WASHOUGAL — Usually, there’s a bit of a divide between school board members and their constituents.
Per state law, community members are given three minutes to share thoughts with the board on whatever they please during a meeting’s public comment section but can’t engage in back-and-forth conversation or debate. Though intended to discourage heated argument — an effort many board members are appreciative of — it does make it difficult to have a heart-to-heart with community members, especially when times are tough.
In recent weeks, the Washougal School District’s superintendent and board of directors have sought to break down that barrier with a series of “listening sessions” at various schools and off-site places in the community. The goal, district leaders said, was to present a much more casual environment to learn and ask questions about the state of the district.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Washougal High School’s library played host to such an event — drawing a dozen or so community members to speak one on one with board members and district leaders about whatever they please, whether that be concerns about the recent levy failure, suggestions for better outreach and more.
“When the levy failed, I had a responsibility to dig deep and ask critical questions about why it happened,” said district Superintendent Mary Templeton. “What do we need to do differently to communicate the excellent things going on every day in our classrooms? We are having a struggle trying to get that out to the community, because the community doesn’t live in the schools.”
Learning key lessons
Templeton, who spoke candidly about the stark reality of a possible double levy failure last month, agreed that the district’s levy failure at the Feb. 14 special election was somewhat of a “wake-up call” in the sense that she and other leaders needed to be doing more to speak with the community and combat misinformation.
“I’m hearing from some people voting yes for the levy, asking what they can do for help. Some people completely sharing things unrelated to the levy. Some people asking whether we’re doing critical race theory, and we’re not,” she said.
“There’s a lot of disproving misinformation, but we get to sit down and talk about that. And we get to say it’s not a new tax and that for the last 40 years, we’ve had uninterrupted levies running just about every three years to provide what the state hasn’t paid for.”
With 47.03 percent of 5,216 voters supporting the measure in last month’s election, just a few hundred votes separated the district from passing the measure, which would provide about 20 percent of its annual budget. The biggest pieces that would fall away in the event of a double failure would be support staff for counseling and nursing, athletics and other extracurricular activities, and other teacher positions.
Jim Cooper, a board member who spent time speaking with community members on Tuesday, said he learned that much of the dissent they’ve seen in the community has stemmed from either a misunderstanding of the levy as a replacement measure and a general frustration with the still-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know times are tight for everyone,” he said. “We still hear a lot of unhappiness about COVID. There’s a desire that the board would have overruled public health in those decisions, which I’m not personally comfortable with.”
Among the lengthy list of problems caused by the pandemic, Templeton said one of the issues she struggled with most was being unable to speak directly with her staff and community in the way she was used to. Years ago, the district held regular events similar to the listening sessions called “linkage meetings.” Templeton, too, held her own such events, from “Coffee with Mary” to “Tea with Templeton” to try to get to know people better.
Going forward, Templeton said she hopes the board can make these events a regular feature in the district to run in tandem with the traditional board meetings, as opposed to temporary outreach triage after a levy failure.
“When I arrived, I said I wanted to make myself available,” she said. “This is the next iteration of (previous similar events). It’s a good opportunity for us to practice listening, just like we teach our students.”
Washougal’s replacement levy will run for a second time at the upcoming April 25 special election. If it fails a second time, the district will have to wait until 2024 to run such a measure again.