On February 15, the Richland School Board held a special meeting during which they forced an unlawful vote — one that wasn’t on the agenda, violating the Open Public Meetings Act — to make face masks immediately optional in Richland schools and other district facilities. The vote was in direct violation of Governor Inslee’s mask mandate in Washington State.
Richland School District parent Elizabeth Lugo, who has been involved with the district over the years as a parent and concerned community member, was attending the school board meeting via Zoom. “The school board chose to vote to, in essence, break the law,” said Lugo. She helped gather together a group of other concerned parents, teachers, and community members to form the Community for an Ethical School Board. “Something needed to be done. So we put together a Facebook page to kind of rally the troops and say, ‘Hey, we need to be standing up. And we need to be loud.’ It appears that a few of the school board members don’t realize our presence out here.”
Michelle Smith, Richland School District parent and civics instructor, also joined the Community for an Ethical School Board. “I was just appalled at the lack of good governance,” said Smith. “It became apparent that I could no longer count on my school board to act in a manner that was ethically and morally right…. As someone who genuinely cares about education in our country, and in my community, it is difficult to watch people not be able to make the transition from candidates who have opinions and think that education should be run in certain ways to being school leaders, who have to follow rules and regulations.” Smith is currently working on her doctorate in education and educational leadership, and says that school board members put their schools in jeopardy during “a moment in time where they could bring the community together … and really help mend the fissure that happened in our community.”
Lugo and Smith both noted that the Richland School Board had numerous experts and resources available to them — including a Washington State School Directors’ Association training retreat in November and a district lawyer who advised them that they could not lawfully violate the mask mandate — that were bypassed and ignored during the
February 15 meeting.
The Community for an Ethical School Board also noted that Audra Byrd and Kari Williams had authored a survey in January asking staff and parents/guardians of district students to answer questions regarding in-school safety protocols. In this survey, 69% of respondents agreed with the survey statement: “The Richland School Board should closely follow all mandates and requirements passed by the state and federal governments.”
Events of February 15
During a special meeting on February 15, Richland School Board members Audra Byrd, Kari Williams, Rick Jansons, and Semi Bird attended in person and Jill Oldson attended
Semi Bird made a motion, seconded by Audra Byrd, to pass a resolution to make mask wearing optional in all Richland School District buildings.
Before the vote was made during the special meeting, Rick Jansons said, “First, I believe the motion is out of order.” He explained that voting on face masks was not presented to any board member ahead of time, and that this special meeting was supposedly called to talk about a different local control resolution. “Second, I believe the vote itself is illegal. We would be willfully and knowingly violating the law, which violates your oaths of office, and makes each one of you personally liable for any of the claims made by staff or students in the district…. We’ve had three different attorney’s offices tell us this is illegal, as well as the attorney general.”
Semi Bird followed Jansons’ statements saying that he had “done his due diligence” regarding the vote. He then defended his position by expressing concern for suicidal students (see ‘A closer look at suicide’ below): “I’m not prepared to wait another three hours when students are suffering and students are dying. I will not have that on my conscious that another child who has suicidal ideations takes their life.” Bird closed his statements by asserting that he did not consider the Governor’s mandate to be a law (see ‘Allegation of threat’ below) and that he stood by his motion, regardless of what the attorneys said.
Jill Oldson, who attended the meeting via Zoom, reiterated much of what Jansons stated. “We’ve been running a marathon for two years,” she said, “and I’m not willing to break my ankle when I can see the finish line.” She warned against the “unintended consequences” that would result from voting in favor of the motion.
Audra Byrd then spoke in favor of the motion, stating that masks were causing “destruction and turmoil in our community”, despite her statement during the previous January 25 meeting in which she said (around the 2 hour mark), “Although I really don’t like the mandate, we have discussed it as a board the pros and cons of going directly against the mandate, and have felt that the cons outweigh the pros, in regards to: our funding would be cut for our students....”
Next, Jansons added, “Under this motion, this board would be directing staff specifically to violate the law. I do not believe we have the right to ask staff to violate the law.” He mentioned that the school district provided online options for students who don’t want to wear masks.
Kari Williams — who was chairing the meeting — briefly spoke in support of lifting the mask mandate before calling Bird’s motion to a vote.
Semi immediately voted yes, but Jansons made one final statement, explaining that he had taken time off work for what was supposed to be an executive session, and that the current motion and vote were never discussed beforehand. “I feel like I’m being ambushed,” Jansons said. “I also am voting strenuously ‘no’ because the ramifications of this are personal to the people who vote ‘yes’ — because you are willfully and knowingly violating the law, you’re violating oaths of office in my opinion, we are directing staff to violate the law, which I think is illegal for us to do — so I’m a ‘no’.”
The final vote was three to two, with Jansons and Oldson being the two
The result of the February 15 vote was an emergency closure of all Richland schools. OSPI (Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) immediately gave the district notice that they had up to 20 days to reinstate the compulsory use of face masks in order to not lose state funding. OSPI warned that shirking the mask mandate would also open board and staff members up to potential liability.
In an open letter to Richland School District parents, staff, and community members, District Superintendent Shelley Redinger said that she would love to see the kids’ smiling faces in school, but that the current state requirements don’t allow it. “...Bringing children and staff back to schools, while knowingly violating the current mask mandate, would be unlawful, jeopardize district funding and insurance coverage, and would be asking all RSD staff members to potentially risk their jobs,”
Notice of No Confidence
On February 22, Brian Brendel delivered a Notice of No Confidence to the Richland School Board asking for the immediate resignation of Audra Byrd, Kari Williams, and M. Semi Bird from the Richland School Board. The notice stated: “These three have demonstrated that they are unfit for office. Ms. Williams, Ms. Byrd, and Mr. Bird acted in a reckless, unethical, and unlawful manner during a special meeting on February 15, 2022. At this special meeting, although it was not on the agenda, they forced a Board vote on a resolution by Mr. Bird to make face masks immediately optional in Richland schools and district facilities. This resolution was in direct violation of Governor Jay Inslee’s mask mandate for Washington State.”
The notice continued: “As a result of the meeting, the superintendent, Dr. Shelley Redinger, was forced to close Richland schools—for what turned out to be two days—to ensure that the district was not violating the state mask mandate.
“The closure disrupted the education of students as well as directly and adversely affected students who access nutrition, therapy, and social services at school. Parents and caregivers had 12 hours to arrange childcare. Many were forced to take unpaid days off from jobs. The board’s unexpected adoption of the resolution created chaos in the district.
In addition, the actions of three board members undermined district staff and families’ trust in the board’s honesty, integrity, unity, and sincerity. They damaged the district’s reputation and further divided the community.”
Multiple RCW (Revised Code of Washington) law violations, board policy violations, and WSSDA (Washington State School Directors’ Association) code of conduct violations were then listed out and cited in the notice.
At the time it was presented at the February 22 meeting, the Notice of No Confidence had already been signed by over 1400 community members. There are now more than 2100 signatures.
In hindsight, Michelle Smith says that the most important consequence of the Richland School Board’s antics is that the district business is simply not getting done. “Have we talked about how we’re going to put supports in place to support students who still want to wear masks? What are we going to do to bring our community together? We haven’t even had those conversations, much less have conversations about what we need to do to prepare kids for state testing.” Smith worries that the school board is not taking care of “the business at hand of educating children in the Richland School District. And that means paying our bills, making sure our teachers have the resources that they need, making sure that the curriculum is available that students need.” Smith says it is not the job of school board members “to be the martyr for political stunts.”
Bird, Byrd, and Williams are currently facing a lawsuit for their violations of the Open Public Meetings Act.
“This isn’t a mask issue; It’s an ethics issue — it’s the lack of good governance,” says Elizabeth Lugo. “As a parent, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say this: our kids have been through hell and back. Our teachers have been through hell and back. We’ve all been through hell and back for the last two years… and then to have to cancel school for two more days out of this school year because three people decided to have a little temper tantrum and try to do something political …. Our children deserve better. Our teachers deserve better. The entire Richland Community deserves better than what those three individuals did.”
“I don’t think the three people who ran [Bird, Byrd, and Williams] know or understand the importance of their jobs within this community,”
Smith and Lugo say that they hope that the Community for an Ethical School Board can help find better school board candidates in the future.
A closer look at suicide
Have suicides increased during the pandemic?
Local suicide prevention advocate Kimberly Starr provided articles (kmbc.com/article/johnson-county-kansas-covid-19-masks-student-mental-health/38699890#, theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/04/pandemic-suicide-crisis-unsupported-data/618660) showing evidence that, although mental health issues have risen during the pandemic, there doesn’t seem to be any link between face masks and suicide.
In this Penn Live article, infectious disease specialist Dr. John D. Goldman said:
I actually agree that substance abuse and suicide have gone up during the pandemic. I would argue that a lot of that is due to social isolation. If people had worn the masks more religiously, we would have had less of an outbreak and would have had less social distancing and there would have been less substance abuse, depression, and suicide. More people are scared of being sick than they are having to wear a mask.
In addition to Semi Bird making comments about suicidal students, Audra Byrd also mentioned suicides in an email to State Superintendent Chris Reykdal on February 10 (see ‘Allegation of threat’ below), although neither Byrd nor Bird were able to provide data or sources regarding increased suicide rates when contacted for comment.
An allegation of threat
On February 10, State Superintendent Chris Reykdal sent an OSPI notice reminding Superintendents and board members that they need to follow the mask mandates: “Please note, face coverings for students and staff are still required at this time per requirements by the Governor, Secretary of Health, and the Department of Labor and Industries. Until the statewide mask mandate is eliminated, it continues to be a willful violation of the law.” This email was sent to everyone on the Richland School Board, including Semi Bird, who said during the February 15 meeting that he “doesn’t consider the Governor’s mandate to be a law.”
Audra Byrd responded to Superintendent Reykdal’s letter the same day, saying in part:
How about you get your act together with Governor Inslee and get our mandates released like every other state (besides one) has figured out.
Quit[e] [sic] sending threats. What kind of man thinks it is appropriate and healthy to straight out threaten to sue his superintendents and school board members?
Superintendent Reykdal replied to Byrd’s email urging her not to use her school district account for political speech, as that is an ethics violation. He also clarified that as a State Superintendent, he does not sue school districts. Regarding Byrd’s assertion that he was “sending threats” to the school board members, Superintendent Reykdal had this to say:
A law enforcement officer is not threatening you if she pulls you over and gives you a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. The health inspector is not threatening a restaurant owner when they cite them for unsafe conditions. And I am not threatening you by reminding you of law and order. I have a legal responsibility to follow the law. I took an oath, like you did, to follow the law. I have to remind you that willful violations are against the law. That’s not a threat, that is responsible governing. Fortunately, we have not had to withdraw any funds to date, because the districts who have considered illegal actions have found a more rational and lawful way to express themselves. I deeply appreciate your passion, but you need to follow the law and the executive orders that have the power of law until they change. We are trying to change them to remove masking as a mandate. We are trying to shift contact tracing back to local health. We are trying to shift our resources and energy to teaching and learning and not public health enforcement. Until we can make more progress, please follow the law, follow your oath, and demonstrate the respect and civility that I know you want our learners to adhere to.
Special thanks to Katie Smith, Danica Garcia, and everyone from the Community for an Ethical School Board.
Sara Quinn is the Editor in Chief at Tumbleweird. She makes pixel art, writes stuff, reads A TON, and plays a lot of video games ;)
Main image: Short-Sighted Decisions Cause Collateral Damage by Ima Concerned Parent