Editorial: Nyssa school leaders must embrace transparency to earn community’s trust

The Nyssa School Board has faced challenging times in recent months. But efforts to right the school system haven’t been transparent. That should change.

The board has faced two major crises with little explanation to the community.

The longest running one involves the migrant education program. State officials say the program was manipulated. They say families were allowed into the benefits-rich program intended to help children of those families on the move to work farms. They say the district should be stripped of management of the program.

This has proven costly for the Nyssa district. Legal costs have soared, forcing the school board to set aside ever-increasing sums of money. That’s money that doesn’t go to teaching kids. The board faces the prospect of paying back the state if its proven some migrant enrollments were phony. The state already has said it will lay claim to $350,000.

The school board has largely left this issue to district administrators. That has created uncertainty in the community and an erosion of trust in the school system.

The other crisis is in district leadership. Board members earlier this year settled on a critical assessment of the work of Darren Johnson, their superintendent. And they later questioned Johnson’s actions and how candid he had been with the board.

How they attempted to fix that isn’t clear. But the board recently decided to send Johnson on his way. They agreed to give Johnson a fat check from the Nyssa School District to vacate the superintendent’s office. The deal will cost the district $156,000.

That payout leaves the district so short of money that it can’t hire a new superintendent. Instead, it’s elevating another district executive – Ryan Hawkins – on a temporary basis. The board, however, is considering spending additional money to hire a retired superintendent to help coach the district out of its troubles.

So far, the board has provided no clear explanation for its actions. As it stands, taxpayers have no clear idea what the community got for the $156,000 being spent on Johnson. Paying an administrator for what appears to be a failing performance teaches the wrong lesson.

This is not just in-house school business. These matters impact the community. Those applying to fill a school board seat recently noted as much. “Things need to happen to get back on track,” one said, according to minutes. “Major divide in community,” said another, who added that there was “lots of contention” and it was time to “give everyone a voice.”

The responsibility for that environment rests with the school board. That’s in part because the board has behaved recently as if its work is the private business of members. There have been hurried meetings, posted with little notice. The board started one meeting at 8 p.m. on a Monday – hardly a time when citizens would show up. Then it announced late on a Friday that the board was meeting again – this time on a Sunday evening. This meeting came with ice cream for board members but no real effort to engage the community.

Serving on a school board is one of the most challenging civic duties there is. That’s especially true in this era. Politics have nosed into school issues, testing the resolve of board members and the community. Serving on a board requires tough decisions that don’t often win a “thank you” from those in the community.

Perhaps that’s why those on the school board have taken to meeting at odd times with little notice. They can work in quiet. We asked Pat Morinaka, the current board chair, about these matters. We invited her to offer comments. She elected not to do so.

But in one earlier statement to the community, Morinaka did acknowledge the impact of the board’s recent actions. “Uncertainty can generate distrust,” the statement said.

A prime task before Morinaka and others on the board – Susan Ramos, Jeremy Peterson, Maribel Ramirez, Don Ballou, Megan Robbins and Dustin Martinsen – is to restore that trust. Steps they should consider:

• Openly explain the district’s financial condition – what do these unexpected costs mean to the ability to teach kids? Johnson earlier warned there might have to be layoffs or other cuts.

• Justify the big payout to Johnson. Oregon law requires a year’s notice now to fire a superintendent. Is that the reason? The board owes the community an explanation.

• Get on top of the migrant education program. The interim superintendent himself has been named as a beneficiary. The board needs to exhibit strong, clear leadership. It abdicates duty by letting administrators go it alone.

• Conduct board meetings with a true interest in community participation. Burying a notice of a meeting deep on a district website isn’t fair notice to citizens. The district knows how to use social media – it has an active Facebook page – and its email system. Transparency is essential now. Anything less risks deepening distrust. And hold meetings at the convenience of the community, not board members.

Above all, board members should trust the community – parents, teachers and more – with the truth.                – LZ

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