SPECIAL REPORT: Racism Charges at Oregon’s Early Learning Agency

In December 2022, Priscilla Lowells went over her bosses’ heads to alert the incoming Oregon governor of problems in her workplace.

“With great courage I send this email in hopes that someone can hear my voice of concern,” Lowells wrote to Andrea Cooper, chief of staff for incoming Gov. Tina Kotek. “As a person of color I have spoken up and I have been met with resistance.”

Lowells, a Latina and Indigenous employee on the Oregon Early Learning Division’s compliance team, had been speaking up for years about offensive comments and passive responses to reports of racism in child care settings, including an incident in which a child was called the N-word and the agency didn’t immediately investigate. And managers, she said, repeated racist stereotypes that certain communities of color considered physical discipline or child abuse to be normal. One employee, for example, said it’s common for Hispanic fathers to introduce their daughters to sex, a comment that managers did not address, she said.

She kept documentation, wrote formal complaints and urged the division’s top brass to implement more training and education. But mostly, she wrote, those efforts were rebuffed. She declined to be interviewed for this story, fearing retaliation.

Her complaints stand in stark contrast to the agency’s promise to champion equity in its oversight and management of Oregon’s early learning network. And in the last two years, Lowells is far from the only employee to raise alarms about the internal culture and external operations of the Early Learning Division, which became the Department of Early Learning and Care in July 2023.

At least a half-dozen other workers have raised similar concerns, according to interviews with nearly a dozen current and former department employees and hundreds of pages of emails, memos and internal documents that InvestigateWest reviewed. The examination revealed:

Kotek’s office never responded directly to Lowells’ warnings that the early learning agency was a “racist environment” that was causing managers of color to leave. The governor’s staff instead referred the matter to the state’s main Human Resources office. Kotek’s office declined an interview request for this story. At least two staff members who left the early learning department told leaders that their failure to listen to families’ and providers’ needs contributed to high-profile instances of dysfunction, including spots going unfilled in Preschool Promise, the state’s publicly funded preschool program. The agency’s missteps have contributed to staff turnover: At least five managers and directors, including three who are people of color, have chosen to leave the department in the past 18 months, citing their frustration. Other directors were dismissed without warning during their probationary periods, they said.

Taken together, the findings paint a picture of an agency wrestling with deep divisions over how best to manage more than $1.3 billion in early learning investments and a culture that multiple employees described as “toxic.” Across the state, meanwhile, families and early learning providers are looking to department leaders to bolster the state’s still-inadequate supply of affordable, culturally responsive infant care and preschool.

Alyssa Chatterjee, the department’s director, disputed allegations that the agency failed to incorporate community feedback into programs and that staff are unsupported. She called Lowells’ description of the agency’s culture as racist “a serious allegation and an inaccurate characterization.”

The department, she said, “doesn’t tolerate a racist environment,” adding that it “has been and is continuing to take concrete actions to ensure that discrimination and harassment based on race and all other protected classes is not tolerated.”

Chatterjee became interim director of the Early Learning Division in 2021 before then-Gov. Kate Brown made her the permanent director in 2022. She said the agency’s transition into its own department was built on community input and equity was a consideration throughout.

The Department of Early Learning and Care, she said, “is not the Early Learning Division 2.0. It really is a new agency. We have a new mission, a new vision.”

But current and former employees said the agency still needs to reckon with the problems driving away key staff and hampering program performance.

“The public deserves to know about these things because it truly speaks to their inadequacy,” said Valeria Atanacio, who led the early learning agency’s tribal affairs work for two years before she was demoted suddenly in July 2023.

“We’re creating programming for Oregon’s youngest citizens,” she said. “If we can’t, even on an individual basis, treat our employees with respect and dignity, how are we going to do that for whole communities, children and families?”

A call to do better

Before escalating her concerns to the state’s highest elected office, Lowells had critiqued the early learning agency’s handling of racism and bias several times.

And according to the complaints she filed, she didn’t just feel that her concerns were minimized. She also began to feel like a target.

Lowells filed human resources complaints in 2020 and again in 2022 alleging discrimination and retaliation by her managers in the legal and compliance offices for questioning how they handled offensive comments, records show. At various points, she alleged that managers made or condoned assertions that physical discipline on children is “normal” in Black and Hispanic communities, that Black people are “loud,” and that some child care providers use language barriers as an “excuse to get out of legal actions.”

The investigators who looked into her complaints determined that her claims of retaliation and discrimination were unfounded. Lowells, who has worked in child care licensing for the state for 25 years, continued to speak out.

Investigative records and emails show that in 2022, Lowells told Chatterjee that she had to push for the agency’s legal director to approve an investigation into a report that a child was called the N-word at a child care facility regulated by the state. In November of the same year, Lowells forwarded a complaint to her direct supervisor from a Black child care license applicant who said he felt the agency was discriminatory. Three months later, after checking on whether the complaint was attended to, she said she never received a response.

Lowells would also often speak up about comments by division staff for being offensive or racially insensitive. She complained in November 2021 when a manager disparagingly referred to the rural community of Grand Ronde, which lies west of Salem near a former Native American reservation and a stretch of land now owned by the federally recognized Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. An investigator affirmed that the comment, which generalized about the area in reference to a child care investigation, constituted a racial microaggression, but didn’t violate workplace policy.

Lowells wasn’t asking for workers to be disciplined. Instead, records show that Lowells repeatedly asked for incidents that showed possible bias to be addressed through training and education.

“My ask would be for the agency to have a ‘growth mindset’ to learn from these instances and do better,” Lowells wrote in a 2021 email to Chatterjee. “We are all part of the same team.”

However, none of the records indicate that division leaders chose to go that route. In fact, a pair of investigators who looked into a string of complaints made by Lowells and others in the Office of Child Care noted that managers were not receiving any training on diversity, equity or inclusion outside of the required statewide trainings on domestic violence, harassment, sexual assault and stalking.

“Beyond the specific issues addressed in this report, what emerged from this investigation is the need for a sustained training effort that will help employees develop a culture of trust, compassion and mutual respect,” the investigator wrote.

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Without such training, one investigator noted in 2022, tensions within the division were deepening.

The Salem-Keizer chapter of the NAACP sent a letter to Chatterjee backing up Lowells’ requests for training and offering assistance if needed.

“The person who has reached out to us for support in this situation has asked nothing of the division other than to be sure that individuals at all levels of management are adequately trained on understanding the impacts of bias, the harm in micro-aggressions, and an increased awareness of sometimes unrecognized internal biases,” wrote Kristi Negri, co-chair of the chapter’s Legal Redress Committee.

Chatterjee offered to meet with the NAACP to discuss the matter further and received no response, a spokesperson said. At the time, Chatterjee told Lowells she was confident that the agency had been appropriately handling the incidents brought to her attention, records show.

In an interview this month, Chatterjee argued that she has taken steps to improve equity while launching the division into a separate department. One bias training was launched last January. Just this month, the department introduced a new training program on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, she said. It is now open to all staff, though it is only a requirement for managers.

‘Predictable’ preschool problems

In 2022, Preschool Promise, Oregon’s publicly funded preschool program, had problems. As the school year began, thousands of families were stuck waiting for programs to open, because the state had not finished ironing out some providers’ contracts. What’s more, thousands of preschool spots, for which the state was paying millions of dollars each year, were going unfilled across Oregon.

Legislators and the public were perturbed. In hearings leading up to and during the next legislative session, lawmakers asked Chatterjee to fully account for what had happened.

“I am … nervous and still just a little unsure of how money was spent and how then, as a legislator, we can move forward,” said Rep. Lucetta Elmer, R-McMinnville, in an April 2023 hearing. “I don’t feel like the transparency was necessarily there, and that makes me nervous.”

As Chatterjee explained to legislators, the pandemic had played an undeniable role: Emergency orders had first closed child care facilities, then later restricted the number of children each provider could take. The division had decided to fund providers without penalties for low enrollment to help prevent those businesses from closing altogether, to avoid worsening the shortage. A portion of parents were voluntarily opting out of preschool for fear their children would get sick, and the division also faced shortages of staff to handle contracts, slowing its ability to get agreements signed and providers paid.

But another side of the story went untold, current and former employees contend. They said agency leadership had also ignored feedback from local communities on their preferred timelines and programs that would have mitigated the number of Preschool Promise spots going unfilled and the delay in getting programs operational.

The resignation letters of a manager and a public affairs employee from 2022 and 2023, which InvestigateWest obtained through a public records request, show how deeply this undermined some staff members’ trust.

Anne Morrison, an Early Learning Division manager who worked closely with local early education leaders before departing in November 2022, called it “irresponsible and concerning” that leadership blamed Preschool Promise’s failures on the pandemic and insufficient staff “without looking back on three years of internal issues that have led to these predictable problems.”

Regional subagencies including the state’s 16 Early Learning Hubs had been tasked with gathering feedback in 2021 from families, local organizations and providers on their needs and preferences for Preschool Promise, including which providers families preferred to send their children to and the readiness of those professionals to meet the demand.

Communities, Morrison wrote in an exit memo, “hurried to share relevant information that would result in slots going towards priority populations of children and families, then waited for over six months to see how (the state) would make use of the information.”

But the division didn’t use the information, according to her memo. In interviews with InvestigateWest, two additional staffers backed up Morrison’s assertion.

By disregarding the feedback, Morrison warned, the division “risked over allocating publicly funded slots in some locations and under allocating in others” — in other words, locating some Preschool Promise spots in communities where they weren’t needed or in programs that not enough families wanted to use. She also criticized the division’s “continual misaligned timeline” that had made it harder for providers to become operational and fill their spots.

Chatterjee disputed this account. She said community feedback did shape how grantees were selected in 2022, which helped ensure more spots were filled during the following months. The department also initiated more accountability requirements for providers. By March 2023, enrollment had improved to 84%.

But around that same time, Katie Schergen, who had joined the agency in 2020 as its family engagement specialist, said the agency was continuing to deprioritize family engagement and community input in her own resignation letter.

Schergen listed a number of causes for her exit from the division in February 2023, including “focus on media coverage and legislator perspectives instead of centering family needs and provider experiences.”

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The culture within the department and leaders’ decisions “do not align with my values and do not represent the new agency values that were established with Oregon communities,” Schergen wrote.

Both Morrison and Schergen declined an interview request for this story, saying they feared career repercussions for speaking out. They continue to work in early learning in other states.

Since the firestorm around Preschool Promise in 2022, the program’s enrollment has continued to improve. As of March 1, 96% of spots in the program were filled, Chatterjee said.

But some staff said the problems that drove Schergen and Morrison to quit have not been fully resolved and community feedback is still being disregarded. They expressed concern about the impact that could have on the programs that the early learning department is responsible for administering.

“The mismanagement within the agency is putting funding at risk,” said Remy Watts, a senior policy analyst at the early learning department. “If we go to the Legislature and they see we have unfilled spots, they might say, ‘We can cut your funding and give it to another agency.’ There’s a lot at stake.”

Frequent turnover

Frustrations with the agency’s leadership have driven other employees away, InvestigateWest found.

In the last two years alone, at least five managers and key staff from various offices in the agency left voluntarily. Three managers were demoted or fired, while at least two others departed under unknown circumstances.

Since 2019, the equity director position alone has changed hands four times. The last equity director to depart was there for just seven months; she told InvestigateWest her experience was positive, but did not disclose why she left.

Three managers, including those who were hired to help lead the department’s equity and community-centered work, told InvestigateWest they received little guidance in their roles before they were abruptly dismissed.

Atanacio, the tribal affairs director, had helped lead the push to create a Tribal Early Learning Hub in 2021 to increase tribal communities’ access to funding and support before her demotion two years later. She resigned the next month, and for five months afterward, all tribal affairs positions were empty. During that time, plans to launch the Tribal Early Learning Hub were scrapped.

Marion Suitor Barnes became the early learning agency’s communications director in 2022. In the spring of 2023, two weeks before her probationary period ended, she was also dismissed. Two other early learning department employees said her absence hampered the division’s communication with providers and the public during the final transition into a full-fledged department.

Joshua Williams was the agency’s legal and compliance director — overseeing Lowells and others in charge of licensing child care providers — for seven months between 2022 and 2023. Before his probationary period ended, he said, he was also shown the door.

“It was really my first time ever experiencing something along those lines without a long, deep conversation about why,” Williams said. He described his time in the role as “chaos.”

Five employees who spoke with InvestigateWest laid the blame for their colleagues’ departures at Chatterjee’s feet. They described a top-down culture within the early learning agency, saying members of the department’s executive team often disregard the perspectives of midlevel managers with on-the-ground experience, who deal directly with community leaders. A few said they felt the department’s equity focus was “performative.”

Chatterjee said she didn’t think the staff turnover within the department was atypically high when taking the pandemic and organizational shift into account. She also defended the department’s equity work, saying it has remained a focus throughout the process to launch the agency and get fully up to speed in its first year.

“It is my responsibility to own decisions made at every level of our agency,” she said. “I continue to listen and take all feedback about our agency seriously as we work to continuously improve. I believe we are on the right track and also, there is more work to do with staff and partners as we work to ensure all children, families, early care and education professionals, and communities are supported and empowered to thrive.”

Even those staff who are no longer working at the agency said they hope to see improvement soon.

“Action speaks louder than words,” said Atanacio.

by Kaylee Tornay, InvestigateWest, Oregon Capital Chronicle

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