In January, unhappy community members crowded a Wallowa School Board meeting and refused to wear masks. Board Chair Woody Wolfe had to adjourn the meeting within minutes of starting.
“On the way out, I learned some perspectives of myself and the other board members that were not pleasant,” Wolfe said.
Board members were at their “wits’ end,” trapped between an inflexible state mask mandate and public demands, Wolfe said.
In desperation, Wallowa tried a new tactic in February, holding a community listening session before the scheduled meeting. Wolfe said it lowered community tension so well that the board did it again in March.
When part of a community engagement plan, public listening sessions open new windows on community frustrations, allowing parents to air out their grievances.
OSBA Board Development Specialist Janet Avila-Medina helped Wallowa set up the session. Generally, Avila-Medina sees listening sessions as a powerful community engagement tool but not a cure-all. Before diving into a listening session, Avila-Medina prefers to take time to understand the board’s situation and goals.
Effective community engagement is complex, Avila-Medina said, and boards need to assess their situations, identify the needed engagement level and determine their role. Boards should partner with their superintendents, who would publicly lead outreach efforts.
“Community engagement is not a one-time thing, check a box,” she said.
Wallowa, though, was already boiling over.
Avila-Medina met with the board and Superintendent Tamera Jones to identify the heart of the problem. Wolfe said it became clear the board’s biggest weakness was community communication.
District parents didn’t understand why some school policies existed.
The board held the listening session before the regularly scheduled February meeting and added a meeting agenda item for board members to discuss what they heard. Although OSBA recommends board members not respond individually during public comment periods, the lack of interaction can leave the public feeling as if board members are not paying attention to their concerns, Avila-Medina said.
Avila-Medina opened the listening session with an overview of the board’s role and an explanation that board members could not respond directly. She facilitated the meeting to help it stay focused and to allow the board chair to just listen.
A key advantage of a listening session over a public comment period is the ability to focus it through questions or suggested topics. A listening session also reinforces that the school board is making extra effort to hear the community’s concerns.
Avila-Medina recommends giving the crowd a survey afterward to capture the opinions of those who might have been hesitant to speak publicly. She said a listening session has less value if it is just bringing forth the same voices saying the same things.
Wallowa’s February session revealed frustrated parents didn’t understand the rules for quarantines or how masking policy affected test-to-stay rules. They didn’t know the limits on school board action or the financial and professional risks if the school board broke the state’s rules. The session also laid bare criticisms of the board going back a year or more.
During the board’s scheduled response time, the board gave some perspectives on its decisions as well as talked about ways to give parents more information.
Wolfe said the meeting felt like a step in the right direction.
“There is still healing that needs to be done,” he said, but it “let the community know we’re not against them.”
Parent Melisse Lowe said the meeting helped the community get some things out of its system.
“Plenty of people want to voice their opinion and not get into a huge controversy over everything,” she said.
Lowe said she disagrees with the district’s COVID-19 policies but supports the staff and administration because she believes they are doing the best they can. Partly inspired by the listening session, she helped organize a public meeting with two school board members present to show appreciation for the staff and administrators.
Wolfe got the idea for a public listening session from Enterprise School Board Chair Mandy Decker. Enterprise held a public listening session after dozens of people showed up for the first board meeting following the mask mandate announcement.
“We were just flabbergasted,” said Decker. “We don’t get 50 people at our board meetings.”
With OSBA’s help, Enterprise set up a stand-alone listening session. Decker said the singular nature of the meeting lent impact.
“The school business was ‘Let’s listen to our parents and our public,’” she said.
The meeting was cathartic, letting people voice their opposition as well as their support for the district’s health precautions. It also relieved some board members’ anxiety over their lack of control, Decker said.
“It was good for us to see they weren’t necessarily mad at us,” she said. “They were mad at the circumstances.”
At the end, the board made a few comments to acknowledge the speakers, especially the students, and the consideration everyone showed despite their differences.
“I left there with a new respect for humanity,” said Decker. “They put some real thought into what they contributed.”
Enterprise parent Kreg Coggins, who was there, said a lot of parents felt better about the situation even if they didn’t get what they wanted.
Coggins is part of Helping Our Kids Succeed, a parent group created to ensure mandates weren’t affecting their children’s success. He said the listening session was “a breath of fresh air,” with the open forum allowing more thorough communication between parents and the board.
Enterprise plans to continue doing one listening session a year, Decker said.
Only a few people attended Wallowa’s March listening session, with much of the fight having evaporated with the mask mandate’s announced end. Wolfe said the board plans to continue public listening sessions quarterly, though.
Wolfe said he expects the effects of the January clash to linger and he wishes they had increased community engagement sooner.
“Right now, we would appear to have reason to hope for positive momentum,” Wolfe said. “Three to five months ago, if we could have been standing here mentally and emotionally, I think it would have been averted.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA