Superintendent, directors describe rural district issues


December 1, 2022

“Never settle” seemed to be the big message of the Wahkiakum School District Board of Directors meeting on November 22.

Superintendent Brent Freeman said that security updates were progressing at the district, and while he’d given so much thought to the electrical system and other things in the past, it was the doors that day that had him asking questions about decisions made over the years to settle for less in district facilities.

After finding outdated doors and hardware that was even older than the newest building on the campus, the middle school, Freeman asked, “Why would you put a substandard door on a brand new building?”

“It’s really easy to fall into this mentality of let’s just settle for this. It’s not what we want but let’s settle for it,” he said. “Not on my watch. We are not going to do that. Every time we turn around we find these old cases of where we’ve had to settle in the past.”

It’s not just a Wahkiakum story, he added.

The doors are just one more thing he wants to get right, whether it’s for safety, security, or an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issue.

“We’re going to focus on getting the right thing and go out and get a second grant and get it done and done right so whoever is sitting in this room 30 years from now is not saying, ‘They were settlers,’” Freeman said.

Directors commented about their presentation of the district’s lawsuit against the State of Washington at a breakout session of the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) conference in Spokane in mid-November.

They seemed pleased with the presentation and the response they received, but they also expressed frustrations about the failings of the Small School Forum, which had Freeman bemoaning the “lack of a rural voice.”

“Frustration, super high levels of frustration,” Director Patty Anderson said of the general feeling from rural districts at the conference. “We’ve got all these problems and we’re trying to solve them. And they are in the same boat, and we said that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing [with the lawsuit.]

Some districts are still reeling from the effects of covid-19 in their communities and the conflict that ensued and how they are trying to fix it.

Director Paula Culbertson said in one community, people stopped shopping at a store because of a disagreement over a response to covid-19.

“It’s about the fight, not the students,” Culbertson said. “I’ve not ever seen such a frustration level at this convention.”

The frustration seemed be about more than that.

“Running rural school districts is different,” Freeman said. “Two years ago, WSSDA had no recognition of rural issues at all. Last year, they had that rural piece, but it wasn’t very well done. This was better but it needs to be better than this.

“We allow ourselves to be divided and we don’t speak with unified voices around some of the priorities. I think one of the things I see the lawsuit opening a way for is better unification around what our rural agendas are.”

The board talked about letting WSSDA know that there needed to be more focus on rural schools, wondered how rural schools get representation on their advisory board, as well as the need for rural leadership.

“The rural piece is promising, I don’t want to lose it,” Freeman said.

In other business—

--The board held a public hearing on proposed changes to director district boundaries, and after receiving no public comment, approved the changes.

--After the last census, and discounting the two at-large positions, the boundaries for the three geographical director districts needed a minor shift to be more equal. Before the adjustment, there were 929 residents in the first district, 1,470 residents in the second district, and 1,157 in the third district. With the restructuring there are 1,188 residents in the first district, 1,195 residents in the second district, and 1,173 residents in the third district. Maps can be found on the Wahkiakum School District website.

--The 2022-2023 highly capable plan was approved. It was the same as the prior year, Freeman said. There are about 12 students in the district who are considered gifted, Freeman estimated. He said that the program might pay for a student’s advanced mathematics class at LCC, or allow them to pick up a second language.

--The board tabled discussion about a wellness committee because Culbertson wanted former Director Robin Westphall, who wants to be involved, to be in attendance before she nominated her.

--Freeman and Director Shawn Merz reported about an HVAC symposium they attended in Minneapolis and the potential systems that would be quieter and more efficient for the district.

--The public meeting was then closed for an executive session to discuss negotiations.


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