Brown’s mandates helpful but also putting pressure on school board members
Friday, August 20, 2021
Gov. Kate Brown said Thursday afternoon that she would “take the heat” for mandating vaccines for school employees if it meant getting children back to in-person learning.
Thursday night, school board members thanked Brown for her leadership but said they were still getting heat themselves.
OSBA arranged for the governor to meet virtually with more than two dozen school board members, including the OSBA Board and the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus leadership.
Although the vaccine rules were the day’s hot topic, school board members engaged with the governor on a wide range of issues. Top of mind was trying to do the best they could for the health, safety and education of Oregon’s children. OSBA staff will be following up with state officials to answer some of the questions raised.
The meeting was arranged before Brown’s vaccine announcement, when her mask mandate in schools was leading to volatile board meetings. Earlier in the week, Brown sent a letter admonishing some school boards for trying to get around the mask mandate, but she also thanked board members for their efforts during the pandemic.
Caucus President Sami Al-Abdrabbuh was among the members raising the issue of school board member safety. He said school board members, especially board members of color, are reporting being threatened and harassed and some fear for their lives. Some also say that local law enforcement has not been helpful and are wondering if they can get state support.
“I have board members telling me they don’t know if they can do this anymore,” said Al-Abdrabbuh, the Corvallis School Board chair.
He was among the school board members who said they appreciated Brown taking a firm hand with COVID-19 rules because what one district does affects the districts around them.
“When an emergency is widespread, state-level decision-making is necessary,” he said. “We can’t manage the emergency alone.”
OSBA is a strong advocate for local control of schools, but some board members also see a time and place for state mandates.
OSBA Board President Maureen Wolf said the No. 1 goal of every school needs to be doing whatever is necessary to have students in schools and learning from teachers face to face. After that, schools can focus on achieving the metrics necessary to return local control, Wolf said.
The governor has not laid out guidelines yet for when the mask mandate might be dropped, and the rules for vaccines are still being written. Wolf said she appreciated that Brown said she would be checking back with school board members as her mandates are implemented.
Wolf, a Northwest Regional Education Service District board member, thought the dialogue was helpful.
“I hope Gov. Brown walked away with an understanding of the series of challenges districts are facing,” she said. “I think she is trying to show leadership and support and empathy for what school board members are trying to navigate.”
Among the more potentially fractious issues raised was requiring school board members to meet in person, same as the students, and to get vaccinated the same as school staff.
OSBA Board Vice President Sonja McKenzie said such mandates would be deeply divisive and possibly explosive but also potentially necessary.
“I don’t think we should require someone to do something we won’t do ourselves,” said McKenzie, a Parkrose School Board member.
OSBA Board President-elect Scott Rogers said it was good to hear from board members from around the state. Although not everyone agrees on the mask mandate, vaccines and other aspects of Brown’s response, there is a commonality of purpose that board members share with Brown, he said.
“I appreciate she is as laser-focused on getting kids back in school as we are,” said Rogers, the Athena-Weston School Board chair.
The governor’s statewide rules have taken some of the immediate heat off school boards, Rogers said, but she has also created an ongoing challenge as school boards deal with the public’s anger and frustration, especially in rural areas.
“It opens up a broader conversation about local control,” Rogers said. “What does it mean to districts?”