School Board suspends superintendent search process

The Philomath School Board on a 4-1 vote during its Jan. 25 meeting approved a motion to suspend the superintendent search process, putting the work on the back burner while the district focuses on the time-demanding tasks of getting kids back in school.

Following a short discussion on an exceptional job performance evaluation of interim superintendent Susan Halliday, board member Jim Kildea shared his feelings that the search process should be suspended.

Explaining his position, Kildea believes it makes sense “given the fact that we have all of these challenges … significant challenges that we’ve never, ever dealt with before and we’ve got a solid performance evaluation of our superintendent.”

Greg Gerding seconded the motion and the board members talked it out.

“Just the continuity, the depth and knowledge of the district and the challenges we face, the issues we have to work through, I just think were on full display tonight,” Kildea said, referencing the earlier discussion on postponing the launch of hybrid learning following input from the teachers’ union. “I just feel like heading into this with all that’s going on around the state and with other districts and whatnot, it just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do.”

Board member Karen Skinkis ultimately voted in favor of the move but did express fatigue with the ongoing process of making a permanent hire. Melissa Goff was the district’s last permanent superintendent with her departure occurring in 2019. Philip “Buzz” Brazeau was hired to serve as the interim superintendent from 2019-20 and was expected to return for a second academic year but he experienced health issues and opted out.

Halliday, principal at Philomath Elementary and Blodgett School, accepted the opportunity to fill the position as the interim for 2020-21.

“I feel like this is a difficult spot because I completely put all of my faith and trust in Susan without a doubt,” Skinkis said. “However, I feel like we’ve been on this endless cycle … I’m just ready to get off this wheel and find someone permanent, which may end up being Susan, but just having it be done. That’s sort of where I’m standing.”

Kildea did not specify any sort of time frame on his suggestion to suspend the search.

“We suspend it for now, maybe we bring it up again next month, maybe the following month,” he said. “It opens up a lot more questions than provides answers — it’s just not feeling right to me.”

Gerding favored Kildea’s perspective while acknowledging that the board had told the public that Halliday had been hired in an interim role.

“We have so much going on right now and some really, really big challenges in front of us that postponing that or putting it off for a while makes more sense than going full bore into something,” Gerding said. “We’ve got a superintendent we’re very pleased with right now.”

Board member Anton Grube echoed support for Halliday and believes the other board members had appropriate points of view, but he felt strongly about maintaining a commitment made to the community.

“For me, I’m still committed to honoring that commitment that we made,” he said.

Skinkis brought up an interesting point about the continuity of the process possibly being disrupted if it’s pushed back. Three of the five School Board seats will be up for election on May 18 — Position 1 (Kildea), Position 3 (Gerding) and Position 4 (Shelley Niemann) — with those elected to take their positions in July.

“We could potentially be looking to hire a superintendent with three new board members and then just be me and Anton with not as much experience,” Skinkis said.

The vote ended up at 4-1 with Grube against the search suspension. Niemann, the chair, said she and Skinkis, the vice chair, would have a conversation with the Oregon School Boards Association consultant that had been hired to lead the search.

Halliday’s mid-year evaluation featured high scores for the interim superintendent. Those who participated ranked Halliday on a scale of 1 to 4 — the lowest rating being ineffective on up to developing, effective and accomplished — in eight performance areas. Halliday rated as effective or accomplished in all eight standards.

“We would as a board like to recognize the tremendous work that Superintendent Halliday has been doing through the most challenging of times this school year and we thank her for all of her effort, time and dedication,” Niemann said. “We know you will continue to do so and put our students first and keep everyone in our district safe.”

Halliday said she appreciates the comments and “the trust and faith in my work and the ability to have a team effort for the people in Philomath.”

The School Board did approve a 20-person screening committee that will help go through candidate applications. The committee includes 17 who are directly associated with the schools, including the five board members along with administrators, association representatives and several others from various departments. The other three positions are members of the community.

Niemann said the district received 25 applications for the 15 spots on the committee (the five board member positions are automatically included). Lillian Edmonds, executive administrative assistant, intended to reach out to applicants to notify them of their status.

In other stories out of the Jan. 25 meeting:

• Philomath High student Lily Schell shared student activities, including plans to organize an ice bucket challenge that would replace the canceled Polar Plunge fundraiser. Half of the money raised goes to the school’s Unified Basketball program.

• Following the potential of a legal challenge from the Philomath Education Association, the board reacted to the district’s decision to postpone a return to in-classroom learning. See separate story.

• New school district hires include instructional assistants Sara Messina (PHS), Courtney King (PHS) and Soliana Sapp (CPS). Amber King has been moved into an assignment through March 5 as a PHS physical education teacher (0.5 full-time equivalent). Emily Helpenstall and Rachel Olson will teach at the elementary school through a job-share arrangement for the remainder of the academic year.

• Recent resignations have included Rob Singleton (technology director), Tina Hoch (district nurse) and Ireland Misner (cheer assistant coach). Lori Haslam has been hired in a part-time role as district nurse.

• Leaves of absence have been extended to Blodgett School’s Cindy Hall-Bogard from Feb. 1 through the end of the school year, and elementary school crossing guard Gina Morrison.

• Accuity LLC’s Kori Sarrett reviewed the district’s audit report, which is available on the school district’s website.

• Bill Mancuso, financial director, provided information on K-12 funding as it relates to the legislative session and other components that go into funding for the 2021-22 school year.

• Principals Abby Couture (Clemens Primary), Bryan Traylor (Philomath Elementary/Blodgett School), Steve Bell (Philomath Middle) and Mike Bussard (Philomath High) provided details on moving forward with their specific hybrid learning models. Assistant Principal Tony Matta also contributed to the PHS conversation.

• Matta, who is also the athletic director, said he believes there will be updates on the latest status with athletics by the end of the week with a key state-level meeting to occur on Wednesday.

• The board reviewed information about three board positions that will open up. Gerding, Kildea and Niemann are nearing the end of their four-year terms. Candidates can file their intent to run with the Benton County Elections Office from Feb. 6-March 18. The special election is set for May 18.

• Ten policy revisions were on the agenda for a first reading. Those items, which have been reviewed by a policy subcommittee, will be up for an approval vote in February.

• The board adopted on a 5-0 vote a 2021-22 budget preparation calendar. The Budget Committee will next meet on March 8 with a planned Feb. 8 meeting canceled.

• The board approved on a 5-0 vote the Linn Benton Lincoln Education Service District’s local service plan, a document that is revised annually. Halliday said all regional superintendents had vetted the information and she quickly reviewed some of the changes.

• The board approved a state of Oregon grant agreement related to the Student Success Act’s Student Investment Account. Board approval was the final requirement of the agreement for the district to move forward with submitting reimbursements for funding.

• The board approved a consent agenda that included minutes of past meetings, financial information and the sale of surplus property, an electric kiln that would be cost-prohibitive to upgrade. Proceeds of the sale will go to the middle school’s art program.

• The board briefly discussed the possibility of returning to in-person meetings in February. The district planned to consider how it would set up the conference room to accommodate a school board meeting while adhering to social distancing and to consider the challenges of streaming meetings online.