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Legislature convenes for emergency special session to address policing, COVID-19
The Legislature convened the first special session of 2020 on Wednesday. Gov. Kate Brown called the session “to take up two urgent issues facing our state: the COVID-19 pandemic and police accountability.”
The Legislature, though, has discussed a few other topics, including funding for small schools and procedural changes to permit virtual meetings of public bodies. Most notable among these topics is the proposal to enact COVID-19 liability protection for public and private employers, including school districts, community colleges and education service districts.
The potential catastrophic liability concerns related to COVID-19 transmission for school districts and other public entities have been a hot topic of session discussion. With schools looking toward a fall reopening in compliance with the Oregon Department of Education’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance, liability concerns represent a real barrier to in-person instruction. A liability lawsuit could spell financial ruin for school districts. As Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney told OREdNews, “We would have to seriously consider our options if this is still hanging over our heads,” he said. “It’s terrifying, no doubt about it.”
On Thursday, OSBA Executive Director Jim Green testified to the Joint Committee on the First Special Session of 2020 in favor of a legislative fix.
“We are here asking for limited liability,” Green said, “because our global insurance carriers are not offering liability coverage for infectious diseases starting July 1 of this year.”
Green testified that without liability protection schools would be closed.
Leading up to this session, Brown had said these concerns, along with budget shortfalls, would potentially be considered in a second special session she expects to call later this summer.
Many legislators are not content to wait. Some Democratic legislators sent a private letter to House Speaker Tina Kotek, and the House Republican caucus offered a news release supporting the letter. Kotek announced Thursday afternoon that liability wouldn’t be addressed this session but a work group would be formed to study it for a possible next special session. Green volunteered to be on the work group.
The Legislature is tackling other bills of note to school districts, education service districts, community colleges, and special districts, including:
- Small schools funding extension (SB 1607): Statutes that provide crucial, dedicated funding for small, remote and dorm schools will expire on June 30, 2020. SB 1607 would extend this funding for one year, to June 30, 2021. This bill has no known opposition; OSBA covered the crucial need for this funding in detail earlier this year.
- Commercial activity tax technical fixes (HB 4202): This bill will make technical fixes to the commercial activity tax that funds the Student Success Act. The fixes were requested by agencies, and there is no known opposition to this bill.
- Virtual public meetings (HB 4212): This bill modifies a number of statutory requirements to allow public bodies, boards and districts to meet virtually or by phone. This does not include the Legislature. There is no known opposition to this bill.
Although these bills are important to the public education system, they are not the main reasons Brown called this session. This special session is the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and police accountability in the wake of widespread “Black Lives Matter” protests. There are multiple bills that would address policing and police policy, including bans on chokeholds and other physical restraints by police officers, creation of a statewide database of police officer discipline, and similar policy proposals. A full list of proposals can be found on the Oregon Legislative Information System.
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist