Auditors are exploring issues revealed in InvestigateWest reporting as possible risks to the department “getting off to a strong and lasting start” 

By Kaylee Tornay / InvestigateWest

State auditors are looking into staff allegations of racism and dysfunction within the Department of Early Learning and Care as part of an ongoing audit of the department’s strengths and weaknesses, according to staffers contacted as part of the audit. 

Department leaders have also launched a series of “listening sessions” to learn more about employee concerns.

Days after InvestigateWest published an investigation into the culture and performance of the early learning department, auditors with Oregon’s Office of the Secretary of State contacted Priscilla Lowells, Remy Watts and Valeria Atanacio, asking them to elaborate about their experiences and perspectives shared in the article. In interviews or public records, the three current and former employees described what they saw as the agency’s failures to foster equity, retain staff and manage programs that serve Oregon’s most vulnerable families.

Lowells, who has declined multiple interview requests from InvestigateWest citing fears of retaliation, took her concerns to Gov. Tina Kotek in 2022 and 2023, asking for her help to address what she described as a “racist environment” within the agency. Public records showed that Lowells had filed complaints and spoken up repeatedly about the way leaders within the department’s Office of Child Care handled racist comments and the needs of providers, including a complaint from a Black child-care provider that the licensing division was discriminatory.

The secretary of state’s audit, which began in May 2023, is examining “risks and challenges that may hinder (the Department of Early Learning and Care) from getting off to a strong and lasting start as a new state agency,” according to the office’s 2023-2024 Audit Plan. Before the department launched in July 2023, it was the much smaller Early Learning Division, housed within the Oregon Department of Education. Today, it is an agency of over 300 employees, managing more than $1.3 billion of state and federal early learning investments.

Valeria Atanacio was promoted to Tribal Affairs Director of Oregon’s early learning department in 2022. A year later, she was demoted, with little warning, she said. (Amanda Loman/InvestigateWest)

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State Office said the office cannot share its findings or recommendations before it publishes the audit later this year. An early learning department spokesperson also declined to comment on the process. The auditor who emailed Watts earlier this month said their role “essentially is to improve processes, procedures and practices so that government can be more efficient, effective and equitable.”

Meanwhile, the early learning department’s executive leadership team told staff that it would be holding listening sessions to gather ideas for what employees would want to see in the agency’s “culture and work,” according to an email sent to staff on April 2. 

Those listening sessions have already begun, but a spokesperson said she could not share any of the findings yet.

Watts is in the process of leaving the early learning agency, but for the last four and a half years she was a senior policy analyst who worked closely with the Early Learning Council, a governor-appointed body of education, business and public policy leaders that sets the state’s overarching early learning strategy. Watts shared her fears about operational dysfunction that she and two other staffers said contributed to problems with the state’s free preschool program for low-income families.

Watts said her conversation with the auditor didn’t leave her with a clear sense of how her feedback might be used. But she sees the audit as an opportunity for increased transparency about how the department is functioning.

“I know it will at least spark a conversation,” Watts said. “At the end of the day, the audit is going to be provided to the Early Learning Council, and the agency director will have to tell the council how the agency is planning to address the different issues raised.”

The Early Learning Council has not publicly responded to specific staff concerns raised in the article, but in its March meeting, council Chair Sue Miller delivered a statement affirming her support for department Director Alyssa Chatterjee.

“We are committed to working with Director Chatterjee and her team to address any and all concerns and to make sure that we do everything we can to have an early childhood system that meets the needs of children and families as well as any agency can,” Miller said. “From my experience working with Director Chatterjee, I’m confident that this is where she and her team are headed.”

Kotek’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Atanacio, who left the early learning department in August 2023, said she hopes the audit can lead to improvements, including addressing the agency’s turnover and loss of managers of color.

“I think the need to vet the experience of directors and leaders and then prepare them for the roles that they’re taking on in a state agency is extremely important,” she said. “Training, professional development, ongoing coaching needs to happen because we’re just setting people up to fail if we’re not instituting those things.”


FEATURED IMAGE: Despite some improvement since the pandemic, Oregon’s supply of early learning is much lower than families need. Eighteen of Oregon’s 36 counties are “child care deserts” for preschool, meaning 33% or fewer children in the county have potential access to a spot, according to the latest data. (Lydia Ely/InvestigateWest)

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reach reporter Kaylee Tornay at kaylee@invw.org.