Holding true to a promise it made in August, the Redmond School Board on Tuesday voted to take the next step in a fight against the state to regain local control over COVID mask and vaccination rules.
In a special school board meeting Tuesday night, board members voted 4-1 to hire Thenell Law Group, a Portland-based law firm that specializes in insurance-related cases. The district will meet with the firm’s attorneys to discuss potential litigation.
Chair Shawn Hartfield, Vice-Chair Michael Summers and board members Jill Cummings and Keri Lopez voted in favor of retaining outside legal counsel, while director Liz Goodrich was opposed.
Students and staff in Oregon K-12 schools are required to wear masks indoors and all school staff is required to be vaccinated by Oct. 18th.
Some of the board members disagree with those mandates and have voiced opposition throughout the pandemic – in part because they believe the district could lose many staff members over vaccination concerns.
Summers said the decision doesn’t mean the district is “in defiance.”
Just before summer break ended, the school board approved a resolution calling for local control on mask and vaccination rules and said it planned to consider all avenues – even legal action against the state.
The resolution, drafted Summers and Hartfield, said the new mandates are opposed by a “significant” segment of the district and “present significant operational challenges for the district, including the potential loss of students and staff who oppose the mandates.”
But at the time, Superintendent Charan Cline stepped in to say the district would abide by all the state mandates and students would return to class masked up.
And the district has said teachers will be laid off if they aren’t vaccinated by the Oct. 18th deadline.
The COVID situation in Deschutes County has worsened since the resolution passed.
In late August, the county reported 1 in 66 residents had COVID. As of Monday, that number had fallen to 1 in 26 residents.
As of Tuesday, 56 students and seven staff members are COVID positive, according to the district’s dashboard.
According to a fee agreement with the law firm, the district has paid a $5,000 retainer fee and would pay attorney fees of up to $350/hour.
Goodrich asked the board if that was a wise use of district money, saying “I’m not sure how this benefits our kids.”
“The court of appeals dismissed a lawsuit last week, challenging the governor,” Goodrich said. “That lawsuit was in the courtroom for 14 months and I’m just curious to the rest of the board’s appetite for the potential bill that is going to come at $350 an hour and a $5,000 retainer.”
Last month, Cline moved to have a Terrebonne fourth-grade teacher fired for not following the mask rules.
The school board voted against the termination, putting the long-time educator on paid administrative leave while it considered next steps.
When asked if he agreed with the board’s decision to hire outside legal counsel and pursue litigation, Cline declined to say.
“The board passed a resolution to pursue its interest in a return to local control. This is the next step in that board business,” he said in a statement to Central Oregon Daily News. “The Redmond School District continues with its efforts to keep schools open and safe so that kids can learn every day.”
The district already contracts with the High Desert Education Service District for attorney services.
But the board has requested additional legal assistance for this case.