Kevin Purnell at a school board meeting at Adrian High School for the last time as the Adrian School District Superintendent on Monday, Aug. 30. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)
ADRIAN – The Adrian School District will pay former superintendent Kevin Purnell more than $100,000 as part of the settlement he signed when being terminated last week.
The agreement represents 10 months remaining on Purnell’s contract, which was to end next June.
In the deal, Purnell agreed not to sue the district.
The agreement emerged as comments about the firing attributed to Purnell and the chair of the Adrian School Board, Eddie Kinkade, were reported in an in-house article prepared by the Oregon School Boards Association. Kinkade earlier had declined to explain the decision and Purnell couldn’t be reached for comment after the firing.
That report described a growing split between Purnell and the board with what the association said was a “final straw” over Purnell’s handling of the state mandate for masks in schools.
“The vast majority of us in small schools are saying, ‘If I follow the governor’s order, I run the risk of losing my job. If I do what the board wants, I run the risk of losing my license,’” according to Purnell as reported by the association.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed that it is investigating the school district over complaints that the mask mandate isn’t being enforced.
Purnell’s firing came at a special meeting of the school board on Monday, Aug. 30. Purnell has been superintendent for three years and gave a tearful address to about 100 people at the meeting, convened in the Adrian High School gymnasium.
Purnell worked under a contract that was going to expire in June and the board earlier decided without explanation not to renew. The contract provided that Purnell would get six months’ severance pay if he didn’t contest a dismissal before his contract was up.
But the agreement signed by Kinkade and Purnell on Aug. 30 provided that he would get paid $41,191 on Sept. 20 and another $61,787 on Jan. 20. The district will pay $14,500 for health insurance as well as “employment taxes and retirement contributions required by the PERS system.”
READ IT: Kevin Purnell's settlement
He was given until Monday, Sept. 6, to change his mind.
A report last week by the Oregon School Boards Association chronicles events leading up to the firing.
The Adrian School District last fall sued the state, hoping to overturn the decision by the governor and her administration to keep schools closed.
“Purnell was not always as enthusiastic about the lawsuit as the board wanted,” the association said.
The suit was dropped when the state in January allowed schools statewide to return to in-person teaching.
Kinkade also cited as a source of frustration when Purnell last December “waffled” on the decision to hold a parent protest of school closures at Adrian schools.
The association reported that “the final straw” in the conflict between Purnell and the school board was Purnell’s failure to write a timely letter to staff and parents that communicated the goal the board adopted for the 2021-2022 school year.
That policy stated, “The Adrian School District, including its staff and administration, will not take any punitive measures or actions towards students of families who decline to wear a mask. We will work with parents and students to educate and understand what the requirements of the face covering mandate is in Oregon schools. We will continue to offer to the students the best educational opportunities within our school system, as we have always strived to do. We will also strive to maintain the health and safety of our students, staff and community."
The goal’s phrasing, however, was based on the premise that the Oregon Department of Education’s policy prohibited punitive measures against students who refused to wear masks.
Later, the Oregon Department of Education clarified that students who refused to wear masks without a valid medical or religious reason would need to be served remotely – even if that decision was considered punishment.
Following the department’s clarification, Purnell no longer wrote the letter the board had asked him to write. According to Kinkade, that angered the board.
The Oregon School Boards Association’s account of events doesn’t refute that disagreements on masking were the catalyst for the board to fire Purnell.
The article also disclosed that the Adrian School District is being investigated by OSHA.
An OSHA spokesman said the agency received two complaints regarding masking in Adrian schools. On Aug. 21, a confidential source said that the “school district publicly announced refusal to comply with mask mandate.” And on Aug. 30, an anonymous source said that “teachers are not requiring students to wear masks at all times while in the classroom. The school board just voted to fire one of the principals (Purnell) for refusing to go against the state Covid mandates.”
The school boards association reported that OSHA representatives were at the district last Thursday. The state agency said that results from that investigation will not become public until its conclusion.
The association said in its report that “according to teachers, students and observation, few of the nearly 90 Adrian High School students were wearing masks.” The report didn’t say who were the observers or when the observations were made.
“Some teachers, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, say students are learning it’s OK to ignore authority figures and break the law,” the association reported.
CORRECTION: The chair of the Adrian School Board is Eddie Kinkade. Previous stories misspelled his last name. The Enterprise apologizes for the error.
News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.
EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM - Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for - day in and day out from the Enterprise.