Hood River County School District board meeting Sept 22, 2021

Protesters bring signs into the Sept. 22 board meeting.

HOOD RIVER — A group of protesters calling for “medical freedom” outside the Coe Administration Building in Hood River Sept. 22, garnering honks by passersby as those arriving for the Hood River County School Board meeting entered the building.

Attendance to the meeting was initially limited to 22 people, not including board or administration members, with chairs set up 3-feet apart to ensure social distancing.

As more than a dozen mostly masked protesters filed into the meeting room with their signs, they began pushing chairs together and added additional chairs that had been stacked in a corner, increasing public seating capacity to around 40.

“First I just want to say thank you everybody for coming — always appreciate the having the public come and chat with us and let us know what you’re thinking,” Board Chair Chrissy Reitz said. “We live in a small town, we’re all neighbors, our kids go to school together, so we’re going to be very respectful of people in their comments. We’re really going to try to do what the school board meeting is meant to do, and that’s a business meeting of our board.”

Reitz noted board members are volunteers and said, “I want to make sure their time is really well used. We’re going to keep the meeting moving along. We’ve got a lot of public comments tonight so again, let’s make sure we’re really respectful of everybody, and I appreciate that.”

The meeting began as usual, with a vote on the revised agenda, communication from Superintendent Rich Polkinghorn and “Recognition and Good News” by Human Resources Director Catherine Dalbey.

Polkinghorn gave an update on in-person instruction, four strategies for using American Rescue Plan relief dollars — the district’s allocation is just over $4.9 million — and the need for more bus drivers, instructional assistants, substitutes, custodians and kitchen helpers.

Dalbey introduced a group of professionals developing skills in various departments, some of whom are current employees pursuing career goals within the district.

Also as usual, public comment was opened after Dalbey’s report. Ten people signed up to give comments to the board, and Reitz read a short statement, also found on the agenda made available for those in attendance, regarding the board’s policy (see sidebar, “Public comment policy,” at left).

Reitz added that those unable to comment during the 30-minute period were welcome to return to a future meeting to speak. Board Member Jen Kelly kept track of the three-minute allotments. Speakers were called forward the order in which their public comment forms were received.

Topics ranged from the need for testing in schools to keep all students to a high and vigorous standard, against Critical Race Theory and for prayer in schools.

At one point, when the timer ran out, Christine Rigel stood and asked to cede her three-minute comment period to the current speaker, which was denied. Rigel continued to request the transfer of her time, which was denied.

Rigel then spoke against mask mandates, calling them muzzles. “I’m disappointed in you dumbing down our kids and suffocating them,” she told the board. “They deserve better than this. And you guys are, you know, we brought you in here. And there’s enough of us in due time, if you don’t listen, we’re going to keep coming back and we’re going to keep coming back and one at a time, y’all will be gone.” The protest group responded by clapping.

Reitz said, “Remember, we’re talking about district policy not personnel,” to which Rigel replied, “I am. We’re here and we’ll take you out.”

As Reitz called the next speaker forward, she said, “I really don’t want to have to clear the room, so let’s just try to be respectful of who’s speaking and also of who’s listening because we really want to hear what people have to say.”

The group remained mostly quiet for the next two speakers, one of whom suggested an anti-bullying curriculum be adopted. Another suggested the crowd stand instead of clap when they agreed with something, then commented on conditions at the high school, specifically during lunches.

Vince Wilson spoke next. “Before my comments, there’s a point of order I’d like to make to clarify the record for this public meeting and to address a statement that was made at the opening from Chairperson Reitz. She stated that this open forum is primarily for the business of the board and then if we can get in the comments here and that is categorically not true. This is a public forum for the people who are sitting here this evening. This is the precedence. You sit on a board by our consent. And so you listen to this — this is our public forum. The second point of order is that you stated an admonishment that we will be respectful in our comments. I think people are here to talk about their rights. We don’t need to be admonished by the board on how we respond to this governing board. We can redress our grievances as we see fit against the government. I can sit here for three minutes and scream profanity if I choose to. I’m not going to because we’re civil, but we don’t need to be admonished on how we respond to a governing body. So I want to clarify the record for that.”

Wilson continued, saying that the board had taken an oath to support the United States Constitution and the Oregon Constitution, as well as district board policy, but “nowhere in there does it say you are mandated to uphold a mandate by the governor,” and that the district was acting unconstitutionally by forcing employees to choose between their freedom of religion and freedom of holding a job, which he called “property.”

“That is categorically illegal to do. If this comes to play by Oct. 19, just understand that if you will be committing a crime under title 18 of the United States code and that is deprivation of constitutional rights,” he said. “Secondly, if two or more of you have spoke about this mandate and it goes through and it’s in the open records request that will happen, two or more of you either through email, voicemail or talking of it, then you’re committing another crime, and that is conspiracy to commit deprivation of constitutional rights, and you’ll be held accountable for that. There’s no out for this. Secondly, if you do the first part of that —” at this point, Kelly told Wilson that he had 20 seconds remaining; Wilson asked if she was counting the point of order and Reitz clarified that they were counting his whole public comment.

“Oh, okay. Then I disagree with that and I won’t comply because that was a point of order for a public meeting,” Wilson said.

Wilson ignored repeated requests that he cede the floor, saying, “Do you understand how public forums work? I do not comply. I will finish my public statement.” Members of the protest group had risen to their feet and were vocally supporting Wilson.

The board chair then called a Stand at Ease, allowing for a pause without recessing. Four of the seven members assembled — two attending virtually and two attending in person — left the meeting; the two attending in person were escorted to separate rooms.

Reitz told the crowd, amidst growing tension, that in the State of Oregon, under the laws of school boards, the board did not have to hear public comment (see “Public meeting law,” at left). This was met with boos and shouts of “Nazi!” Some removed their masks. Eventually Wilson suggested he leave in order to allow the public comment period to continue, and Reitz agreed.

Board members who had left the meeting came back into the room, and three more speakers addressed the board.

After the public comment period, Reitz invited those gathered to stay for the rest of the meeting.

“I appreciate all of you speaking,” she said. “I really always like for us to have civil conversations. We want to make sure we can hear everybody speak. And I’d really encourage you to stay. We actually do a lot at our meetings and they’re not just for public comment. They actually are for us to get business done of the school district and we talk about a lot of the things that you’re talking about, so would love to have you stay and listen to the board part of the meeting. And we’re always accessible online as well.”

Most of the crowd left after the public comment period, and the meeting proceeded without further disruption.