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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: CV school politics turn parents meeting into bitter argument

It was advertised as a meeting for Central Valley School District parents, with all district taxpayers encouraged to attend: “The goal for this meeting is a civil discourse that is intended to build trust between parents, students, and district leadership.”

Before the Jan. 31 gathering began, though, several people – identified, they say, as “the enemy” by organizers – were asked to leave and in some cases shouted out of the room.

“I don’t remember ever being screamed at and berated like this,” wrote one district parent, Petra Hoy, who tried to attend the meeting. “There were also threats to call the police on us. … For attending a meeting that was advertised as open to all taxpayers? All of us in attendance are taxpayers.”

Hoy is one of a few people who were forced to leave the meeting. This included two members of the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force and one Spokane Valley City Council member. It wasn’t a legally public meeting, though new Central Valley School Board member Pam Orebaugh – who is closely aligned with the organizers – was there, and all board members had been invited.

“I was bewildered as to why I was asked to leave,” said James “JJ” Johnson, a member of the human rights task force and former candidate for the Spokane Valley City Council.

He said when he asked an organizer why, she told him, “This is my meeting and I want you to leave. If I have to, I’ll call the police.”

Welcome to school politics, circa 2022. As the culture wars have absorbed pandemic conspiracies and the backlash has grown against teaching accurate American history, school board meetings and parent organizations – once the province of pizza parties and fundraising drives for school supplies – have taken on the bile-drenched nature of our national politics.

We’ve seen it all over the region, and all over the country. Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers have shouted down school board meetings and forced boards to gavel meetings closed and go virtual. That happened to the Spokane School Board just Thursday night, when some people in attendance refused entreaties to put on a mask.

But Central Valley has been ground zero in the school culture wars around here.

Last year, a slate of energized, organized ultraconservative ideologues ran for school board against mask and vaccine mandates. One candidate, Rob Linebarger, called the pandemic a “big phony hoax.” The group pushed culture-war shibboleths, from critical race theory to sex-ed concerns to restoring prayer in schools. The elections were bitterly contested last fall, and there was a failed attempt to mount a recall effort against incumbents. One candidate from the anti-mandate ranks, Orebaugh, won.

Tensions have rippled through the whole district. School board meetings have been shut down by the belligerent refusal of some to follow state mask guidelines. One longtime school board member, Debbie Long, filed a police report over a vulgar threatening message she received. The principal of Ponderosa Elementary, frustrated and exhausted by COVID-19 related complaints, sent a letter to parents last fall pleading with them to be kind to her staff. And Superintendent Ben Small recently announced his retirement, though he did not cite crazy politics as the reason.

So tension at the January meeting was not, perhaps, the most surprising thing in the world. It was scheduled at the La Belle Vie in the Valley. Social media announcements indicated it was open to all.

“Please invite all CVSD taxpayers you know as this is so important for now and for our future generations,” wrote organizer Jessica Rider-Yaeger in a Facebook post.

An invitation under the banner of the CVSD Parent Coalition urged people to “Take back local control of our schools, parental rights and restore the American Dream for our kids.”

A separate invitation encouraged people to invite all school board members and described the agenda as dealing with district budget and policy, COVID-19 testing policy, transgender bathroom and gym policy, safety and security, and something relating to a MLK Day video. It was all about, these invitations said, transparency and civility.

Hoy, a district parent who has worked to support the schools and candidates who ran against the slate of conservatives, wanted to see what the meeting was all about. So did Linda Ball, another CV taxpayer, and several others who had been on the other side of the political divide, including Stan Chalich, a retired longtime CV teacher who ran a write-in campaign against Orebaugh.

“They booted me out first,” Chalich said.

One by one, others who had been on the opposite political side of the organizers in the elections were approached and asked to leave. After some resistance, Ball said that Rider-Yaeger called them “the enemy” and raised her voice, along with others, shouting: “Get out!”

Others asked to leave included Johnson and another member of the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force and Spokane Valley City Councilman Tim Hattenburg, according to several others in attendance. Hattenburg did not answer an email seeking comment.

Johnson said he attended the meeting out of interest over agenda items relevant to his service on the Human Rights Task Force – particularly one about transgender bathroom policy.

Attempts to contact Rider-Yaeger were not successful last week.

Orebaugh responded to a request for an interview with emails saying she was not involved with organizing the event, because she has separated herself from the group now that she’s on the board, and she emphasized it was a private meeting. It is common, she said, for people to be asked to leave private meetings.

When people were asked to leave, she said, they argued they had a right to stay, “including swearing and name-calling.”

She also said some people who were asked to leave took photos, which she called “intimidation and harassment.” She said she had filed a “crime check report” about this.

“The people that were there uninvited were the ones lying about myself and the group throughout the campaign,” she wrote. “They are not a part of the CVSD parent coalition and thus were asked to leave. I was not involved with asking them to leave. I did not speak to any of them.”

Hoy said she thought Orebaugh, as a member of the school board, should have stood up for the right of all district patrons to be there. Given the fact organizers made efforts to invite all school board members, the agenda was potentially of interest to any district patron.

“What would have happened if there were two school board members there, or three, or five, or (Superintendent) Ben Small?” she asked. “Would we still have been asked to leave?”

Chalich said he knew the organizers had been on the other side from him in the election and on issues generally, but he thought – as at other town hall gatherings or meetings of groups with a public policy focus – that people of differing opinions would be at least allowed to listen and participate.

He’s been a member of all kinds of organizations in his life, he said, from educational groups to homeowners associations.

“I’ve never been asked to leave any meeting,” he said. “Ever.”

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