Philomath School District, Philomath Elementary School aerial
The Philomath School District Office and Philomath Elementary School (File photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

For the first time in 12 years, Jim Kildea is not sitting on the Philomath School Board. Through the years, he’s seen a lot and shared his opinions on a full range of issues impacting the school district.

Jim Kildea

Kildea said the construction bond process years ago was a real highlight for him. He served as the School Board’s lead on the measure that voters approved by an overwhelming margin. The major component of the bond measure was renovating the high school.

“I went to the high school every morning when it first opened just to hear the kids talk,” Kildea said. “They were so excited to have a new high school and the positive energy was incredible. I loved that, and felt very proud of all we had accomplished together as a community, for the benefit of generations of kids.”

Greg Gerding

Greg Gerding and Shelley Niemann have also participated in their last meeting with the new board sworn in on July 1. They were both elected in 2017 and served four-year terms.

Gerding said he decided not to seek re-election with satisfaction for the work he had been able to do and also for the board’s accomplishments as a whole, saying, “It was time to move on and let others contribute their skills and experience to our school district.”

Said Niemann, “My oldest son will be a senior next year and I want to take advantage of all the time I have with him during his last year at home.”

Shelley Niemann

As for Kildea, who had served on the School Board since 2009, he was ready to pass the baton.

“I just felt that I’d served the students and the community to the best of my ability and it was time to step down and let someone else lead,” Kildea said. “People are probably tired of hearing me anyway.”

All three board members have definitely seen their share of challenging situations during their years in those seats.

“The issues that come to mind are the dispute with Kings Valley Charter School, the football hazing incident and discussions relating to the schedule at the high school,” Kildea said.

And how does he feel coming out of those three challenges?

“Following mediation, we ultimately settled on several thorny issues with KVCS and now have an excellent working relationship together,” he said.

On the high school schedule, “I’m glad that we’re finally addressing that in a way that first focuses on student outcomes and opportunities.”

The football controversy was difficult to varying degrees for all involved.

“The hazing incident is part of our past, though unfortunately there are still deep divisions in the community as to how that was ultimately resolved,” Kildea said. “For me personally, I have no regrets with my actions, though I hope time brings healing and forgiveness in the community. That issue had no positive outcomes for anyone.”

Niemann said without a doubt, helping manage the district throughout the pandemic has been the most challenging.

“As a board member, I felt so helpless at times,” she said. “We were in such a hard place with putting student and staff safety first, following all the ever-changing rules by OHA (Oregon Health Authority) and ODE (Oregon Department of Education) and yet knowing there were many students struggling through comprehensive distance learning. It was extremely challenging both on a professional and personal level.”

Gerding had similar comments.

“I think the most challenging situation was the past year and a half dealing with the multiple issues related to the pandemic,” Gerding said. “The uncertainty of schedules, plans; uncertainty and concern over whether our students were learning what they needed to or not; uncertainty and concern over when the teachers would come back into the classrooms, etc.”

Gerding feels the district did what it could to support student learning.

“I feel that our top students most likely did fine in their learning,” he said. “I am concerned that our most challenged students may not have had a particularly productive year, or certainly didn’t learn what they should have.

“It’s tough that our students did not have a normal year of classroom learning, sports, activities, and all the socializing aspects — for example, social-emotional-learning — of a normal school year that is so important to our students,” he added.

Volunteering as a School Board member isn’t all tough decisions and controversies. They all take away pleasant experiences, including personal connections.

“I’ve personally handed their high school diploma to each of my six kids — that was such a rewarding experience,” Kildea said. “Seeing the students of the district excel and achieve great things — state championships in sports and performing arts, and academic competitions.”

Gerding pointed to the relationships with his colleagues and district staff.

“Probably the most enjoyable part of my experience was working with an amazing and diverse group of fellow board members,” Gerding said. “We may not have always agreed individually on a topic or situation, but we discussed, debated and arrived at a single board position. Add to that our dedicated and talented district staff and administrators — it was a pleasure working with these fine professionals.”

Niemann said she appreciated getting to know staff better as well as celebrating students.

“I enjoyed learning the ins and outs of our district, getting to know the staff and seeing the successes of our great students,” Niemann said. “We are truly blessed to have the staff and students that we do in the Philomath School District.”

The outgoing, current and incoming board members participated in a work session in June to review processes, procedures, schedules, goals and objectives, and liaison assignments. Anton Grube and Karen Skinkis are both in the middle of their four-year terms. Joe Dealy, Erin Gudge and Rick Wells all began this month by taking the oath.

So what advice does Gerding, Kildea and Niemann have for their replacements?

Gerding: “We did advise them to toughen their skin as the board can never really please everyone and as a board member you will hear complaints no matter what. Initially, there is so much to learn as a board member, so take advantage of all the learning and networking opportunities that OSBA offers. Lastly, have fun and enjoy your term.”

Kildea: “Just always keep the students and their families first and foremost in your mind and in every discussion you have and decision you make. Prepare to learn and adapt. Ask enough questions to form your opinions and positions, and prepare to defend those; you’ll be involved in important and/or highly emotional issues that ultimately may require a yes or no vote, and there aren’t any conditional votes. Decide where you stand on an issue then vote your conscience.  Above all — think of the students first — all students.”

Niemann: “My advice would be to listen carefully and fully understand things before making quick decisions on important issues and to always put the best interest of all students first. I thank them all for their willingness to serve our community and wish them all the best!”