Ontario School District members at a board meeting in June. From left: Mike Blackaby, Eric Evans, Blanca Rodriguez, Derrick Draper and Renae Corn. (The Enterprise/File)

A crucial vacancy in public service has developed with the departure of businessman Mike Blackaby from the Ontario School Board. This board needs a strong replacement for Blackaby to face challenges in public education – and on the board itself.

These are tough times for any school district. The coronavirus has rocked administrators, teachers, other workers and parents. Uncertainty is about the only certainty at the moment. The rules for getting kids back in a classroom are complex and seem to be ever changing.

And with Congress whiffing on a deal in recent days, the chance of getting financial help seems dim. Yet schools and their patrons are expected to bear the cost of extra cleaning, extra testing and more. While the Oregon Legislature is working to spare the education system from losing any budget money, neither is it likely to put much up to cover those costs.

All that comes on top of the particular challenges for schools in Malheur County. With high poverty, school employees act as much more than educators. They often are a key resource for kids who need food, books or just love.

In the Ontario School District, there has been an extra burden. Political and personal infighting has roiled the district’s administrators and the five-person board. The accusations have flown for months. The district – the public – has spent thousands on lawyers to either investigate or to safeguard the district from lawsuits. It’s become, frankly, a public spectacle that doesn’t help a single student. Hurt feelings seem about the only product out of all these skirmishes.

This is why someone who lives in the Ontario School District needs to raise their hand and volunteer to take Blackaby’s seat. He wasn’t always perfect in his board role, but Blackaby’s genuine concern for the community and for kids trumped all else.

Look, service on a local school board is about the toughest political assignment there is. Competing forces are always at work. School administrators, teacher unions, sometimes overly-demanding parents, and state officials demanding excellence all make for hard work. Service on a board doesn’t come with any pay. It does come with a lot of donated hours and a need to learn today’s complex education system.

Yet, service on the board is about representing the community. The five voices on the Ontario School Board, in the end, are to reflect that community. They are there, first, to see that every student in the district gets a fair shake at a great education. Nothing – not one other issue – is more important.

Now, one citizen is needed to step in to help. The Ontario board is accepting applications through Tuesday, Aug. 25, and expertise in education policy isn’t necessary. The best choice will be someone who reflects the diversity of Ontario, speaks for souls who maybe aren’t heard enough, who can navigate the political divides on the board to focus on kids. The best choice will be someone unafraid of hard work, willing to learn budgets and school test scores and equity issues. The best choice will be a volunteer who isn’t looking for fame or political advantage, but who is interested in helping drive the Ontario district and its students to excellence.

As those applicants line up, the remaining four board members need to step back and take a deep breath. The personal machinations and complaints that have marked both public and private relations must end. Quite simply, if any board members are more interested in soothing their egos than solving school issues, they should follow Blackaby out the door. – LZ

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