Few political races in the Inland Northwest are more reflective of the times than the campaign for District 5 on the Central Valley School District board.
It pits primary winner Pam Orebaugh, a nurse who opposes mask and vaccine mandates, against retired teacher Stan Chalich, a supporter of the current measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 who is mounting a write-in campaign.
Chalich acknowledged the challenge of a write-in campaign, but supporters are counting on his name familiarity and the fact that only 25% of eligible voters cast ballots in the primary.
Also on the ballot – officially, at least – is Rob Linebarger, who finished second to Orebaugh in the August primary but has since thrown his support to her.
Meanwhile, Linebarger is leading a recall effort against the three board members who aren’t up for re-election. Conservatives also have a write-in candidate at Position 2 in Bret Howell.
Not surprisingly, the Position 5 campaign is dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s been handled by those in power: Gov. Jay Inslee and the current Central Valley board.
Even more in tune with the times, the Orebaugh-Chalich campaign is being waged less with yard signs than with daggers on Facebook and other social media.
In a Facebook post on Sept. 9, Orebaugh wrote of Chalich: “Please help pass the word he is liberal and against any changes to protect our kids.”
Chalich said he’s trying to bring school politics back to a more civilized era. He cited the Aug. 23 board meeting – when directors abruptly adjourned after some attendees refused to wear masks – as the catalyst for his decision to run.
However, his website includes sharp commentary by retired doctor Jerry LeClaire, who criticizes Linebarger’s allies by saying their “critical reading skills are so poor they cannot read the writing on the wall of the rathole into which they have descended.”
In an interview last week, Chalich referred to Orebaugh’s followers as a “radical group trying to push their interests down your throat.”
Again referencing the Aug. 23 board meeting, he likened the anti-mandate bloc as bullies.
“I don’t like bullies,” Chalich said. “Compromise is the key to democracy.”
However, Orebaugh said her supporters believe that the bully is Inslee.
“We’re being labeled as right-wing extremists, but all we’re asking for is to follow the Constitution, and our Constitution says we have a three-tiered government, not a governor who does everything by himself.”
At the same time, Orebaugh acknowledges that the board is limited by the mandate and the threat by the state superintendent’s office to withhold funding to districts that defy it.
“I can see where the school board is on this,” Orebaugh said. She urged the board to “try harder” in what she described as vague state laws on how far any school board could go in defying the mandate.
The race is dominated by the issue of masks in schools.
Orebaugh, a member of the nursing faculty at the Washington State University College of Nursing, said she believes parents should have the final say in whether their children wear masks in school. She also opposed Inslee’s vaccine mandate for public employees. Orebaugh said she is “not representing WSU or speaking for WSU in my stances.”
Regarding masking, “I’ve actually done the research,” Orebaugh said.
“I wear a mask at the hospital, but I know how to properly wear it, and it has a high efficacy,” Orebaugh said. “But when we’re talking about a kid wearing cloth masks that are filthy … plus, they don’t know how to wear the mask, and that may be more harm than benefit.”
Chalich bristles at that argument.
“What does it hurt me to put on a mask if I’m protecting you,” said Chalich, who retired in 2017 after almost five decades as a teacher and coach at Central Valley High School.
“My interest has to be your interest, and for all of the students in our community,” Chalich said. “I will follow whatever the local and state guidelines are.”
Among groups that agree that masks should be required in schools is the American Academy of Pediatrics.
One of the largest studies on masking in schools during the pandemic, completed by a coalition led in part by the Duke University School of Medicine, concluded that “proper masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent secondary transmission in schools when COVID-19 is circulating and when vaccination is unavailable.”
Chalich’s roots in the community go deep; he grew up in a fruit orchard just one block from the high school he would teach at for 49 years.
“Personally, it was never a job,” Chalich said. “I always loved my students.”
Chalich said he valued the give-and-take of civics classes. “You always have your say, buy not necessarily your way,” he said.
The candidates are also split on other issues. Orebaugh said she’s skeptical about the district’s commitment to “high-quality education that doesn’t have indoctrination.”
“I have a strong relationship with Jesus and I’m a strong Christian,” Orebaugh said. “But when the schools start teaching against our belief system … that’s not your job.”
On transgender issues, Orebaugh said “I feel sorry for those people who are confused that way. I’m not putting judgment on them at all, I’m just saying don’t tell my child what they should be when God made them a girl or God made them a boy.”
She’s also unconvinced that critical race theory isn’t being taught with Central Valley, however furtively, in district schools.
Chalich was blunt on the subject. “It’s not being taught,” he said.