Philomath School Board
The Philomath School Board meets Tuesday night over Zoom. From left, top, board members Jim Kildea, Anton Grube and Karen Skinkis; bottom, Superintendent Susan Halliday and school board members Shelley Niemann and Greg Gerding. (Screenshot from Philomath School Board’s Facebook video)

This time, the dates appear to be solid.

Following the approval of operational blueprints and a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union, and with the blessing of the Philomath School Board during its meeting Tuesday night, Superintendent Susan Halliday moved forward with a decision to begin sending students into classrooms under a hybrid learning plan beginning next week.

Clemens Primary School students in kindergarten and first grade, Philomath Elementary third graders and Blodgett students in K-4 will sit at classroom desks for the first time in 11 months beginning Tuesday, Feb. 23. Through the hybrid model, students will attend through a cohort approach with each group on campus two days per week.

In addition, Philomath fourth graders will head back in a hybrid model beginning March 2 and fifth graders will follow on March 4. No decisions have been made in terms of exact dates for middle school and high school students.

The school district has announced opening dates before and they have not materialized to create a level of frustration for all involved, including parents and students. Board member Karen Skinkis wanted to make sure this time around will be different.

“I’d like to be able to put out a date with confidence and have people and families know that it’s going to happen,” she said, asking Halliday if she would foresee any roadblocks this time.

“PEA leadership and PEA membership — all of our teachers — have made it very clear, and I know, that they will come back,” Halliday said. “If the date is set out there, the teachers will come back — that I know and that I believe in — we’ve got a dedicated group to do that.”

Earlier in the evening, PEA representative David Dunham read a statement to the board that educators are ready for in-classroom teaching — and that they have been since late January despite various issues that have surfaced and needed to be worked out.

“To be clear, neither the teachers nor the union blocked the district from opening school on Jan. 26,” Dunham said. “It is our obligation to do our due diligence in performing the roles spelled out for licensed staff in state guidelines for planning and implementation of hybrid learning in our schools.”

The School Board’s Jan. 25 meeting raised the ire of teachers, parents, board members and others in the community through statements made that evening related in part to a perceived legal threat. According to references made during Tuesday’s meeting, anger appeared to boil over in the following days in various circles, including on social media.

Halliday opened the meeting with a statement that revolved around clarifications.

“For the record, the presented action made by PEA leadership was not a lawsuit,” she said. “An unfair labor practice claim is a legal claim heard first by an administrative law judge, then before the three-member employment relations board. Such a complaint involves a hearing that leads to a judgement or an order.”

During the public comments portion of the meeting, longtime teacher Donna Carter read a statement in the PEA’s attempt to clear up misinformation out of the Jan. 25 meeting involving not only the lawsuit references but other issues that had been aired.

Carter also mentioned things that the PEA would like to see happen in the future, including “for everyone involved to stop hurling insults and looking for a scapegoat.”

Carter added, “We need to recognize that wounding those on the front line of education, those who have the most direct contact with children is not good for anyone and not a path forward because a path forward is what we desired.”

Later in the meeting, the board approved a memorandum of understanding with the PEA to move forward. A couple of specific items included in the agreement were still to be ironed out with the probability of an addendum to cover those issues.

The board also approved operational blueprints for Clemens Primary, Philomath Elementary and Blodgett School, another requirement to bring an in-classroom plan into view.

“We want kids in school,” Dunham said. “We know it’s essential to their well-being and their education. We will not and have not ever stood in the way of making that goal a reality.”

Said board member Greg Gerding, “Let’s get the kids back.”

Halliday appeared to be ready to send out a communication to parents on Wednesday detailing the reopening plans, including bell schedules and in which cohorts that students will be placed.

As for middle school and high school, the operational plans need to be finalized and approved and a successful test run at the lower grades needs to occur. Halliday said it’s possible that the older students could be back in their buildings by March 9, but said it’s not probable. A more likely date could be March 16, a week before Spring Break.

In other stories out of the Feb. 16 meeting:

• The board voted to end its search for a school superintendent with the intent of offering the job to Halliday and working toward contract negotiations. Asked if she would be interested in the job permanently, Halliday said “I would be interested in fulfilling that role.” Halliday is currently the interim superintendent and any future contract would begin July 1 with the beginning of a new fiscal year. (See separate story to be published later this week).

• Halliday in her superintendent’s report provided details on Philomath High’s impressive graduation rates, options for COVID-19 testing involving students and updates on several other topics, including plans in the areas of technology and nursing.

• In a student government report, Lily Schell mentioned various efforts in the works, including a plan to create a school safety video to illustrate to students what they should expect in terms of masks, social distancing and the hybrid model upon a return to classrooms.

• Finance Director Bill Mancuso shared a report that showed declining enrollment numbers. Through Jan. 31, the full-time student count is 149 fewer than the same date a year ago. During this school year, full-time enrollment dropped by nine students from January to February.

• Halliday and board members began a preliminary discussion on the district calendar for 2021-22.

• The board hopes to return to in-person meetings in March, however, it could involve only six people in the room if current COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.  Issues involving technology would also need to be resolved for the board members to effectively communicate and for the meeting to be streamed online.

• The board approved licensed teacher contract renewals.

• The board approved the second reading of eight policy revisions.

• As part of a consent agenda vote, the board approved a resolution to accept $539,591 awarded by the Oregon Department of Education. Of that amount, $64,751 is to be passed through to Kings Valley Charter School. Because of funding restrictions to the Student Investment Account, there were no fiscal changes in the targeted appropriation category.

Following is a list of votes taken by the Philomath School Board at its Feb. 16 meeting:
• To approve operational blueprints as presented for Blodgett School, Clemens Primary School and Philomath Elementary School. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Gerding. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve a memorandum of understanding with the Philomath Education Association as presented with recognition that the superintendent and PEA will continue discussions to further define two sections highlighted for further discussion. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Skinkis. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To cancel the superintendent search in favor of filling the vacancy with Susan Halliday dependent upon negotiations. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Gerding. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To renew a licensed renewal list and licensed renewal summation as presented. Motion: Grube. Seconded: Skinkis. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve a second reading of several policy revisions as presented. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Grube. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve a consent agenda that included the Jan. 25 School Board minutes, list of January bills, a resolution for unanticipated funding for the current fiscal year and a leave of absence for teacher Jennifer Gamache from March 1 until the end of the current school year. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Gerding. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).