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Citizens implore Gervais board to reverse decision on condoms


Dozens fill room at Thursday's board meeting in protest of board decision to make condoms available to students in grades 6-12 next year

About 40 people attended last Thursday’s Gervais School Board meeting, many of them protesting the board’s recent decision to make condoms available to grades 6-12.

The decision was approved unanimously at the May 15 school board meeting, but community members beseeched the board to reverse its decision and to come up with an alternative solution to the district’s high teen pregnancy rate. The decision came after a study by nurses from the Oregon Health & Science University showed 30 percent of sexually active students in the district have had unprotected sex.

“I respectfully ask you to reconsider and to let the community be involved more,” Dina Miller, a longtime Gervais resident, said. “With this policy, you’re going into families’ homes and taking away the family’s power. Let us rather get on a team with you.”

Many suggested the board target the behavioral issue itself, rather than enabling it.

“Education should be about human sexuality and the integrity of that function,” Dr. Leo Rasca, of Salem, said. “Passing out condoms basically says ‘You can see a shrink later, but we’re promoting promiscuity now.’”

Another community member also said the policy infringed on parental rights.

“Staff can’t even hand out a cough drop to a student without written parental permission, but now this policy allows staff to hand out condoms,” Karen Orton said. “Families want to know what’s going on, but when you make decisions where parents are not involved, it takes their authority away.”

But board director Maria Caballero said there was ample time for community members to voice their opinions and be involved in the decision-making process, as it had been discussed at various meetings for more than a year.

“It’s very important parents and the public come to meetings,” she said. “Everything was posted on our website. There’s no excuse to not make it. This is where things happen.”

But people like Janet Weaver, who has a daughter at Gervais High School, said the board has always had her full support until this decision was handed down.

“We always figured you know how to take care of things,” she told the board.

“But this is only a temporary solution,”?Weaver continued. “There is a lack of integrity taking over the schools. If you can assume the responsibility of their birth control, then can you also take responsibility of their behavior?”

Board chair Brent LaFollette expressed his appreciation for the feedback.

“Although it was negative about our action, it’s input we didn’t have before,” he said. “And I welcome that because that’s what we’re about, representing the community.”

Only one community member of 19 spoke in favor of the board’s decision.

“A lot of work went into this policy,” Eloisa Colon said. “It took four years, and I was here. Ultimately, I am my child’s first teacher. With sex ed classes, I can decide if my child attends. I teach my children right from wrong. But a lot of kids don’t have that help; but they can go to their teachers for help.”

Superintendent Rick Hensel also read a statement leading into the public forum session of the meeting, pointing out that the details haven’t been completely ironed out yet as to what the distribution of condoms and the updated human sexuality policy for the 2014-15 school year will look like.

“This board would never intentionally enact a policy that would deliberately dismiss the views of someone outright or attempt to harm anyone in anyway,” he said. “They are attempting to make a very simple point: If students’ lives are being altered in a manner that, many people agree, creates difficulty for the student, the family and society, then they need to offer help.”

He later added that he there was no indication from board members that they would reverse the policy, but they would be eager to work with the community more in this area.

Savings from consolidation

Also at Thursday’s school board meeting, Hensel presented information on how much the district has saved in the past year by consolidating the K-12 district to one campus. By streamlining positions and lowering transportation and food service costs, the district has saved roughly $588,000. However, because voters turned down the ballot issue that would have paid for the consolidation in November 2012, the district took out a loan instead, so about half of those savings have to go toward paying off that loan.

“But that is still six teachers we would have had to cut if we hadn’t consolidated,” Hensel pointed out.

Hensel also covered concerns that came up in the first year of the newly consolidated district, namely space for the middle school students, whose gym has yet to be completed and who seem to be too big for the allotted space. The middle school was moved to a prefabricated building on the west side of the high school.

“It probably wouldn’t be as bad if we hadn’t brought the bigger furniture over from the old school,” Hensel said. “We also made the building with wider halls for the lockers.”

Overall, while it has been difficult to settle in, Hensel said it’s successful because they accomplished what they set out to do.

“I think of it as a success but I’m not thinking I’m proud of it because it’s still not complete,” he said. “It’s been tough, especially on teachers this year.”

Budget and union contracts

The year was also difficult because the district dropped two teachers due to a decrease in enrollment, as part of Thursday night’s approved budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. This meant letting go of the newest teachers, who received a large amount of parent and student support in the form of letters.

“My daughter’s attitude changed all because of (her teacher),” wrote one parent, which board director Molly McCargar read aloud. “She is such an excellent role model.”

The board also approved contracts with the licensed staff, which saw a 1 percent step increase plus a $30 increase to insurance, and classified staff members, which saw a 3.4 percent increase in wages. Board director Steve Rush abstained from voting.

“Nowhere in the private industry do you get a raise just because you’re still here,” he said, pointing out the quality teachers the district had to reduce while approving an increase in pay to those that remain.

The board also gave the go-ahead for the administrative team to move forward with using the allotted $40,000 toward new textbooks.

“We’ve deferred getting textbooks for three years because of other budget constraints,” administrator Ann O’Connell said. “The state requires us to update our textbooks every year. With the Common Core State Standards taking effect July 1, this would be a good time.”

Saying goodbye

The board meeting was also the last for Hensel, who is retiring as of June 30. He will be replaced by Matthew Henry starting July 1.

“Rick made my job as easy as it can possibly be,” LaFollette said during the meeting. “If you don’t have faith in the person you’re working with, it’s so much harder. But I’ve had faith in his integrity and also in shouldering the decisions of the district.”

Hensel thanked the board and district for the past seven years and assured he would stay in touch, even though he will likely be hard to reach in the next three or four months, as he and his wife have agreed to become interpretive rangers at a national park in New Mexico.

The next Gervais School Board meeting, in which Steve Rush will be the new chair and Molly McCargar will be vice chair, is scheduled for July 17.