Masks back on table as parents address board

Benny Westcott

By Benny Westcott

Of The New Era

Just over two dozen unmasked individuals entered Sweet Home School Board meeting in the high school auditorium Monday, Sept. 13, despite being told at the door that they could not without masks, based on Gov. Kate Brown’s mask mandate for K-12 school facilities.

Still, not heeding the words of administrators attempting to enforce the mandate, they entered the building, and several made public comments to the board.

“By mandate of the governor, who is actually superintendent of the schools as well, we are required to have masks on in the building,” said Board Chairman Jason Redick.

“I know that there are a number of you that chose not to, and I’m not going to try to kick you out or anything like that. But I will make a statement that you are on your own if something happens and we get a COVID spread from this, the district will assume no liability, and it is your choice to be here in this situation without that mask.”

Redick also noted that “the purpose of this meeting is for board business. Comments are not required by policy or by law.”

However, he opted to allow people to speak on items related to the district that weren’t on the board’s agenda for the evening, in an effort to give the people “a chance to give us your voice.”

The topics discussed during the public comment portion of the meeting ended up being, as was the case at the August meeting, masks and vaccinations.

“It should be a choice for us as parents to send our kids to school with or without a mask, just like it’s a medical choice for me to wear one or not,” said Lori Martin, a Brownsville resident.

Sweet Home resident Robert Enger, who has three children in the district, said “Teachers should not in any way be forced to take a vaccine against their will. And as far as the latest information about COVID testing being administered in school goes, I hope this district plans to opt out of the program and be firm on that.”

“I am against shoving a swab into my child’s naval passages. I would see it as a direct assault on my child,” he said.

Manuel Grajeda of Sweet Home, who, along with his wife, decided to pull their high school- aged daughter out of the district, said to the board, “One of the things I’m starting to learn, is that you were put in place, and you can also be removed. I need to sit down with each of you, one on one, and find out where you stand on these issues. If you are not listening to the people, we need you out.”

Grajeda said he did not want any of the three superintendent candidates that were finalists for the position that went to newly hired Supt. Lisa Riggs.

“None of the candidates could answer personally about the hot topics of masks and vaccines,” he said. “They danced around it.”

“We are just going to get louder,” he added. “If you don’t want to stand up, resign, and we’ll put someone in that will help us.”

After all of the public that desired to speak before the board said their piece, Steve Thorpe, president of the teachers union, noted that the high school, where he teaches, has more students than he expected.

“And I’m the teacher that says, give me more desks,” he said.

“We have been serving the kids,” Thorpe said of the first few days in school. “There’s kids getting in trouble, having fun, playing sports. We are knocking at the door of normal.”

“Students are coming into class, and I’m excited to have them back. If I have to wear a mask to have them back, I’m OK with it,” he said, while noting that “the minute they say I can take this thing [mask] off, I’m going to have a hard time finding it again.”

Velma Canfield, media assistant at the junior high, said “at the junior high, kids love being there. I saw some boys playing foosball. Those kids don’t care that they have a mask on, they are too busy playing on the foosball table. They are happy to be there. I haven’t seen anyone truly complain about wearing a mask.”

“They are our kids, our future,” she said of the students in the district. “We’ve got to celebrate them and do what we need to do for them.”

In just the first week of school, COVID-19 has already affected the district beyond just rhetoric.

Riggs reported 61 quarantined students and staff, in addition to “some” positive cases.

“We want people to know that we are concerned about families, staff and our students,” she said.

Riggs, who took over from former Supt. Tom Yahraes on Aug. 17, formally addressed the board for the first time at the meeting.

“I’m deeply honored and thrilled to be selected, and I’m looking forward to calling Sweet Home my home,” she said. “I extend my gratitude to the school board for their professionalism and integrity. It’s obvious that you take the community’s input seriously.”

Of her predecessor Yahraes, she said “His legacy is certainly cemented. His work toward innovation, academic achievement and graduation rates were exemplary.”

Riggs told the school board that she “looks forward to working with you to advance academic achievement and realize the whole vision and mission of the district.”

“A change in superintendent always brings some level of anxiety, but together I know we will work to honor the rich traditions that I hear Steve Thorpe and other alumni talk about, celebrate our successes, and build a stronger future,” she said.

“Everyone with differing opinions still has students and their best interest at heart,” Riggs noted. “We are here because of our students. Even in controversy, I think we see that we are all here for that.”

In other action,

n Board members took two votes to choose a candidate to fill the position #6, Crawfordsville, board vacancy, but did not have enough for either of the two candidates to make an appointment.

The two candidates for position #6 are former School Board member Dale Keene and Jenna Northern, co-president of Hawthorne Elementary School’s parent teacher committee.

Both the first and second vote conducted at the meeting ended up with a 3-3 tie.

School board policy requires a majority of five affirmative votes to appoint someone to the board.

Six of the eight current board members were in attendance at Monday’s meeting to vote: Jason Redick, Sara Hoffman, Jim Gourley, Mike Reynolds, Kevin Hill and Jason Van Eck. Janice Albert was absent due to health reasons, and Debra Brown was absent due to being on vacation.

Falling shy of the required majority, the board deferred the vote to the Linn Benton Lincoln Education Services District (LBLSD). The two candidates will answer the questions of that board before being elected by that body.

Redick says he hopes that the LBLSD will make a decision on appointing either Keene or Northern before Sweet Home School District’s next board meeting, scheduled for Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the district office board room.

n Learned that the total Sweet Home School District enrollment as of Sept. 9, 2021 was 1,973 students.

This number accounts for 341 students at Foster Elementary, 234 at Hawthorne Elementary, 124 at Holley Elementary, 260 at Oak Heights, 330 at the Sweet Home Junior High, and 684 at Sweet Home High School.

Also, board members unanimously approved the hiring of:

n Alexxus Shelton, temporary 5th grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary for the 2021-22 school year, effective Aug. 30, 2021.

n Samantha McMahand, temporary 2nd grade teacher at Foster Elementary for the 2021-22 school year, effective Aug. 30, 2021.

n Richard Smithson, special education teacher at the high school for the 2021-2022 school year, effective Aug. 30, 2021.

n Jennifer Ashcraft, .25 spanish teacher at the junior high for the 2021-22 school year, effective Aug. 30, 2021.

n Laura Parrish, biology/life science teacher at the high school for the 2021-22 school year, effective Aug. 30, 2021.

n Mitchell Robison, district behavior specialist for the 2021-22 school year.

The board accepted the resignation of:

n David McNeil, science teacher at the high school effective immediately.

n Hannah Mather, TOSA counselor at Sweet Home High School, effective when position is filled.

n Monica Turkisher, kindergarten teacher at Foster Elementary, effective when position is filled.