WENATCHEE — Wenatchee School Board members agreed Tuesday to keep their schedule of planned public meetings entirely online, rather than reopening in-person meetings, until the Nov. 2 election has passed.
The agreement was by consensus rather than a recorded vote, with boardmember Julie Norton alone favoring in-person meetings. The board’s four other members cited a raucus Aug. 24 public meeting, in which audience members refused to wear masks in defiance of state COVID-19 requirements; and a Sept. 10 online threat made toward boardmembers Michele Sandberg and Maria Iñiguez over their stances on masking and education policy.
Norton had requested the topic be placed on Tuesday’s agenda, and proposed a partial return to in-person public meetings that allowed for remote sessions as needed. The discussion, with other members questioning and at times criticizing Norton’s response to the threat and the disrupted Aug. 24 meeting, took up 45 minutes of the two-hour meetings.
“I feel like that threat, even though we’re not getting active daily threats, it still concerns me,” Sandberg told fellow boardmembers in the Tuesday meeting.
“For, me it (that) we are a unified board,” Iñiguez said. ” … If there’s one of us that does not feel safe, then it shouldn’t be a question of whether we’re going to do hybrid or in-person.”
Norton, Sandberg and Iñiguez are up for reelection next month, with the latter two facing challengers who have voiced opposition to school mask and vaccination policies imposed by the state. Those challengers, Matt Van Bogart and Katherine Thomas, both appeared maskless at the Aug. 24 meeting. Norton faces a challenge from Miranda Skalisky.
The Sept. 10 threat report arose from an anonymous Craigslist post that referred to Sandberg and Iñiguez as “Marxist anti-Americans” and referred to state-ordered policy of requiring student masking as “child abuse.”
“The school board meeting is Tuesday sept. 14th at 6pm,” the post read. “Let’s give the Marxist hell, and if the cowards run and hide online, we have to take this fight to each ones house. Including the superintendent. And remember, no masks.”
Every school board meeting has been held remotely since Wenatchee police announced an investigation into the post. No arrests have been made.
“I do feel like we have some obligation,” Norton said Tuesday. “We have an open meetings regulation that requires, really, in-person meetings, with online meetings being sort of the exception allowed under these COVID times. I do not discount the concerns and fears. And so all I’m proposing, or would be on board for exploring, is some type of hybrid meeting, if there’s enough support for it. Because I do think we get a better outreach to our public, we have more diverse comments, we have more diverse audience participation.”
Norton said if audience members refused to meet public health requirements, in-person meetings could adjourn to remote, as happened during the disrupted Aug. 24 meeting. At that meeting, Norton proposed allowing school district staff to leave the room while boardmembers remained to hear the unmasked activists’ statements. Board president Laura Jaecks instead gaveled that meeting to a close and reconvened it online shortly after.
“I would like you to comment on your proposal at that meeting,” Jaecks asked Norton Tuesday.
“It was really meant to be a practical solution in that moment,” Norton said. “It didn’t mean to say that I don’t think we have to comply with mandates.”
Sandberg said the aborted meeting and the subsequent Craigslist post both appear politically motivated, with agitators trying to influence or intimidate the board. “I feel like that threat, even though we’re not getting active daily threats, it still concerns me. And I would agree that I don’t know if things will calm down until tafter the election. That’s kind of the big elephant in the room, right?
“So my comfort level would be that we wait until the election is done, and then we let folks know that we’re going to come back, if that seems to be right, if there’s no threats going on. But let the people vote, and we’ll see kind of where it goes.” She also suggested Norton, the spouse of Chelan County Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Norton, had not taken the Sept. 10 threat to fellow boardmembers seriously.
Iñiguez said she would lean toward in-person meetings, if they feature “zero tolerance for unmasked attendees” and a process for adjournment to an online meeting, but said the board meeting room at district headquarters might offer little security in the case of violence.
“Having virtual meetings are not a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act as they stand,” she said. “So I’m not sure what the concern is, Julie, in regard to saying that we’re not complying with the Open Public Meetings Act by being virtual. We are, because the proclamation allows.”
Boardmember Martin Barron endorsed a continuation of remote meetings. “I consider any threat to one of my board colleagues to be a threat to all of us, and what I think’s even more important, a threat to our whole board process,” he said. “… I welcome civic input, and in a perfect world would love the meetings to be in person.”
“We see that this is not a local problem, it’s not even a statewide problem, it’s a national problem and perhaps even worldwide,” Jaecks said Tuesday. “The idea of civil discourse and agreeing to disagree has devolved into an atmosphere where threats of violence have seemed to become the norm. And if we allow ourselves to be subjected to communications that come to us in that form, then in my mind, we are enabling that. I am not interested in being an enabler of people who threaten or who are intentional about perpetrating violence.”