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Debbie Ethell: Voters need to hold elected officials accountable for absolutely disastrous decision making.

Debbie EthellWe are within weeks of the next Oregon City School Board election, after what many of us consider an absolutely disastrous decision-making year by the current school board.

In just the past year alone, five investigations have been opened into the district's handling of female student complaints by every single governmental agency that oversees such things. The conclusion of the first investigation resulted in four ethics violations against Oregon City High School Equestrian Coach Angie Wacker, setting a record for the most violations against a coach at one time in Oregon history. Yet the OC School Board concluded, prior to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission's findings, they saw nothing wrong with the current situation. Obviously, something was very, very wrong.

OC School Board members based their findings on an investigative report prepared by OCHS Athletic Director Andy Jones, whose mission it was to investigate the egregious claims made against a coach under his authority. A public records request revealed several emails between Mr. Jones and Coach Wacker, and this exposed a bombshell. The entire body of Mr. Jones's six-page report (with the exception of the introduction and conclusion), nearly every single word, sentence and phrase was lifted in its entirety from seven separate emails sent to him by Coach Wacker — the subject of the investigation. The district admitted that Mr. Jones had, in fact, lifted a sentence or two (not five total pages of the report) from emails sent to him by coach Wacker without attribution defending the plagiarism as "the appearance of an error," which also appears to be quite the understatement.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Mr. Jones forgot to change several pronouns in the report making it glaringly obvious to anyone who read it that the words were clearly not his own. This begs the most obvious question of all ... Did anyone on the school board actually read the report?

I wanted to understand why the female student-athletes were not listened to and why it is acceptable for a school official to plagiarize and falsify a report when it would be an expellable offense if a student did the very same thing.

Martha Spiers is the only school board member running for reelection. She describes herself as being "retired from a career in behavioral health crisis management" and a social worker dedicated to the "respectful treatment for people." Yet she violated a state law when she "voted to sustain the investigative findings and resolution of Andy Jones," as she put it. She's now the focus of a second ethics investigation.

We have to do better than this. As a society. As parents. As advocates. So I decided to email every candidate who is running for a current school board seat and ask them the same four questions: 1) How would you handle a situation similar to this if you are elected to the OC School Board; 2) Would you take the time to read any/all investigative reports provided to you ... and what steps would you take if you discovered the report was falsified? 3) How comfortable do you feel standing up to fellow board members if you disagree on an issue? 4) Will you make a commitment to understanding/reading school district policies and ensure they are followed as they are written?

With the questions, I enclosed a copy of Mr. Jones' falsified report highlighting every word and sentence he plagiarized. I included the emails he copied (all available in the public domain), so there was no need to take my word for it.

The question as to whether anyone on the board realized the report provided to them was a falsified document remains that to this day ... a question. So I asked Ms. Spiers: Did you, in fact, read Andy's investigative report prior to taking a vote? She declined to answer any of my questions specifically but did issue a statement that she "would like nothing more than for the public to have a full accounting of the circumstances around the complaint."

As for taking an illegal vote, she stated she was "embarrassed that it happened and deserve whatever sanctions we receive from the ethics commission on that score." This newspaper is seperately printing her full response.

One has to wonder, though, since the current school board, including Ms. Spiers, continues to stand by the behavior of this volunteer coach and continue to defend the actions of the athletic director, just how many more investigations are to come? I've never heard of a school board being under the umbrella of so many investigations at one time and yet still refuse to make a single change. Perhaps the answer is that it's time to make that change ourselves by casting a vote in the upcoming school board election. Here is what our candidates had to say:

Jeana Gonzales (running for Position 4) declined to comment due to "pending litigation" even though there is no current lawsuit filed against the school district. I asked if she would like to comment on the three questions that do not pertain to the current situation whatsoever. She chose not to update her original statement, citing "incomplete information."

Jason Kemmerich (running for Position 3) also issued a statement that did not respond specifically to my questions, saying, "As a school board candidate who was not on the board at the time of these events, I believe that it is imperative that we caution individuals on passing judgment before knowing all the facts. I do believe this is still an open investigation with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, and we should have confidence in the professionals who are conducting it. I plan to review the details when they are released in the near future." I reminded him that the only "ongoing ethics investigation" involves the one in which the current school board members held an illegal vote, which they admitted to. The ethics investigation into coach Wacker (and the entire reason the school board is in this mess in the first place) concluded in four separate convictions on Jan. 29. I also encouraged him to answer the questions that had nothing at all to do with the coach. He declined to do so by simply copying and pasting his original statement adding only: "As the request below only includes some articles and not all the information that board members would have had access to; I would be remiss in my future duties casting a judgment without all the information."

David Burkhardt (running for Position 6) was the only candidate who responded by silence. Ironically, these three candidates were all endorsed by Ms. Spiers, which doesn't seem like something one would want to shout from the rooftops. All of the other candidates did take the time to answer my questions, however. Though I am not able to print their responses in their entirety, I have sent each candidates' full reply to the editor of this newspaper for posting online in case anyone is interested in reading the unedited responses for themselves.

Michelle Stroh, (running against Martha Spiers for Position 1), said she was "deeply concerned" about the future of the district based on the conduct of the current board. She is running for a seat on the board because of the recent ethics investigations, saying, "If you chose to step up to take on a leadership role in the community, you must be willing to stand up for what is right and not take the easy way out of the situation." As a daycare provider with children in the district, she felt motivated to run for public office, having never done so before.

Debbie Hays, (running against Jeana Gonzalez for Position 4), said the board "is supposed to be in charge of the superintendent and officials at the district, not the other way around." The mother of three young children who works full-time as a senior buyer for an optics manufacturing company stated prior to running, she had already taken the time to "start looking into what my role and responsibilities would be if I won the seat." A challenge she gladly accepted. "If you [don't] agree with something, then it is your right to stand up and change ..."

Mike Canchola, (running against Jason Kemmerich for Position 3), is a local contractor as well as the current president of the Oregon City Youth Football Association. He shared a story about a young boy on his team who was being bullied by other players and how he worked with parents in the community to lift the young boy up.

"It is our responsibility as parents, as adults, to stand up for these kids," he said. "I may not know the district policies by heart, but I will make a commitment to learn as much as I can about them before I take a seat on that board."

Mandi Philpott, (running against Lynsey Smith, David Burkhardt, and Rob Clamp for Position 6), is a managing partner in the Gladstone-based law firm Schaleger Philpott, whose specialty is child advocacy. Though reluctant to comment on anything specific, she agreed to respond to my questions in a general way. "Individuals in (public positions) who engage in a breach of trust by conducting themselves unethically ... should be held accountable by the Board for their actions." As someone who has dedicated her life to "advocating for kids" who has children of her own in the district explained she has "no difficulty ... navigating interactions with fellow board members or the superintendent on any issues; whether I agree or disagree with that person's position."

Lynsey Smith, (running for Position 6), is currently in her sixth season as the varsity cheer coach at Ida B. Wells High School (formerly known as Wilson High School) in Portland. She acknowledged that "athletics and extracurricular activities... have a monumental impact on the growth of our young people... I will strive to repair relationships and continue to promote positive experiences for students..." A former computer teacher, this is also her first time running for office, with two children currently living in the district. Though she gave the shortest answers of any candidate, she did give her commitment to learning and understanding current policies and speaking up if she felt they weren't being followed.

Finally, Rob Clamp (running for Position 6) was appointed to the current school board in order to fill the position vacated by Scott Dahlman in March. He spent his youth traveling the world as a US Air Force officer, is currently a general manager at Dave's Killer Bread, and has two daughters in the OC School District. This appointment is also his first foray into politics. As for entering under a dark cloud of controversy after every investigation had already been opened against the previous board he explained, "As a new board member currently serving on the board, I feel it is my obligation to learn all the policies as quickly as possible... to ensure I can do the best job to represent all students in the district equally and fairly."

Each of the six members who took the time to answer my questions made a pledge to learn as much as they could about current district policies and procedures to avoid anything of this sort from ever happening again. And more importantly, each of them also made a commitment to stand up to one another because, at the end of the day, these positions aren't about friendships or alliances, they are about standing up for our kids, standing up for our girls, and standing up against corruption.

We need to hold our public officials accountable, but how do we do that if they duck and dodge and refuse to answer our questions? It is by voting that holds them accountable. It is by voting that we elect change. It is by voting that we send a strong message that the current direction the school board is going is not OK, and if they refuse to change then we, as a public body, have a responsibility to elect those who will.

West Linn resident Debbie Ethell is the author of "The Will of Heaven" book series.


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