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Emails Show District Tried to Blackmail Oregon Teacher of the Year

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Emails obtained by GoLocalPDX reveal the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) tried to blackmail the 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year. 

GoLocalPDX reported Brett Bigham, an openly gay MESD transition program teacher, was denied leave to attend a National Education Association awards gala in Washington, D.C., and threatened with discipline if he attended. Bigham has been celebrated by state and national agencies for his innovative work with disabled and medically at-risk students. 

In 2014, Bigham filed two complaints against MESD administrators during his tenure as teacher of the year for what he alleges was discrimination and harassment for his sexuality. Bigham filed one complaint with the Oregon Teachers Standards and Practices Commison (TSPC) in September, and another with the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) in November.  

A Feb. 6 email from MESD Human Resources Director Heyke Nickerson reveals the district tried to ransom Bigham's trip to D.C., to accept a 2015 Award for Teaching Excellence, in exchange for Bigham dropping his TSPC and BOLI complaints. 

Feb. 6, Nickerson wrote to MESD Grievance Chairperson Jessica Rohrbacher and Superintendent Barbara Jorgensen:

 As I stated on the phone, MESD is willing to consider granting Brett's request to attend this conference.  In exchange for granting this request, MESD requests the following:
     a)  Brett withdraws his current BOLI/EEOC complaint and releases all current claims; and 
     b)  Brett withdraws his current TSPC complaint and releases all current claims; and 
     c)  MESD and Brett re-establish a professional working relationship.
By doing this, we can place the focus again back onto the students--which we believe Brett also wants.

'This is illegal'

"For one, this is illegal," said OEA representative Allan Moore. "“It’s retaliation for him filing complaints with BOLI." 

“It’s illegal because they’re trying to leverage him withdrawing complaints in order to give him what he’s entitled to,” Moore said. “Secondly, it’s inappropriate because it’s using fear and intimidation -- that’s a pattern in the district and it’s inappropriate."

Cease and desist letter

Moore wrote a cease and desist letter Feb. 7 to Supt. Jorgensen and other MESD staff asserting Bigham had the contractual right to attend the event.  Moore asserts the district committed a "violation of our Agreement as well as unlawful lawful conduct in response to Brett Bigham’s numerous requests to attend 2 very important events next week."

Moore wrote "Mr. Bigham has a contractual right to attend those events and it [has] been made clear that the District’s refusal to allow his attendance is retaliatory for his filing of complaints with state agencies." 

“I will not be blackmailed,” said Bigham, who arrived in D.C. Wednesday. Late Tuesday, the union representing MESD staff, the Oregon Education Association, reached a deal with the district allowing Bigham to attend the awards gala.

"I believe their behavior is illegal, and my goal here is to stand up for my rights as a citizen," Bigham said. 

Mounting bargaining tensions

The MESD and OEA are engaged in an increasingly heated contract negotiation. 

In a statement released Thursday morning, MESD spokesperson Laura Conroy said the issue had been resolved, as Bigham’s leave to attend the conference was ultimately resolved. 

Conroy wrote Thursday Bigham’s denied request to attend the national awards gala — what the district had previously called a “personnel issue” and refused to comment on — was introduced into bargaining talks. 

Conroy said the district is aware of the complaints, filed by Bigham under the district’s harassment, bullying and intimidation reporting policy. 

“Due to privacy laws, MESD cannot comment specifically on the nature of these complaints,” Conroy wrote. 

Moore holds the incidents reveal troubling pattern behavior within the district. 

“It’s showing a lack of empathy for people who care for our most vulnerable students,” he said.


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