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Board member walks out after Columbia City deadlock

Ray Biggs leaves meeting after board chairman cuts off debate

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - St. Helens School District board member Ray Biggs leaves partway through Wednesday's school board meeting. Biggs said Chairman Gordon Jarman (left) was out of order after he ended the board's discussion of how to reopen Columbia City School when the four board members failed to agree on the superintendent's recommendation for the school.A disagreement on the St. Helens School District’s board of directors prompted one board member to walk out of a meeting Wednesday evening, Jan. 28, after the school board failed to agree on what to do with its shuttered schoolhouse in Columbia City.

Ray Biggs objected after the school board’s chairman, Gordon Jarman, closed down discussion on the configuration of Columbia City School following the failure of another member’s motion. Jarman said the board’s inaction meant that the topic was closed for the meeting.

The dispute arose after Biggs and fellow board member Kellie Smith voted to defeat a motion made by Jeff Howell to accept a recommendation from the district superintendent, Mark Davalos, to reopen Columbia City School in the fall as an elementary school for kindergarten through sixth grade. Davalos made the recommendation last month after the school board tasked him with figuring out how the schoolhouse, which has been unoccupied since the board voted to shutter it in 2012, should be utilized.

While Howell and Jarman spoke in favor of Davalos’ proposal and urged their fellow board members to trust his judgment, Smith raised concerns about how it could have unforeseen costs and negative impacts on other schools.

“I’m just not OK with all of it,” Smith said.

Howell read a prepared statement arguing that a K-6 configuration would be the best way to promote student achievement and positive behaviors. But after he finished, Biggs cut in.

“Mr. Chairman, can I save the board some time?” Biggs said. “There aren’t the votes. If Kellie’s going to vote against him, I’m definitely going to vote against it, then we don’t have a majority. And until there’s a fifth person on the board, this ain’t gonna happen.”

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - Columbia City School has been sitting unused since 2012, when the St. Helens School District's board of directors voted to shut it down in an effort to save money.Biggs, the only board member who lives in Columbia City, suggested that he favors a K-6 model for Columbia City in principle, but he said it would be “disruptive” to current students if the district were to undergo another round of boundary changes just three years after the previous redistricting, when Lewis & Clark and McBride elementary schools were reconfigured as K-6 schools and the sixth-grade-only Columbia City School was closed.

“As a Columbia City resident, I would like to see that school as a neighborhood school,” said Biggs.

“It seems like you’re ... contradicting yourself,” Jarman replied.

“Maybe I didn’t word it properly,” said Biggs. “As a Columbia City resident, I can see why Columbia City residents would like to have that as a neighborhood school. I enjoyed having it as a neighborhood school when we moved in here. I am against redistricting in this short period of time.”

Jarman proceeded to call for a vote on Howell’s motion. When it failed, he began to proceed to the next item on the school board’s meeting agenda.

“We’re not going to talk about any of the other options?” asked Biggs, who had advocated at previous meetings for deferring the discussion on Columbia City’s ultimate configuration and moving the alternative Columbia County Education Campus into the schoolhouse on a stopgap basis.

But Jarman was set on moving on.

“No, we’re not. This situation is over,” he said, raising his voice.

Marshall Porter, a former board chairman sitting in the audience at Wednesday’s meeting, tried to raise a point of order. Jarman wasn’t having it.

“Take your point of order out the door,” he retorted.

“I think you’re out of order,” Biggs told Jarman.

As Jarman argued that it was Biggs whose objection was out of order, Biggs stood, put on his coat, and gathered up his papers and binders. With a final, testy “good night,” he walked out the door at the back of the meeting room.

Minutes later, the board agreed to resume discussing the Columbia City School configuration at its next meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 11. Jarman asked Davalos to prepare more information on alternatives to his original proposal, including the possibility of reopening the school for sixth grade only.

Howell noted that the K-6 proposal may have a second life. The school board still intends to appoint an interim replacement for Porter, who resigned earlier this month in anticipation of an out-of-state move.

“This plan has not failed,” Howell said. “It failed in this meeting before, but we’ll have another board member coming on, also.”