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Rupture between Adrian’s board and superintendent wasn’t about masks, leaders say
When the Adrian School Board parted ways with its superintendent Monday, it opened a wound that has been festering in a lot of Oregon communities.
The board chair and the former superintendent agree the end wasn’t about whether the superintendent followed Gov. Kate Brown’s mask mandate. But masks have become a crystalizing agent for parents’ and educators’ anger, fear and helplessness in the face of COVID-19’s upheaval.
The passions are intensified in rural Oregon, where residents already feel ignored by Salem lawmakers with vastly different ideals.
Adrian sits between the Snake River and State Route 201, just west of the Idaho border. Green lawns roll down from the school buildings to the highway, where an occasional car passes the handful of small businesses. The elementary and high school look over a closed vegetable-packing facility and irrigated fields beneath dry, brown hills.
Families shop, eat and relax in nearby Parma and Nampa, Idaho. They look at those communities, where life has mostly gone on as it did before the pandemic, and wish for much the same, especially with open schools.
Community members are struggling with beliefs about not only their children’s health but also ideas on state government and individual rights. Former Superintendent Kevin Purnell’s departure forced community divisions into the open that had been politely glossed over in the interest of small-town peace.
Board Chair Eddie Kinkade says the district is following Brown’s mandate and the Oregon Department of Education’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” framework. He said the board has not given school staff directives on how to enforce the mandate.
The board voted 4-1 Monday to terminate Purnell’s contract. Kinkade said they have reached a settlement that includes 10 months of salary, more than the six months called for in the contract.
The meeting shocked the community, but it was not a complete surprise. Purnell told staff three days before the meeting that he was going to lose his job.
Purnell and Kinkade both said this week that it was time for a change.
They are friends. They are related by marriage, and their wives are partners in selling sewing creations. Purnell has taken Kinkade’s children with his family on vacation.
Purnell has worked for the district for 14 years and loves the community. He says he holds no bitterness and wants the community to heal. He has tried to remove himself from the conversation, avoiding interviews with national media.
He said he shared the board’s goals for students but didn’t always agree how to get there.
New board member Eric White, the lone dissenting vote, said he wants his community to work together and hold the focus on everyone’s goal of keeping children in school.
“By dismissing Kevin Purnell, I think it caused part of the tearing apart of the community,” White said. “I think the community deserves an explanation.”
Kinkade and Purnell in interviews with OSBANews this week told similar stories. They agreed the dissolution was about the ability and the willingness of Purnell to implement the board’s policies.
The fraying began last summer when changing state guidelines upended in-person education plans mere weeks before school was to open. In September, Adrian sued the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to get children back in the classrooms. Purnell was not always as enthusiastic about the lawsuit as the board wanted. The relationship hit a low point in December after Purnell suggested and then later called off children showing up at school for a full day to protest the state’s limits on in-person instruction.
Although Purnell and Kinkade generally agree on what is best for students, Kinkade said Purnell was not fully supporting board policies.
“There were a lot of miscommunications or one thing being said and another thing being done,” said Kinkade.
Purnell says he waffled on handling some state directives, but he says he also took heat for following ever-changing state directives that were out of his control.
The final straw came after an Aug. 12 meeting. Based on the language in Brown’s initial mandate, the board announced a mask policy that said the district would “not take any punitive measures or actions towards students or families who decline to wear a mask.”
Like a lot of districts, Adrian interpreted the mask rules as allowing schools a grace period to work with students who refused.
Purnell was supposed to send a letter to staff and parents with that language, but before he could, ODE announced: “Schools cannot serve a student in-person if they or their family choose not to wear a face covering.”
Kinkade said the board was angry Purnell didn’t send the letter before the ODE announcement even though ODE’s clarification would have nullified it.
By this time, Purnell was exhausted by the constant turmoil and thinking the conflict wouldn’t be good for the children. The two began discussing a possible end to Purnell’s time at Adrian.
Kinkade knows the board has created a community rift, and it troubles him.
“As a superintendent, I don’t know that I would want to come to a place like that,” he said. Kinkade wants the board to work on a better superintendent evaluation process to head off situations like this.
Eric Milburn, board president of the Oregon Small Schools Association, said superintendents are being pressured to ignore the mask mandate, even if it isn’t explicitly stated.
Communities see other school boards challenge the mandate and they press their school leaders to take action, said Milburn, the Central Curry School District superintendent.
According to teachers, students and observation, few of the nearly 90 Adrian High School students are wearing masks, but the majority of the roughly 275 elementary students are. The staff mostly wear masks.
The district has signs saying masks must be worn, and teachers ask students to put them on. When they refuse, the teachers move on to lessons. Some teachers, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, say students are learning it’s OK to ignore authority figures and break the law. Others think it is a lesson in moral resistance.
The schools are not excluding anyone from class.
“We are going to do everything we can to educate the families about wearing masks,” said Adrian High School Principal Billy Wortman.
He said they are making progressive efforts but they are not at the point of removing children from classes.
“Online education is punitive damage to kids,” he said.
According to ODE Director Colt Gill, the situation described in Adrian does not seem to be following ODE’s guidelines and the district has not consulted with ODE about their approach. Gill stressed the need for masks to prevent community spread, especially among the unvaccinated that includes all students younger than 12 and 59% of people in Malheur County where Adrian is located.
“I say this knowing that masks aren’t the argument. Personal freedom is the argument,” Gill said in an email. “But with personal freedom comes responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors. … We can weigh and take risks with our personal lives, but I think we agree that we should not impose that risk on the lives of others around us. If we are to get through the pandemic it will be through the strength of community, not the individual.”
Gill added that remote education is not punitive, but instead is a family choice if they do not want the student to wear a mask.
Mask mandate enforcement falls to Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, but only if someone complains. OSHA received a complaint Aug. 21 that the Adrian School District “publicly announced refusal to comply with mask mandate.”
OSHA staff visited the district Thursday to investigate. It can levy fines, and it can also refer its findings to the Oregon Health Authority and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. OHA can also levy fines, and the TSPC can go as far as revoking professional licenses.
Tensions are in many instances extraordinarily high between school boards and the one employee they oversee — the superintendent. Educators feel trapped in the middle between their bosses, constantly changing rules, and unhappy students and their parents.
“The vast majority of us in small schools are saying, ‘If I follow the governor’s order, I run the risk of losing my job. If I do what the board wants, I run the risk of losing my license,’” Purnell said.
Rumors are running through the community about who complained, and suspects are receiving threats. At the same time, school staff are getting abusive calls and emails from outside the district about mask enforcement.
Adrian is a farming community. In the midst of this week’s drama, Kinkade was working with machine harvesters to bring in the onions, a major crop in the area.
The school district is Adrian’s largest employer. George Martin is the second largest, with more than a dozen employees in his manufacturing and repair shop, much of it farm equipment related. His dad started the business in 1937, but it doesn’t even have a sign out front.
Martin says his job is to fix things, and he wants to know how the board is going to fix this. He said the choice of superintendent could help settle down the community but the problem is broader than that.
“I hope the governor takes a look and says, ‘What part do I have in that?’” Martin said. “The problem didn’t start here, and the solution isn’t here.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA