She may be a Democrat, but Kim Sordyl has locked horns for years with Oregon’s powerful teachers unions — and now it looks as if her foes may be seeking payback.
A bill that would effectively remove her from the Oregon State Board of Education is moving briskly through the state legislature, winning House passage last week during the short, 35-day legislative session traditionally reserved for urgent issues that can’t wait for the longer, odd-year sessions.
Democrats insist that House Bill 4013 isn’t aimed at Ms. Sordyl, prompting scoffing from her supporters, Republicans and some newspapers, including the Oregonian editorial board, which came out against the measure by declaring, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“House Bill 4013 is an anti-accountability measure targeting Democrat Kim Sordyl for removal from the state board of education in apparent retaliation for her advocacy for transparency, accountability and equity,” said Steve Elzinga, governmental and legal affairs director for Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, in Feb. 20 testimony before the House Education Committee.
Often described as an outspoken, polarizing figure, Ms. Sordyl has made it her mission to expose incompetent, abusive and even criminal teachers that she says are being hidden by school districts and unions in the name of safeguarding public-employee privacy.
After years of helping parents file complaints with public schools, she recently accused the Portland Association of Teachers of having “blood on its hands” and blasted the Portland school board for approving a contract with the union that makes it tougher to gain access to public records.
Last year, the district sued her and a reporter after they filed open-records requests to obtain a list of all employees on paid administrative leave, citing the need for legal clarity.
“What people should know is that in Portland, it’s not popular to be anti-union, but almost every Democrat that I know, you talk to them personally, they’re against these teachers unions covering up all of these abuses,” said Ms. Sordyl. “They’re against the teachers union in general for what they’ve done for our students. But it’s just not something people are willing to say publicly because they will be attacked.”
Her supporters applaud her dedication and relentless devotion to improving public education, while her critics describe her as egotistical and even mean.
“For those of us who live in or near North Portland, we are well aware of the larger-than-life Sordyl,” said Deb Mayer, steering committee member of the liberal Parents Across America Oregon, in a Feb. 11 post. “She is a bully’s bully. Her methods are harsh, and she espouses a take-no-prisoners persona.”
Ms. Sordyl’s willingness to take on the education establishment led Mr. Richardson to appoint her to represent him on the state board of education after he was elected in November 2016. Not surprisingly, he’s a Republican.
“We agree on education issues,” said Ms. Sordyl, who campaigned for him. “We don’t agree on social issues, but that’s not part of his job.”
The problem is that she isn’t a member of his staff, which Democrats argue goes against the intent of the state legislature.
In 2009, lawmakers approved a bill allowing the secretary of state and secretary of the treasury each to name an ex officio, or non-voting, member to the state board of education. The other seven members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
House Bill 4013 would require the secretaries to appoint full-time staffers, who would be better able to represent the elected officials on civic and financial issues in keeping with the 2009 bill’s original intent, Democrats said.
Democratic state Rep. Margaret Doherty, the bill’s sponsor, called the measure a “straightforward, technical fix.”
“Every state board is important, and the people selected to serve on the board are put there for a reason because of the expertise in the subject area, which in this particular case was a matter of civic engagement and personal finance,” Ms. Doherty said at last week’s hearing.
She also took issue with those accusing legislators of targeting an individual board member, at one point suggesting that she had never heard of Ms. Sordyl.
After Portland Public Schools board member Michael Rosen testified that “Kim Sordyl is the best of the best,” Ms. Doherty responded, “Could you identify who that is? I don’t know who that is.”
Ms. Doherty also criticized those impugning her motives. “This is kind of interesting. This is the first time I’ve heard this and no one has ever contacted myself or my office about this bill and what the intent of it was,” she said.
Critics weren’t buying it, pointing to press coverage depicting the bill as a way to get rid of Ms. Sordyl.
“Richardson’s choice, Portland lawyer Kim Sordyl, is outspoken, so much so that there’s a move afoot to change the law that enables her to take Richardson’s place,” said the Bend Bulletin in a Jan. 12 editorial headlined, “Don’t change rules to ban state school board members.”
Said the Oregonian in a Jan. 17 editorial: “This would seem out of left field except for the fact that it would help the board get rid of Portland parent Kim Sordyl, who serves as Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s designee.”
Ms. Doherty isn’t exactly a stranger to union politics, having worked for 22 years as a consultant to the Oregon Education Association, the state teachers union, before retiring in 2006.
Jenny Smith, OEA spokeswoman, said in an email the union is “supportive of this bill,” but that “it isn’t a top priority.”
If union supporters really wanted to muzzle her, Ms. Sordyl said the better strategy would be to keep her on board, where she’s required to put Mr. Richardson’s interests above her own.
“I am far more tempered with my comments [now],” said Ms. Sordyl. “If I’m removed from the board, I no longer have to go to Dennis Richardson and say, can I talk to this reporter? I no longer have to worry about making him nervous. He’s very different from me. He’s very grandfatherly, he’s a bridge-builder, he’s diplomatic — I’m the opposite. And if I’m cut loose, and I’m going to go bananas on these people. So it’s not very strategic what they’re doing.”