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Tough subjects: Moses Lake School Board discusses student surveys, flags in classrooms, records requests

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | October 15, 2021 1:07 AM

MOSES LAKE — Student surveys, handling public records requests and the kind of flags teachers should be allowed to display in classrooms were all matters discussed by the Moses Lake School Board during a regular meeting Thursday.

The board reviewed a proposed revised policy that governs surveys, projects and associated teaching material given to students as part of federally funded research programs. The proposed policy, prompted in part by concern over a state survey about mental health given to students during the COVID-19-related lockdowns earlier in 2021, would give parents the right to review and inspect all surveys and associated materials.

The proposed policy also stated students will not be required to participate in any survey or project that asks about political beliefs, mental or psychological problems, sexual behavior or attitudes, illegal or antisocial behavior, religious practices or beliefs, critical evaluations of close friends or family members, or family income — save to determine eligibility for financial assistance.

“We have an opt-out option always,” said Kristi Hofheins, the district’s executive director for teaching and learning. “Students can opt themselves out or not answer questions if they don’t want to.”

However, board member Elliott Goodrich wondered why the MLSD allowed such questions in the first place.

“I can’t see how this would be beneficial,” Goodrich said. “It’s easier to say we will not ask these questions on a survey.”

The board unanimously amended the proposed policy, which it will consider again at its next meeting later in October.

Board members also instructed Interim Superintendent Carole Meyer to develop a policy governing the types of flags and banners teachers may fly in their classrooms. The discussion was prompted after Chris Fitch, a parent of several MLSD students, expressed concern at the previous meeting about one teacher at Frontier Middle School displaying a gay pride flag in a classroom and then not being allowed by school officials to inspect the classroom.

Goodrich initially suggested a draft policy banning the flying of all banners in a classroom not related to whatever subject is being taught.

“We’re here to teach, not indoctrinate,” Goodrich said.

While board member Alana DeGooyer suggested only two flags should be permitted in a classroom — the U.S. flag and the Washington state flag — Meyer said a number of classrooms display college flags and pennants as part of the state requirement to have all high school students ready for college.

However, student representative Derek O’Brien said a lot of teachers bring banners and flags to personalize their classrooms. Student representative Sophia Persichini said in one of her human geography classes, the flags of a number of other countries were displayed during the course of a semester.

“It was very beneficial to me,” Persichini said.

Goodrich said those flags were related to the curriculum and would be allowed, but in the end, the board directed Meyer to have a draft policy for review in two weeks.

Meyer said she will do her best, but has to review state law, administrative code and the collective bargaining agreements the MLSD has with its unions.

“I get what you’re trying to do,” Meyer said. “Give me some time.”

Finally, the board also approved a revised policy on public records requests, with board members discussing the hiring of a dedicated public records officer instead of paying an attorney to handle those requests after Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr — who is also running for the school board seat currently occupied by Goodrich — described how the city processes records requests.

“The city has a person who does this,” Fuhr said. “And it’s a lot cheaper than an attorney.”

Fuhr said senior city officials have city-issued cellphones, and the city also charges for public records requests to recoup some of the cost to staff of finding and copying records.

“That’s a much more feasible approach than what we are doing,” Goodrich said.

Goodrich, however, said he was also concerned by the MLSD’s approach to public records requests, saying he’d heard district employees talk about “dragging out” records requests or making them “too rich” as a way of slowing down the process and making the MLSD less transparent at a time when the district needs to be more open with the parents it serves and the people it taxes.

“I’ve seen some of these records requests, and we’ve got the IT infrastructure to do this quickly,” he said. “It leaves a bad taste, and we’ve not made our best effort to be open and transparent.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

(This article has been corrected to show Carole Meyer's correct job title.)