Hawkins named interim superintendent in Nyssa as negotiates with former district chief

NYSSA — The Nyssa School Board named a new interim superintendent and voted to begin discussions with a longtime former Nyssa chief, Don Grotting, to serve as a mentor and fixer for the state’s ongoing investigation of the district’s migrant education program.

State officials confirmed in an email Tuesday, July 25 that the interim superintendent and another district leader had children improperly enrolled in the migrant program. 

Ryan Hawkins was tapped by the school board as the district’s interim superintendent during a special planning session Monday, July 24. Four members voted to appoint Hawkins, while two abstained. Hawkins will be paid an annual salary of $122,800. He recently served as the district’s assistant superintendent.

Records obtained from the Oregon Department of Education named Cyndi Thompson, director of Nyssa’s Early Headstart, as the second district leader with children improperly enrolled in a program designed to help the children of migrant workers get an education, according to an email response to a public records request from the Enterprise.

Thompson said in an interview on Wednesday, July 26, that she did not know her kids were ineligible for the program.

Initially, when she enrolled her two kids in the program in 2017, Angela Sanchez, lead recruiter with the district’s migrant program, told her that she qualified and that during the first round of interviews in 2021, when the state began its investigation, a Department of Education official with the state’s migrant office told her that her kids had qualified. By that point, she said her children were no longer enrolled.

Last year, she said a different state investigator told her that her children did not qualify because her husband’s job on a dairy farm was not seasonal.

According to the Oregon Department of Education Migrant Program Directors Handbook, to qualify, a family must have moved within the past three years, and the parents must be temporary or seasonal workers in agriculture.

Thompson said her children had attended the migrant program’s summer school. Improper summer school attendance was among the state education agency’s concerns. The Nyssa district charged a $200 fee for non-migrant and special education students to attend the migrant summer program.

The Nyssa migrant program does not receive additional federal or state funding for summer.

Thompson said she did not mean to mislead or get benefits she wasn’t allowed.

She said some people who work in the district are off during the summer and work on a farm during that time, which, in her opinion, makes it easy to qualify because they have a lot of time off. A fact of life in a rural community that, she said, is not “super complicated.” They may travel out of the area to work on the farms or travel from district to district, which, in her opinion, does not make it hard to enroll in the program.

According to the state migrant program handbook, the agricultural work must be seasonal, and families must be moving to another residence and be able to show an economic need for making the move. Additionally, the handbook noted, the migrant child must have joined the migrant parent working in agriculture, or fishing work.

“The situation makes the school district look bad,” she said, “and it makes the community look bad when it shouldn’t.” 

The two-year state investigation of the program revealed that 19 district staffers with nearly 60 children were improperly enrolled. Thompson and Hawkins were the two district leaders among them, the state records showed.

Access to the program allowed the district employees to get government services they otherwise would not have received. In addition to the district employees’ improper enrollments, the Education Department identified 129 families with 277 children improperly enrolled for the past three years. 

In a Tuesday, July 25, phone interview, Hawkins confirmed that he had children enrolled in the program, but that the whistleblower misunderstood why his kids were in the program. It is unclear when they were enrolled and how long they were in the program.

Hawkins declined to elaborate. Explicitly discussing the particulars of why his children were enrolled would negatively impact them and other families within the district, he said. Hawkins said he was uncomfortable sharing the number of kids he had enrolled, nor did he want to discuss how long they were in the program.

Nonetheless, Hawkins said he encourages people to reach out to him directly with questions. He said he wants to explain his involvement in the program so the district can begin to move past the scandal. 

“I’ve never hidden anything and I’m extremely transparent,” Hawkins said. “I absolutely invite people to come in and have those conversations because they are the conversations we need to have to move forward.” 

The state investigation hangs like a “black cloud” over Nyssa, Hawkins said, and he said the change of leadership and the prospect of Grotting coming in to mentor him are steps the district needs to take. 

“We have to get to sunnier days,” Hawkins said.  

It remains unclear when the district intends to hire a permanent superintendent.

As in the July 20 meeting, the board met on July 24 for a special session. On the agenda were the district’s goals and the interim superintendent. After briefly reviewing notes from the previous session, the board mentioned the interim superintendent once and then went into a closed session to discuss potential interim candidates and hiring Grotting as a district employee. 

When the board came out of the closed session, the members voted 4-2 to appoint Hawkins interim superintendent. Voting in favor were Pat Morinaka, board chair, Dustin Martinsen, Jeremy Peterson and Cindy Ramos, while Maribel Ramirez and Megan Robbins abstained. Board member Don Ballou was absent. 

The board voted unanimously to enter into negotiations with Grotting to “assist our district.” 

So far, it appears the board has not adopted a hiring process for the new superintendent.

Under Oregon law, public bodies can meet in an executive session to “consider the employment of a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent,” the law says.

However, suppose the position to be filled is a CEO or public officer. In that case, the public body must first advertise the vacancy and then — in an open session — approve hiring standards, criteria, compensation and policy directives. It must also allow opportunity for public comment.

Morinaka did not immediately answer an emailed list of questions about whether the board has approved a hiring process, or intends to allow for public comment when it begins a search for a permanent superintendent. 

The fixer

Hawkins said initially the board had considered Grotting, Nyssa’s superintendent from 2000-2010, to be the district’s interim superintendent, but instead decided to bring him in to help with the fallout from the migrant program investigation. It’s not clear why the board changed course. 

Nyssa’s budget leaves the board with limited options. According to Crystal Riddeau, the district’s business manager, the superintendent budget is depleted having to pay out Johnson for the rest of the year. She said the district has a contingency fund that would last for only two months. Rideau did not say how much money was in the fund. 

Hawkins said Grotting would likely work part time and on a temporary basis.

In addition to Nyssa, Grotting has been superintendent for the Powers, and David Douglas and Beaverton School Districts. 

During Grotting’s tenure at Nyssa, the district earned state and nationwide praise for closing the achievement gap. In 2005, Nyssa became the first school district in Oregon to be presented with a Closing the Achievement Gap Award by the Oregon Department of Education.

In 2014, Grotting was named Oregon Superintendent of the Year. He retired from the Beaverton School District last year.   

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