regarding whether or not Portland Public Schools knew about Gilliam's criminal history. The district only keeps records of employee background checks for three years. Since Gilliam was hired in 2013, records of his pre-employment background check were destroyed. The district also destroyed the form where, if Gilliam had self-disclosed his no contest plea, he would have provided the relevant information. A spokesperson for the district said that PPS is “trying to understand why” Gilliam’s no contest plea went overlooked at the time of his hiring.