Sonja Henning takes the fifth?

In a must-read story in today’s Willamette Week discussing the Portland Public Schools board of education resolution in opposition to Bill Sizemore’s Measure 60 (merit pay for teachers), Beth Slovic writes that Measure 60 supporter Sonja Henning, who cast the lone vote in opposition to the resolution, didn’t return several phone calls.

A reliable source has filled us in on the rest of the story: Henning did eventually respond, but not to comment on the story. Henning’s response to legitimate requests for comment on her public policy position calls into question her suitability to serve in public office.

After several calls to her office and home seeking comment on her dissenting vote went unreturned, Slovic attempted to contact her in person at her home. She left a note on her door requesting a call back.

Henning reportedly responded with a voice message accusing the reporter of “crossing the line” and ultimately admonishing her not to attempt any further contact for any reason.

This message was followed by a call from PPS communications boss Robb Cowie, who reportedly reiterated Henning’s message, and also said all future contact with Henning must go through his office. Furthermore, Cowie is reported to have said, Slovic is not to approach Henning at public school board meetings.

Think about that.

Word is that Henning is also not returning calls to the Portland Tribune. (Reporters at The Oregonian did not immediately return e-mails requesting comment on Henning’s refusal to return calls requesting comment. Wheels within wheels!)

It is not clear whether Cowie’s reported decree will affect other reporters, or if singles out Slovic, a reporter who has covered PPS policy and politics more closely than any other reporter currently on the beat.

It is also unclear whether this is intended to apply to other board members, who have made themselves available to the public and the press in varying degrees (new board director Martín González is already becoming notorious for not returning calls and e-mails), or just to Henning.

Cowie was not immediately available for comment.

Given how rare dissent on the current school board is, it’s disappointing that it should come in favor of a poorly designed assault on teachers which would result in lower pay at schools serving poor and minority students (who statistically score worse on tests, which would lead to lower pay for their teachers). Coupled with the PPS teacher transfer policy, Measure 60 would surely aggravate the existing dramatic inequity in teacher experience between poor and rich schools.

The school board took the right position on this measure, and Henning’s dissent borders on bizarre. It’s certainly in the public interest to learn more.

And that’s what’s even more disappointing, even disturbing: that an elected public official would attempt to place herself and her policy positions above public scrutiny.

A reporter’s job is to act as a proxy for the public, and the public has a right to know how and why public policy is made. Henning could have simply returned the first call and offered a brief explanation. Or she could have simply said “no comment.” But to treat a reporter — and the general public she represents — with such contempt is beyond the pale.

If Sonja Henning wants to put herself off-limits to the public at public meetings, it’s time for her to retire from public life. She’s already announced she won’t seek a second term. If she’s so uncomfortable in the public eye, she should take the easy way out and resign now.

Update, October 30, 8:53 pm: Robb Cowie, while declining to comment on private conversations between him and individual reporters, sent me this comment via e-mail:

…[S]chool board meetings are public meetings and any reporter can attend. Reporters or members of the public are free to approach school board members and ask questions (school board members are also free to decline to answer those questions, if they choose). Portland Public Schools has not placed any restrictions on any journalist’s access to school board meetings.

Either my source misunderstood Cowie (or I misunderstood my source), or PPS is backing off from an untenable position. In either case, it is now clear that Beth Slovic is, in fact, free to approach Sonja Henning at school board meetings.

Next public board meeting: This Saturday, November 1, 8 a.m. at McMenamin’s Kennedy School, in the Agnes Kennedy White Library.

Update, October 31, 10:30 a.m.: Beth Slovic clarifies that Cowie relayed a request from Sonja Henning that Slovic not approach her at board meetings. She also said that he told her this does not apply to other journalists, just her. In other words, this was not an edict from the district. (Since the district’s chief spokesman was the one delivering the message, one can see how this may have been perceived as something more than an individual board member’s request.)

It is unfortunate that the district’s communications office was put in the awkward position of relaying Henning’s legally unenforceable (without a restraining order) request to Slovic.

The focus of this story remains on Henning. I regret if anyone thought I was trying to portray Robb Cowie or the PPS communications office as the bad guys.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.