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Oakridge Community Petitions for Removal of Superintendent Due to Pandemic Response

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Oakridge School District

Community members in the Oakridge School District are petitioning to remove Superintendent Reta Doland after staff said she hasn’t supported them during the pandemic.

It wasn’t until roughly nine days before Oakridge teachers started their first day of work in August, that teachers learned they would not be able to work from home. That was a hard decision for some, like English and Spanish teacher Karen Batten, who has a child of her own who needs to be monitored during distance learning.

“Because it is a pandemic and we’re being encouraged to keep our contacts as small as possible and school is not open, I didn’t want to put my 10-year-old into any kind of childcare and expose all of my family some more,” said Batten.

Once Oakridge teachers heard the news, many asked if they could keep work logs or work while having oversight—such as by having an administrator randomly join and monitor their remote class. Teachers also asked if they could bring their own children to school so they would not be home alone. Both of these suggestions were denied, and teachers said they were provided little explanation from Doland.

So despite sharing their concerns with the superintendent, Batten said teachers only had two choices—return to school and scramble to find childcare, or take a leave of absence.

“One of my biggest complaints is that I feel like the district does not offer us any strong rationale for their point of view,” said Batten. “And then we give lots of solutions, they don’t even talk about those with us. They just say no.”

In total, four teachers decided to take a 12-week leave of absence using the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). And two of those teachers, including Batten, decided to take a year-long unpaid leave of absence with no insurance.

Batten said it wasn’t an easy decision. After teachers were called into a meeting and notified they could use their sick days to supplement their pay more than the district originally explained, teachers only had two hours to decide their course of action.

“It [didn’t] give us time to negotiate and bargain or tell her our rationale,” said Batten. “And it [didn’t] give us time to make the best informed decisions.”

These are some of the reasons teachers have been speaking up at school board meetings over the past few months. But Batten said providing a public comment during a meeting, especially when it is not in favor of certain decisions, can be worrisome to say the least. Which is why some teachers have said they are scared to speak out publicly for fear of backlash from Doland.

“The superintendent is our boss and the board is kind of her boss,” said Batten. “And many staff members have spoken about there being—often somewhat subtle—retaliation happening already.”

And Batten has heard classified staff are having just as hard, if not a harder time, working with Doland.Which is part of the reason some Oakridge School District employees have left. Batten’s heard the consideration of working conditions under Doland has been a big part of other teacher’s decision to either leave or think about leaving the district.

But Batten hopes things will start to change.

“What I personally am hoping happens next is that the whole community becomes more aware of this,” said Batten. “Because I see this as a good example of a bigger district problem that we need to address.”

In fact, Oakridge community members held a rally and started a petition last week, asking for the removal of Doland. And Batten said the support of parents and community members makes her hopeful progress will be made.

“I think parents are likely to have more impact with the board than we have," said Batten. "And I feel hurt that they’re not listening to us because I’ve worked for them [for] 14 years and I’ve done a good job. And there’s every reason they should trust and listen to me, but I’m glad that the parents are activated in the community now.”

Community members plan to advocate on behalf of Oakridge staff during the next virtual school board meeting on Dec. 14 at 6:00 p.m.

Elizabeth Gabriel is a former KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She is an education reporter at WFYI in Indianapolis.