School district's new communications team sparks controversy
The Newberg School District is once again embroiled in a controversy — this time about the way it's been communicating with constituents, or more specifically, how it has not.
Since the beginning of the year, the district has experienced significant employee turnover, especially at the administrative level. Greg Koskela, the district's former communications coordinator and bond manager, is one of the most recent departures, having gone on medical leave in early summer and returning for a short time before leaving for good. His absence left Newberg public schools without a spokesperson for more than a month.
As the school district searched for his replacement, parents expressed concern about many unknowns for the upcoming school year, such as bus schedules, school start times, new hires and, most importantly, where to find this pertinent information.
Then, on Aug. 4, without prior notification to parents and families, a new district Facebook page appeared. Initially titled Newberg Schools Discussion, it was quickly renamed to Newberg Public Schools Community Forum. In the forum's first post, the page administrator described the page as a place "for community members, teachers, staff, students and their families to come together for civilized discourse, ask questions, seek or offer support, etc."
The district's other Facebook page, Newberg Public Schools, which has served as one mode of communication between the district and constituents, is listed as the forum's administrator.
Immediately, people began posting questions on the forum, especially pertaining to who was running the page.
It wasn't until Aug. 9 that those administrating the page, who for several days identified themselves solely as the district's new communications team, formally introduced themselves as a digital media company called Bridge & Bolster LLC.
"We are here for an interim period while Newberg School District searches for a permanent communications director …," the post said. "We are here to answer your questions about anything school related! We are working with Superintendent (Stephen) Phillips and his team at the district office to get answers to your questions in a timely manner. If we do not answer your question right away, please know that we are doing everything we can to ask the right person, so that we can give you the correct answer. We are new, learning, and appreciate your patience …"
The next day, Bridge & Bolster officials further identified themselves via comment on a forum post as McMinnville residents Rosalie Lynn Ayers-Etherington and Michelle Ann Walker, providing a link to proof of the business's registration.
According to the information provided, Bridge & Bolster had been registered as business since July 28, only seven days prior to the founding of the district's new forum. However, Ayers-Etherington said she and Walker have worked as independent contractors for several years in the "digital media and communications spectrum."
"We met a while back, found that we worked well together, and decided to merge our businesses and talents," Ayers-Etherington said. "Bridge & Bolster is that company."
Ayers-Etherington also said she and Walker had been hired by Phillips and that they have an 11-month contract with the district.
What Ayers-Etherington didn't mention, however, is the duo's ties to current school board members.
In a Jan. 17 Daily Wire article about the school board's controversial ban on political symbols in classrooms, Ayers-Etherington is described as a co-founder of one of the groups opposed to the recall efforts earlier this year against school board chairman Dave Brown and vice-chairman Brian Shannon.
Walker has also been linked to anti-recall efforts, having hosted and moderated livestream Q&A sessions for Shannon and Brown during the recall election via her organization Open Schools USA's Facebook page.
On top of potential conflicts of interest, Ayers-Etherington's husband, Isaac Etherington, was also accused of racism by forum members after a screenshot resurfaced of him allegedly flashing an 'OK' sign — a gesture sometimes used as a white power symbol — during a two-minute speech he gave at a Zoom school board meeting last year.
On Aug. 15, district parent Jim Anderson emailed Phillips with some of these concerns, focusing particularly on the district's overall poor communication with constituents.
"First and foremost, I'd like to acknowledge your statement about there being a lack of communication in the district," Phillips said in his follow-up email. "I agree with you and understand your frustration with the absence of transparency. Please know that it is my priority to establish a consistent, clear, honest, two-way process of communication between myself, staff members, students, parents and community members. I have been working diligently with district staff as well as with Bridge & Bolster LLC to get these processes organized and ready to implement before our school year starts."
To improve communication in the future, Phillips said the district will be providing weekly digital newsletters, update videos and press releases to local media. The district website will also be updated, he said.
Phillips also attached the district's 11-month contract with Bridge & Bolster LLC, clarifying that the district opened the position of communications coordinator twice but did not receive much interest, with the applicant they intended to hire turning down the offer.
"Bridge & Bolster LLC reached out to me and asked if they could help," Phillips said in the email. "Bringing them on for 11 months not only saves the district a significant amount of money, but it also gives us more time to find the right person for the communications coordinator. Although this LLC was formed toward the end of July, it is being run by two professionals in the digital media and communications arena … Both of these women (Ayers-Etherington and Walker) have extensive resumes, with more than adequate experience in communications."
As for compensation for services, Bridge & Bolster will receive $7,000 per month, which is "well below the salary we would pay an employed communications director," but no health care benefits or PERS, Phillips said.
"This company is a temporary solution in our search for a permanent communications director," Phillips said. "We are grateful to have them here … The main driving factor in the decision to contract out Bridge & Bolster was the need to get our communication channel going, especially with the school year approaching. This company has some great ideas about ways we can build community, build bridges and find ways of working together. I'm confident that if you give them some time, you will feel more comfortable with them being here."
Addressing the new district Facebook page, Phillips said, "it was created in an effort to provide a place where parents and community members can have respectful dialogue and discussion."
However, Phillips said the district will be using many different methods to communicate with the public, not just the new page.
As for the accusations against Isaac Etherington, Phillips said he doesn't know the man personally but Phillips attached a letter Etherington sent to the board shortly after flashing the OK sign. In the letter, Isaac Etherington condemned racism and denied knowing the negative connotation behind the gesture, explaining that he is expressive with his hands when he talks.
In an email to the Graphic, Phillips denied that Ayers-Etherington and Walker were hired "due to any relationship or lack of relationship to the board," explaining they were selected solely because of their "experience and capability."
Phillips appears in video
On Aug. 22, Phillips announced in the first of his promised weekly update videos that the district would be opening a bidding process for the temporary communication position currently held by Bridge & Bolster.
"Just so everyone knows, this was always set out to be a pilot …," Phillips said in the video about the position, reiterating its 11-month duration. "This was a cost savings to the district. We figured we would save about 50% of what we had budgeted for this position, but social media has kind of taken off a little bit and we just want you to know we've listened … Anybody and everybody that qualifies, please apply, and we'll take it from there."
The bidding process opened on Aug. 22 and will close at 3 p.m. Sept. 6. The new contract will be from Oct. 1 through June 30, 2023.
In an email, Phillips clarified that Bridge & Bolster will be required to resubmit a bid for the Oct. 1 contract and, if not selected from the competition pool, the business's previous contract will be void.
"This will be done with their (Walker and Ayer-Etherington's) complete agreement and compliance," Phillips said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.