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Secret Audit: “Mountains of Violations” in Oregon Daycares, Only $325 in Fines

A secret audit revealed day-care horror stories, no action by the Office of Child Care alongside mounting issues at the state agency. Despite hiring two new personnel, the agency has failed to conduct 17 of 25 recommended audits. When will State Government ensure our children are kept safe?

Oregon hires $200-an-hour PR firm for childcare regulator


By Brad Schmidt / The Oregonian/OregonLive

Oregon education officials hired a $200-an-hour public relations firm in Washington, D.C., to craft “persuasive messages” for the state’s childcare regulator in response to reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive on how the agency handles problem facilities.

Springboard Partners will be paid up to $9,900 to develop a communications plan, edit state documents and write talking points for employees through the end of December.

Officials for Oregon’s Early Learning Division say outside help is needed because an in-house public relations position has been eliminated due to budget cuts. The agency received multiple media inquiries this year but called particular attention to a reporter at The Oregonian/OregonLive who is “making repeated requests for information” and is “routinely seeking public comment” about gaps in the state’s system to protect children.

Hiring a public relations firm is not unusual for a government agency, particularly those seeking help with crisis communications or rebranding. During fallout from Portland Public Schools’ lead scandal, for instance, the district hired a local consultant for $225 an hour. The Department of Environmental Quality spent $275 an hour dealing with fallout from Portland’s toxic air crisis.

But the state’s decision does offer insight into the new direction set by Miriam Calderon, whom Gov. Kate Brown tapped this summer to oversee Oregon’s Early Learning Division, which includes the Office of Child Care.

Concerned about public appearances, Calderon’s agency sought counsel from a company she’s personally endorsed in the past, and state officials signed a contract Sept. 13 that didn’t require competitive proposals.

State officials hand-picked the new firm by keeping the contract $100 below the $10,000 threshold requiring an agency to seek competitive bids from at least three companies.

Calderon is a big fan of Springboard Partners.

“The Springboard difference is that they aren’t just communication consultants – they get politics and policy,” Calderon is quoted as saying on Springboard Partners’ website. “The result is advice advocates and policymakers will actually use.”

Oregon’s Office of Child Care is responsible for regulating upwards of 4,000 day care businesses that watch over more than 100,000 kids.

The normally obscure state agency has come under increasing scrutiny this year because of reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive, including a story in May about children who were sickened after being exposed to a powerful insecticide at a Coos Bay day care.

The Oregonian/OregonLive in June published a story examining how a Keizer day care amassed more than 100 health and safety violations over a decade before regulators shut it down.

The Oregonian/OregonLive also unearthed an internal audit from January 2016 and highlighted its findings. The state report warned that Oregon’s oversight system for day cares “functions outside the zone of safe operations” and poses an “elevated risk for major incidents of child harm.”

In their contract with Springboard, state officials said they received multiple requests for information from media and stakeholders once the newsroom wrote about the year-old audit.

Springboard’s communications plan by itself will cost up to $7,000. The plan will recommend a “core message” the agency can use to consistently address issues raised by the state’s audit. The plan is supposed to also include specific persuasive messages that can be used with the news media and key stakeholders.

In addition, the firm will be paid up to $2,900 to develop media materials, talking points and edit or review childcare documents to ensure consistency with the core message. Springboard is also supposed to assist in responses given to reporters.

Since the contract went into effect, The Oregonian/OregonLive has written about a loophole in state rules allowing a marijuana entrepreneur to own a day care inside his personal home. Last week, the news organization spotlighted the state’s decision not to require day cares to test drinking water for lead.

It’s not immediately clear how closely state officials have worked with Springboard.

Calderon said she was unavailable to be interviewed Tuesday or Wednesday morning. Dawn Woods, the state’s childcare director, declined to comment on Springboard’s involvement.

And Ed Walz, the Springboard partner who is planning how the agency will communicate with the public, did not respond to requests for comment.

— Brad Schmidt

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