School Board approves contract for interim superintendent, hears staff concerns

The Edmonds School District Board of Directors listens to public comments.

The Edmonds School District Board of Directors at its Tuesday, June 14, meeting unanimously approved the contract for the district’s new interim superintendent Dr. Rebecca Miner.

The school board announced in late April it was extending an offer to Miner, who previously served as superintendent for the Shoreline School District. Her appointment gives the district time to find a permanent replacement for current Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas, who is leaving for a job with the Beaverton School District.

Currently, Miner is only set to serve as superintendent for the 2022-23 school year. The board is hoping to appoint a permanent replacement before the end of that time.

In addition, the school board heard from over 10 community members who spoke on a variety of topics during the public comment period.

Many chose to speak about the physical education (PE) department in the district. With the school district cutting the Teacher On Special Assignment (TOSA) to .1 – around four hours a week – next year, many PE teachers are wondering why physical education is being pushed to the wayside.

A TOSA is an experienced teacher who steps outside the classroom to take on a specialized role, such as focusing on the department’s curriculum to ensure it’s fitting students’ needs. Teachers who spoke Tuesday night noted that the PE department doesn’t even have a curriculum.

“We just feel like with a district that talks a lot about equity, that it would be equitable for physical education teachers as well to have that leadership [of a Teacher on Special Assignment],” said Anita, a PE teacher in the district.

Anita’s colleague Nichole also spoke, asking how a TOSA is supposed to get any kind of work done if they only have four hours a week to help teach as well as try to conduct learning plans and grade students’ performance.

The teachers voiced their concern for the students, saying those who are healthy and active are also successful. Susan, another district PE teacher, said most adults remember PE as being fun and full of games.

“Elementary physical education is not about games at all,” Susan said. “It’s about skill development. It’s about learning the skills that make competent and confident movers. It is these skills that will allow us to be active for life.”

Susan asked the board how teachers are supposed to teach kids those important skills if there is no curriculum, hardly any TOSA help and no full-time director for health and education in the district.

“Without TOSAs, we are a ship without a rudder, a plane without a pilot,” another PE teacher, Heather, said.

The teachers asked the board to look into this and at the very least, keep the same hours a TOSA is provided to the department, rather than cutting it down next year.

The board of directors also heard from more teachers regarding the special education department. Earlier this year, a letter from multiple special education teachers, aids and parents was read at the meeting highlighting the toxic work environment and the danger that district administration was putting children in by leaving classrooms understaffed.

A woman who was not a special education teacher, Patricia, stated that multiple teachers had asked her to read their letter as they feared retaliation by administrators if they spoke themselves.

Patricia talked about the dangerous and likely illegal situations teachers were being put in by the lack of classroom staffing. One teacher may have up to 26 special education students to oversee on their own, she said.

“This makes it impossible for each student to get the education they are entitled to,” Patricia said.

After the first letter was read in March, district administration conducted listening sessions where teachers and aides were allowed to voice their concerns and make requests for bettering the department.

While some were hopeful they would finally be taken seriously, Patricia said teachers instead were directly mocked by administration. According to teachers, multiple members from the administration copied a popular TikTok trend, putting a tiny backpack on their shoulders and dancing around, saying “This is how much patience I have left,” while making crude hand motions.

“No apology was issued for these actions,” Patricia said.

In addition to being mocked, she continued, teachers have continued to feel ignored and abandoned. Administration have ignored multiple staff phone calls, don’t show up to scheduled meetings, make fun of them when they do speak up and continuously make department decisions without any staff input.

“This is both illegal and a safety concern,” Patricia said. “Staff [continue to] report a hostile attitude or retaliation if they express their concerns or disagreement. Never before in my 10 years in this district have I had staff reach out to me this way, or really at all.”

In their letter, special education teachers pleaded with the board to open an investigation into the administration and the department. If conditions continue in this fashion, teachers wrote, many more would be putting in their resignation letters.

At the end of the meeting, Balderas gave a brief answer to the teachers from both the physical and special education departments.

“As it has been stated numerous times since the start of the pandemic: we cannot make any more staff,” he said. “I cannot make any more para[educators]. I cannot make any more nurses. I wish I could. But they’re just not here. I understand the concerns that people have. We are short staffed. We cannot find more people. A few weeks ago, there were around 70 unfilled positions in the district.”

Balderas said the board is doing everything it can to fill these positions, but with funding being reduced every year, the district can’t afford to create any more staff positions.

Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas responds to requests for more staffing in the classrooms.

Another public commenter named Kyrie came before the board to discuss the recent attacks on transgender students and Pride parades around the country during pride month. Kyrie also talked about individuals running for political office who have recently made comments that all transgender people should be executed.

“When we are spoken of in a way that [implies] we are some kind of unknowable thing or that we don’t matter, you cannot be surprised when someone decides to take these [ideas] literally,” Kyrie said. “Please, think before you speak.”

Director Keith Smith agreed with Kyrie, saying Pride Month has nothing to do with flaunting “homosexual sex” in people’s faces.

“Members of that community have been systematically oppressed for thousands of years,” Smith said. “And we’re not just talking about, ‘Oh they’re told they can’t have jobs,’ which also happened. We aren’t just talking about the fact that the mere intimacy that they had up until 1993 was criminalized. They were disenfranchised. Police officers would go into places where they were, throw them out, beat them up and then put them in jail. [We’re not talking about] any of that stuff. I’m talking about the fact that there have been people in this country who have used someone’s sexuality as a reason to actually, physically attempt to kill them. Pride isn’t about celebrating all this other stuff. It’s about acknowledging their right to live. And to live the way they are born to live.”

Director Deborah Kilgore agreed with Smith.

“It is important to us to make every student in the district feel like they belong,” she said.

Many other public commenters brought up the topic of safety, in lieu of multiple recent school shootings.

Balderas answered these commenters directly, saying the district has already begun discussions with the Edmonds police chief as well as the Edmonds mayor to decide the best plan of action, should issues arise.

Director Smith also weighed in on the topic, stating that the problem cannot be fixed by adding more guns to the equation.

“There are lots of people saying, ‘Just stick a good guy with a gun in there and it’ll all be fine,’” he said.

However, Smith brought up an incident that happened in 2001, where two officers opened fire on each other because one did not recognize the other and thought he was a criminal who had stolen a police car.

“These are people with training in firearms,” Smith said. “The very same people that we say, ‘Maybe if we had more of them in our schools, they’d be able to stop the next mass shooter.’ But the reality is, it doesn’t always work that way. Adding more guns to our schools doesn’t increase safety when we’re worried about gun violence.”

Director President Nancy Katims said many schools in the district were built based on the California open school model, which people are realizing is no longer a safe option for students.

“These schools are not safe,” she said. “We want to rebuild these schools. But we need voters’ help.”

Katims also commended a student who recently alerted police of another student who made online threats of bringing weapons to school.

“That is the key to our safety,” she emphasized. “See something, hear something, say something.”

In other business, the board congratulated Mountlake Terrace High School for receiving the First Amendment Press Freedom Award for the ninth year in a row.

The award recognizes both public and private schools who actively support, teach and protect the First Amendment rights of teachers and students in the school system. To be considered for the award, journalism program adviser Vince DeMiero said staff and student editors must individually submit answers to two rounds of challenging questions about journalism and how the school upholds the First Amendment.

Mountlake Terrace High School has won nine of the 11 years the award has been offered.

DeMiero said he has heard many people scoff, saying the school must be affluent and know strings they can pull to earn the award. However, he said Mountlake Terrace is just like most other suburban high schools, but what sets it apart is the decision that’s been made to do things differently. DeMiero said the school doesn’t feel the need to censor the student newspaper, The Hawkeye, because nothing will change if nothing is brought to light.

Ritika Khanal, The Hawkeye’s co-editor in chief, said the school wouldn’t have been able to win at all if it weren’t for DeMiero’s leadership.

“Vince is way too modest,” she said. “We love that guy. He fights for everything to do with freedom of the First Amendment. We are so lucky to have him.”

Khanal said she’s glad to attend a school that lets students say it how it is.

“We get to tell the stories that are most important, that are at the center of what is going on in student life, without censoring issues,” she said. “[We write] without worrying about if what we’re saying is going to offend someone out there, because the answer is, it always will.”

The board of directors also received a student presentation and end-of-the-year update from Cedar Valley Elementary School.

Principal Leah Bracken said students have come such a long way in the year they have been back to in-person learning.

“The challenges have been vast and at times messy, but I see there’s nuance, beauty and a little complexity that can be found in the ‘mess’ of building a space where everyone belongs, feels valued as themselves and can do their best at that time,” Bracken said.

According to Bracken, many students were struggling immensely with their literacy skills after a year and a half of virtual learning. The school focused on creating robust class and small group exercises to help students catch up.

iReady, an online assessment tool, helped Cedar Valley teachers identify specific areas where each individual student struggled. Teachers were then able to build specific skill-building exercises for that child to help them as much as possible.

Now, at the end of the year, Cedar Valley has 33 students reading above their reading level, 23 reading at their reading level and 51 quickly approaching their goal level.

One student voiced her thankfulness for the customized learning plans teachers helped create to get students caught up on their reading skills.

“Cedar Valley accepts us even though we are all different in many ways,” she said. “Cedar Valley is diverse, but we support and accept everyone unconditionally.”

The board also received a status, budget and legislative report from staff.

Assistant Superintendent Greg Schwab said teachers are extremely excited about the graduations happening this weekend.

“It’s always the best part of the year for everyone,” Schwab said. “This is a group who has endured quite a bit and rain or shine, we want to send them off on the right foot.”

In addition, the board was notified that Snohomish Health District, which was once its own health district, has decided to become part of Snohomish County. The COVID-19 school teams that were dispatched through the health district will end on July 1.

COVID-19 cases in the school district have risen by 14.5% in the past two weeks and vaccination numbers have remained at approximately 70%. While it was anticipated that the district would be done with health screeners at the schools this year, they will now remain in the district through at least the end of the 2022-23 school year.

The Edmonds School District will also begin hosting meetings in the early fall to help the community understand what is being done in terms of safety. Law enforcement officers will be present to answer any questions the community may have about its policies and procedures.

–By Lauren Reichenbach

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