Eastern Oregon schools want to give input and other items from Monday's meeting

Members of the Ontario School District Board of Directors and school district administrators sing “Happy Birthday” to Board Member Renae Corn to open Monday’s work session.

ONTARIO — Local school districts, including Ontario School District, will be working to potentially change the way schools are able to reopen following closures due to the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

During it’s Monday work session, the Ontario School Board of Directors gave School District Superintendent Nicole Albisu its support in fighting so that some schools (especially those in eastern Oregon) will be able to potentially follow county guidelines as opposed to those that are put in place by the state.

Albisu said this discussion stems from a superintendents call that all Malheur County superintendents were in on. During that meeting, it was made clear to the superintendents that schools will not be reopening in the same way that other businesses will be as part of the three-phase opening plan.

As of Friday, Malheur County, along with most other Oregon counties, entered Phase 1 of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s plan to reopen the state. However, Albisu learned, during the call that the schools did not enter Phase 1 with the rest of the county.

“My phone started blowing up,” Albisu said, as many local educators were in shock of the update. This means that if Malheur County is entering Phase 2 by the time fall comes around, schools might still be unable to have groups of more than 10 students inside.

Albisu said the school administrators of Malheur County have been reaching out to local government representatives and are working to “be at the table” to help put guidelines out. As it is, Albisu said it’s still a lot of people on the western half of the state making decisions for all schools.

As it stands, Albisu said the Oregon Department of Education is putting out ideas for what school might look like in the fall, but there’s a chance that the state will continue mandating distance learning at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Albisu asked Board Members Derrick Draper and Eric Evans (the only two board members who still have children in the district right now) if they had any thoughts on whether they would feel comfortable sending their students back to school if it were the beginning of the fall and we were in the same situation.

“No problem,” Draper said, immediately. “I think this has been blown out of complete proportion.”

Evans said he’s a little bit more on the fence about it, adding that it’s not just the students who are at risk.

“I don’t think there’s really a huge risk to kids,” Evans added. Albisu agreed, saying that there will need to be decisions made keeping everyone in mind, including the staff where many teachers fall into the at-risk categories.

“Will we be able to fill the classrooms with teachers?” Albisu asked.

“Hopefully by then we’ll have more tests,” Board Chairman Mike Blackaby added.

Contract tabled

The contract extension for Albisu will have to wait another month, as the members of the School Board voted no to the extension.

During the April 20 meeting, the board voted unanimously to have Blackaby meet with Albisu to write out an extension for the district’s top leader. With multiple items having changed in the meantime, multiple school board members have decided that they need more time to look over those changes.

The vote for the new contract failed 3:2 with Board Member Renae Corn specifically saying “No, not at this time” when it was her turn to vote. Corn, Draper and Evans all voted “no” while Blackaby and Blanca Rodriguez noted “yes.”

There were three items in Albisu’s contract extension that came up during the board’s work session on Monday afternoon. The three items were asked for by Albisu after she said she had a contract analysis done, comparing her contracts to superintendents of similar school districts in Oregon.

Firstly, Albisu was getting two 2% raises in the extension. Annually, Ontario School District Director of Finance Mary Jo Evers confirmed that school district employees receive a 2% raise, but Albisu did not receive one last school year (the additional raise was to make up for the year lost).

The second item was an increase in vacation time for Albisu. In the 2019-20 school year, Albisu had 20 vacation days on her contract and the new contract would bring her to 25, which she said is closer to other mid-sixes school districts in the state.

The third item discussed was adding a no-cause termination severance package equal to 12 months of salary. Albisu also said that this would bring her more in line with other superintendents of similar districts.

In 2018, the board raised Albisu’s annual base pay to $133,000

Investigation over

During the work session of the school board, Corn gave the public an update on the school board’s investigation into Evans’ tort claim against the School Board and some school administrators. Corn said the investigation is completed and every school board member and Albisu all have copies of the report.

The investigation was conducted by Nancy Hungerford of Hungerford Law (an Oregon City-based practice) and was started on April 21.

Hungerford was previously hired by the School Board in August to investigate the “8C School District Administration Request” document, an unsigned letter sent out in the fall claiming to be from school district administration asking for Evans and Draper to step down from the Board.

During later discussion in the regular session, Corn said she would like to have a meeting with the School Board and Albisu to discuss the findings.

The tort claim in question was filed by Evans earlier in the year, citing libel, defamation, bullying harassment and retaliation by school district administration and other board members.

The board took no action on the findings, nor did they decide when to meet to discuss them.

A special occasion

While it was poorly synced due to everyone being remote, Monday’s work session started off with song. Blackaby had those in the Zoom meeting sing “Happy Birthday” to Corn to celebrate her birthday.

“I’m sorry Renae, it’s the thought that counts,” Blackaby said after the song.

Nik Streng is the sports reporter for the Argus Observer. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2015 with a master's degree in journalism, after graduating from Pacific University in 2013 with a degree in creative writing.

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