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Capital Chatter: Department of Ed creates unintended splash

This week's debacle with the release of school report cards raises a host of questions.

The state schools chief wanted to create a splash when rolling out the annual report cards on school district and individual school performance. Colt Gill did, but not the way he intended.

This week's debacle left me with a host of questions. If you have answers, do let me know.

Why did Gov. Kate Brown not appear at the Wednesday press conference where Gill, head of her Department of Education (DOE), said he was reversing course at her direction and was posting the ratings online instead of delaying them until next month? Meanwhile, Brown has been making numerous campaign appearances with supporters and was ending the week with a five-city tour to drum up votes.

Did Knute Buehler force Brown's hand? At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Buehler's campaign announced a 2 p.m. press conference in Tualatin at which the Republican gubernatorial candidate was expected to demand that Brown and DOE release the ratings. State officials then put together a 1:30 p.m. press conference in Portland, with Gill announcing the ratings would be available online at 2 p.m.

Gill's press conference was so hastily organized that it was difficult for non-Portland media, including me, to attend. I wondered whether that might reinforce Buehler's claim that Brown was too Portland-centric. On the other hand, Oregon's largest media outlets are based in Portland, so that is the place to go when seeking the broadest coverage.

In any case, it is curious that Brown's staff, who ran Gill's press conference, did not publicly announce the event beforehand.

Does Gill's rationale for initially delaying the report cards make sense? The annual reports had been scheduled for release this week. Then, DOE quietly told school districts they would be delayed until Nov. 15.

Gill said the data in the report cards were not new. School districts already have their data, because they send it to DOE. Gill's concerns — I'm summarizing greatly — were that the information was being presented to the public in new formats and could be misleading without accompanying explanations. The delay until Nov. 15 was for development of tutorials and other explanatory materials.

If that were the case, why had DOE not prepared those materials in time for this week's scheduled release? DOE has posted such explanatory materials about chronic absenteeism, and the information is quite good.

If The Oregonian could quickly put the released data into a useable format for Thursday after receiving it Wednesday, why couldn't DOE? Unlike past years, the state website does not yet allow comparisons among districts. One district's or school's information is downloaded at a time.

What relationship do agency heads have with the governor? Gill said he had informed Brown's education policy adviser, Lindsey Capps, about his plan to delay the results until November. Gill said Capps is whom he normally communicates with.

Capps, who also holds the state title of chief education officer, is not an educator but previously worked for the state's largest teachers union, the Oregon Education Association.

It is surprising that no one in the Brown administration anticipated the public and press backlash for the delay.

Why did the governor's staff cut off the press conference just as questions became more pointed about potential political interference and why was Gill — or anyone else at DOE — then unavailable for additional interviews? Gill said the postponement in releasing the results had not been related to the Nov. 6 election. However, one question I did not hear specifically asked was, "Did anyone from the governor's staff or campaign, or from any school district with a bond measure on the ballot, suggest or imply that it would be good to delay public disclosure of the results?"

Does this illustrate why some newspaper editorial boards endorsed Buehler, citing Brown's perceived lack of transparency as an issue? I'd been saving this question for post-election analysis, but it is relevant now. Journalists have been frustrated by infrequent access to Brown, who does not hold regular press conferences. Neither are her policy advisers usually allowed to hold on-the-record interviews with reporters. Access is tightly monitored.

Would Buehler be more open and available? Despite his commitment, there is no way to know. I've seen many candidates pledge openness, only to retreat once they realized that being transparent slowed the political process. But our democracy has open government as one of its foundational principles – not semi-open government.

Speaking of endorsements: Here are the newspaper endorsements I've seen for Oregon governor so far. If I missed any, let me know.

Knute Buehler: The Oregonian; Portland Tribune; The Bulletin, Bend; Corvallis Gazette Times; East Oregonian, Pendleton, and Daily Astorian, which are sister newspapers.

Kate Brown: Willamette Week; The Register-Guard, Eugene; Salem Weekly; The Skanner, Portland; Eugene Weekly; and The Corvallis Advocate.

Neither: Mail Tribune, Medford.

Do endorsements matter? Yes, especially in races with a large undecided vote or in which people know little about the candidates.

On the other hand, as a Twitter follower reminded me this week, Steve Novick gained a lot of newspaper endorsements in the 2008 Democratic primary for U.S. senator but lost to then-Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley, who went on to oust Republican Sen. Gordon Smith in the general election.

Dodgers vs. Red Sox in Oregon Legislature: State Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, attended law school in Boston. Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, was born in Arizona but grew up in Southern California until moving to Oregon around age 9 or 10.

Their allegiances are clear. Post offered this World Series wager to Courtney: "If my Dodgers win this series, he must wear a full suit and tie, including dress shoes, of course, for one day of the session (if we are both re-elected). If, however, his Red Sox win, I will wear his preferred attire."

No word as to whether Courtney will accept the offer. He usually wears athletic shoes and rarely is seen wearing a full suit.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.