By JOHN FORTMEYER
PORTLAND — Were Bill Diss’s religious beliefs and his strong visibility in the local pro-life movement factors in Portland Public Schools’ efforts to oust him from his math teaching job?
No, school district officials insisted at a two-hour public hearing last month requested by Diss on his pending dismissal.
Yes, contended Diss and his attorney.
“We believe the district is trying to end his employment because he has been active in the political community and religious community on certain issues and sometimes he has challenged the district,” said attorney Elizabeth McKanna.
District officials countered that Diss, who has been on paid administrative leave since March, is losing his job simply because he often acted with what they allege was disrespect to students and administrators.
“There is a longstanding, clear pattern of behavior damaging to students and disruptive to the working professional atmosphere at Benson High School,” said Stephanie Harper, district legal counsel.
As for the dozens of people who filled the hearing room to overflowing, the sentiment was clearly for Diss, Many held signs in his support during the hearing.
In recent years, Diss has — entirely away from his work — become a vocal and visible opponent of Planned Parenthood’s abortion work and has claimed the agency also encourages teens to engage in sexual activity. A devout Catholic, he led efforts made by concerned Christians against construction of Planned Parenthood’s Northeast Portland headquarters, which nevertheless opened three years ago. Diss also strongly objected when district officials told him he must allow Planned Parenthood’s sex education program in his classroom even though he asked to be excused from assisting for religious reasons.
American Life League, a national ministry that strongly opposes Planned Parenthood, has publicly charged that Diss is being fired because of pressure from that agency.
Diss said the district scrutiny of his job performance particularly escalated to unreasonable levels after he organized a turnout by hundreds of people at a school board hearing last December to protest Planned Parenthood’s involvement in the schools.
“It just seems I couldn’t go anywhere or say anything without a reprimand,” he said.
Several district employees at the hearing testified that Diss sometimes made loud, sarcastic or inappropriate comments to administrators in front of students, and that he was too inflexible, harsh, or “militaristic” in his dealings with some students.
In his testimony, Diss acknowledged showing passion as a teacher but that it was because he cares so deeply about the students and their potential to succeed.
“I looked at the thousands of students at Benson as my own children,” he said.
He and McKanna pointed to many positive letters that students and their families have written in support of Diss and his teaching style. Diss mentioned in particular one student who wrote that, because of Diss’s positive mentoring, “For once I am proud of myself.” That prompted applause from the hearing audience.
McKanna said Diss is “not obstinant or insubordinate” and is willing to work with the district on improving his teaching. But she said the district has not followed the law by putting him on a plan of assistance.
Diss said he very much wants to return to his job.
School Superintendent Carole Smith recommended in May that Diss be dismissed. Regional Administrator Sascha Perrins, who led the hearing, will make his own recommendation to the school board for its final action.