Angry parents

Superintendent Jennifer Kubista meets with students at peaceful demonstration.

Trammart News Service

INDEPENDENCE – A little more than a week ago, on an evening with unexpectedly clear weather, a room called “Hawk Hall” where the Central School District Board typically convenes became too crowded to accommodate all the parents who showed up for a special board meeting.

So, when Abby Fitts, a mother of three teenagers, saw that every chair in Hawk Hall would be occupied, she relocated to an area outside the building. Then she tuned in to the live-streamed meeting on her mobile device. She wasn’t the only one. Inside and out, more than 40 parents hunkered down to hear about the failed search for a new principal at Central High School.

The social-distanced seating arrangement made it impossible for all the attendees to sit together, so several gathered at the front of the building, to watch or listen.

In what school board members labeled a “work session,” those in attendance were advised that they couldn’t make comments at the meeting – a meeting being held to help answer a flood of public inquiries. The questions came from parents like Fitts, who had called for a way to better understand the weeks-long search that resulted in two finalists being named as possibilities for the vacated position of principal at Central High School (CHS) – a process that had suddenly stopped with a brief announcement indicating that neither one got the job.

The obviously popular choice had been Roseanna Larson, the current assistant principal at CHS. In fact, her rejection had caused CHS students to stage a peaceful walkout from the school a few days earlier, delivering the chant “We want Larson” after they arrived at school-district offices.

In the school board’s 90-minute session for the families, Superintendent Jennifer Kubista described the hiring protocol in a clear way that seemed to be understandable, though not entirely to the satisfaction of several who were present. Kubista “did address some of the questions” with clarity, Fitts affirmed. However, “some of the answers didn’t seem central to what was being asked,” she observed. 

Ginger Lushenko, the parent of a CHS student, said she still has unanswered questions, though the reason may be due to the confidentiality issues cited by Kubista several times, she acknowledged.

For example, though the search included three stages, it wasn’t clear why Larson made it to the third stage, then was passed over.

Participants in the evaluation, or “stakeholders” as Kubista called them, weren’t adequately explained nor was the level of influence they provided, according to several parents. So, although some of the search was easier to grasp, some of it didn’t seem any more evident than it was prior to the district meeting, Fitts said.

Making Larson CHS principal was “something I felt like was a slam dunk,” added Lushenko, who worked with Larson on the preparation of this year’s CHS prom and has known her for years. The lack of Larson’s promotion means “we’re not choosing the best person for the job,” she asserted.

Fitts and Lushenko were among many who cited a division between the information that they had anticipated receiving, compared with the actual response provided by Kubista.

“All this transparency wasn’t really all that transparent,” agreed Page McBeth, the father of a graduating CHS senior.

“I think what might have happened is that she (Kubista) didn’t have her pulse on the community,” McBeth suggested, a view also underscored by Lushenko, who noted that Kubista concluded the meeting by mentioning an uptick in certain test scores.

This seemed to be an attempt to put “a bow on it” that was “off-topic,” Lushenko said.

Kubista also repeatedly referenced that administrator choices can be hers alone, and that she’s empowered to make those selections as a result of policies put in place by the CSD board, which then votes on those decisions. “I do think it was a surprise to some to learn that there is so much power given to one person,” Fitts said. 

Chris Orin, whose children all went to CHS, said the meeting left no doubt “who is in charge.”

“We were there to get some answers,” he said. “But the board couldn’t even give us 10 minutes for us to be heard.”

Others who attended were even more blunt, praising some board members for continuing to probe on behalf of parents, but expressing confusion over why the superintendent seemed to be running the meeting.

When asked about such comments, Board Chair Steve Love reiterated the meeting was a work session.

“My role as chair was to call the meeting, work with the superintendent on the objective and agenda for the meeting, and to ensure that all board members had the opportunity to ask and receive answers to their questions,” Love explained.

McBeth seemed to take a broader view than several others, a perspective he attributed to the fact that, at age 55, he is an older high-school parent compared with many who have students at CHS.   

Kubista showed leadership skill during the meeting, a decisiveness that he found impressive, McBeth said. However, under that kind of pressure, defensive posturing is normal, he observed. 

Unfortunately, it seemed as if Kubista was “painted into a corner,” McBeth said.

“Everything she (Kubista) described she was looking for in an applicant fit Roseanna Larson perfectly, and every parent, student and faculty member in the room (Hawk Hall) knew it,” he said. 

McBeth, who has called the area home since he attended WOU decades ago, said that becoming part of the community takes more than simply living in Monmouth or Independence. It’s getting to know people, respecting their ways of living and embracing that close-knit familiarity.

“I think this is why you had Jann Jobe saying ‘thank you’ to the people” who attended, when the circumstances seemed to create an obvious opportunity for the superintendent to do so, he said.

Jobe, a school board member and a former CHS principal, “is the one with years of administrative experience,” McBeth pointed out, adding she could be a good mentor for Kubista.

Some parents have suggested Kubista needs to start looking beyond her identified “cabinet” for advice and reach out into the neighborhoods of Central District schools, where there are residents with kids, and adults with occupations outside of education.

That’s similar with other local views of school boards elsewhere in Oregon. Allegations of community disconnection have led to a low level of trust, according to a state survey released this year by The Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, a non-profit opinion research firm.

About 38% of those surveyed said they don’t think they’re well represented by their elected school board; only 36% of those polled said they believe they are well represented in their educational values by their school board members.

And it isn’t only community dissatisfaction with school boards that can interfere with a district’s administration, according to research a few years ago on superintendents across South Dakota. The results, published in the Journal of Scholarship & Practice, show the quality of “approachability” is second only to leadership as an important professional trait.

The findings also indicate that superintendents frequently seem to consider relationships with school board members a “low priority,” which can be a downfall.

“Superintendents believe board relations to be the least challenging aspect of their position,” the authors concluded. Yet a lapse in board relations is the primary rationale most often associated with a superintendent’s departure.

The recent meeting offered an opportunity for a “healing process” by the community, but there didn’t seem to be an effort to find that common ground, Fitts noted.

Orin recalled that, at the meeting, when Board Member Darcy Kirk spoke of having rocks thrown at her by some CHS students – becoming emotional and finding it difficult speak – Kubista interrupted her at least twice to say that violence isn’t the answer.

“I don’t think that is what she (Kirk) was trying to say at all,” Orin stated. “I think she was trying to describe how she felt,” he said.

In the week after the meeting, Kubista clarified that she did recognize that Kirk was expressing her feelings “about a very difficult incident that happened to her.”

However, “it was important that the district iterate that violence is never an answer or solution in working through difficult issues and conversations,” she said.

The school district’s director of safety and security, Jason Clark, met with Kirk following the meeting to review the situation, Kubista said.

Board Member Vidal Pena, the dad of a child in the district, seemed to be the most vocal in seeking parent-requested answers at the meeting,

He concurred that the responses weren’t entirely the outcome some wanted. However, the board now will be getting more updates during the candidate interviews for administrator positions in the future.

“That is a step in the right direction,” Pena said.

(Trammart Newws Service, of Trammart Inc., is solely responsible for the style and content of news accounts it provides.)

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