School Stability

Board must continue self-assessment

What’s going on in the Hood River County Schools is more than “an unwanted distraction,” as Jan Veldhuisen Virk described the Jerry Sessions affair Wednesday.

Veldhuisen Virk, the School Board chairwoman, used the phrase in her meeting-opening statement Wednesday regarding Superintendent Sessions’ resignation.

Reading between the lines of Virk’s statement on behalf of the board, it appears that Jerry Sessions is all but finished in any real capacity with the district.

Witness Veldhuisen Virk’s comment, “In continuation of the remainder of the year, the Board accepts the additional responsibilities it will face. We acknowledge and accept that we must lead the district.” The specific reference is likely to the forthcoming teacher contract negotiations, among other tasks.

But it seems to suggest the parting of the ways, should that happen sooner than June. “Later this evening, the board will meet in executive session with our attorney to consider options in the face of these developments,” Virk wrote. (Executive session was held, but by law cannot be reported upon.) Virk went on, “Understand that when we conduct these discussions we will be keeping our obligation to provide Hood River County’s students with the best education possible ... “ (The full text is below in “Another Voice”.)

Language such as “options in the face of these developments” implies some action beyond patiently waiting out the year with Sessions nominally in charge. “A majority of the board felt that the relationship could not be repaired,” Virk’s statement read.

Is the board considering firing Sessions or some early-exit arrangement? It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to sense that some such agreement is on the minds of people in control at the school district. Outright firing is unlikely, and any other arrangement needs to be mutual between the board and Sessions. It must be, for the dignity of all involved.

A gentle, dedicated, and forthcoming man, Sessions is like a character in a Greek tragedy — an essentially good man whose fate it was to follow an unsavory, and undesired, path of his own downfall. His failure in Hood River could simply be the labyrinth he needed to work himself out of, bruises and all, to find a better position with another employer. The board’s comments suggest that this is likely to happen sooner than later.

But what about the School Board? What does the future hold for them? They, too, are earnest servants, some more experienced than others, still striving to perfect leadership, individually and collectively. They are not to be directly blamed for Sessions’ indiscretions, but the board should ask itself this question: where did the gap open that allowed a chief administrator to take a maverick action, even one he believed in the best interest of the district?

Wednesday’s meeting opened with Veldhuisen Virk’s unsettling remarks and ended with the closed-door executive session in which the board continued its discussion of disciplining Sessions. It’s not giving anything away to describe it as painful.

In between, Veldhuisen Virk found cause for optimism. “It’s exciting to see the board looking ahead,” she said after directors reported on a recent visit to Eugene Public Schools. That’s a good sentiment, but Virk and the other directors should also understand that it’s difficult for many district patrons to feel too forward-looking, with Sessions on a short leash and questions swirling over not only his tenure but also the board’s control of its own administration.

The same night it accepted Sessions’ resignation, the board embarked on a self-assessment of how well it is communicating with the community. The board and administration came up with a lengthy list of efforts and programs ranging from newsletters and the district Web site to parent nights and musical programs. The discussion was healthy, and at times self-critical, but a refreshing counterpoint was director Anne Saxby’s comment that the district must be concerned not just with information going out but also the responses coming in — public comment on the schools being paramount to schools’ comments to the public.

Given the upheaval over Sessions’ resignation and the sudden departure of former high school principal Ben Kolb, the district should take a second look at what it is doing in terms of the exchange of information. One idea the directors brought back from Eugene was the use of “key communicators” to help inform the community about what’s going on in the schools.

Recruiting citizens who serve as channels to the public is an idea worth considering, as long it’s done in a reciprocal, information-out and information-in approach.

After years of stability, followed by a tumultuos 2001-02 and 2002-03, the board should stop and think if whether a breakdown in trust between itself and Jerry Sessions is the only such breach that needs bridging.

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