NYSSA—The Nyssa School Board met in an unusual Sunday evening meeting that included a break for ice cream.
The purpose of the board’s Sunday, July 30, special meeting was to meet the person they hope to come in to fix the district.
The meeting notice went out late on Friday, July 28, around 4:45 p.m., with one discussion item: “board/district goals.”
There was no mention that the board planned to meet with Don Grotting, who served as Nyssa’s superintendent from 2000-2010. The board had initially considered hiring Grotting to be the district’s interim superintendent. Instead, it has discussed bringing him on temporarily to help with the fallout from the migrant program investigation and to mentor the district official elevated to interim superintendent, Ryan Hawkins.
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.
In a Tuesday, Aug. 1, phone interview, Grotting told the Enterprise he asked the board for a flat rate of $10,000 monthly with travel costs reimbursed for the consulting role with the district. The contract, he said, would not be for a fixed term and would have an option for either party to end the contract at any time. Grotting said he would release the agreement once it is finalized.
It’s not clear why the board changed course and did not continue to pursue Grotting for interim superintendent. Pat Morinaka, board chair, did not immediately respond to a request for an explanation. However, according to Crystal Rideau, the district’s business manager, the budgeted amount for superintendent already is depleted, having to pay the equivalent of a year’s salary to former superintendent Darren Johnson.
She said the district has a contingency, or emergency fund that would last for only two months. Rideau said in an email Thursday, Aug. 3 that the fund has $2.5 million for unexpected, district-wide expenditures for the next budget year. It is unclear whether the district will pay Grotting out of this fund.
During the Sunday meeting, board members discussed district priorities, including implementing new technologies, better engagement with diverse populations and the possibility of adding more preschool classes.
At the end of the half-hour discussion, Pat Morinaka, board chair said the board would recess into its “ice cream bar session and meet and greet.” Before Hawkins turned off the live broadcast on YouTube, Morinaka asked Grotting if he knew everyone on the board and Grotting said he did.
The board came back into open session roughly 20 minutes later and scheduled a work session for Monday, Aug. 7, at 7 p.m. with the possibility of an executive session to meet with attorneys from the Portland law firm Miller Nash. The board retained the firm to help with the Oregon Department of Education’s two-year investigation of Nyssa’s migrant education program.
The board also is expected to consider a contract with Grotting. He noted during the meeting that the board would need to make the decision to hire him in an open session.
In a Monday, July 31 email, Morinaka said she “erred” in that, as the board chair, she should have announced the board would be in recess for so many minutes and the meeting would continue to be in open session.
During a Tuesday phone interview, Hawkins said that treating themselves to ice cream was a last-minute decision and that he jokingly told Morinaka he would bring ice cream if he had to be in on a Sunday.
According to Hawkins, this was the first time the board had held an “ice cream session” during recess.
Sunday’s meeting was not the first unusual meeting for Nyssa’s board. Special board sessions, including executive sessions, or closed sessions, have been called over the last couple of months with little advance notice. One meeting, held on Monday, July 24, where the board appointed Hawkins to interim superintendent, started at 8 p.m.
In the days leading up to Johnson’s departure, the board held a hastily scheduled July 3 executive session under a law allowing the board to discuss in private the dismissal or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer or district employee.
According to Johnson, the board discussed a complaint against him and the decisions surrounding it. It remains unclear when the board posted the notice as there was no explicit timestamp. The notice was made only under the board page on the district’s website.
The Oregon Attorney General’s Public Meetings Manual notes that the goal of a meeting notice is to make the public aware of the meeting and then to provide genuine notice to those interested in attending the meeting.
The manual suggests various methods for getting notices out to the community, including the local newspaper.
The manual states that public bodies must provide at least 24 hours’ notice and public access to a special meeting unless the minutes describe an emergency justifying the lack of such notice.
The meeting manual also points out that agendas of what items will be discussed need to be specific enough so that people can recognize matters that interest them.
Hawkins, who put the agenda together on Friday, said that omitting Grotting’s visit from the agenda was not intentional, nor was anyone trying to be secretive.
Hawkins said the board chose the unusual Sunday evening meeting only because that was the only day and time everyone would be available to meet Grotting.
“I need people to see that Mr. Grotting is mentoring me,” he said. “I need that to be successful.”
Hawkins said he did not know why the meeting was called with little advance notice and that Morinaka decided when to notify the public of the Sunday meeting.
Morinaka did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
Grotting said Tuesday that no contract negotiations took place during the recess. However, in a Saturday, July 29 text message, Grotting said the contract negotiations would likely be completed after his visit.
As for the Sunday meeting, Grotting said he was under the impression the meeting was supposed to be a meet-and-greet ahead of his official contract signing. He said that he thought district staff members and a few community members that knew him from his time as Nyssa’s superintendent would attend. Only board members and Hawkins were there.
“Basically,” he said, “there was nobody there. That was a surprise to me.”
In addition to Morinaka, other board members present were Jeremy Peterson, Dustin Martinsen, Maribel Ramirez, Susan Ramos and Don Ballou.
According to Hawkins, with community-wide trust in the district at an all-time low, engaging more people with the board in public meetings will help the district move past the migrant education program scandal.
Grotting concurred. While the board can’t discuss student conduct issues and personnel-related discipline in public sessions, Grotting said people would start to “let their guard down” and begin to trust the district when they have more opportunities to discuss business in public.
He said throughout his career as a superintendent, he would start working on the board’s agenda early with his chair and vice chair about what to put on the board’s notice and get it out to the public as early as possible so citizens could plan their participation.
“Some of these folks have kids,” he said. “Maybe they need to get childcare or make plans.”
He said, among other things, the board members had asked him to work on everything from board conduct to preparing agendas should he come on board.
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