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Tensions rise as Ferndale School Board deliberates empty seat

Public comments raise issues

The Ferndale School District Board of Directors is trying to fill the vacant District 3 director position. Discussions regarding applicants grew heated during a Jan. 24 applicant review meeting
The Ferndale School District Board of Directors is trying to fill the vacant District 3 director position. Discussions regarding applicants grew heated during a Jan. 24 applicant review meeting (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Hailey Hoffman Visual Journalist

In the Ferndale School District, like many across the country, accusations by some residents and parents that education is tainted by hot-button political issues such as pandemic responses, Critical Race Theory and sexual identity curriculum have become commonplace — political upheaval that’s now poised to carry over to upcoming school board elections.

With an influx in population, the once-small farming community has experienced a demographic shift that’s brought more progressive ideas to town. And for the last few years, a battle over Ferndale’s duality has played out in public comments during monthly Ferndale School Board of Directors meetings.

Now, with school board elections once again on the horizon and three seats up for grabs this fall, battle lines are being drawn anew.

photo  The Ferndale School District Board of Directors meets to discuss applicants for the open District 3 position on Jan. 24. (Photo courtesy of Ferndale School District)  

Complaint filed against school district

Tensions came to a head last month during deliberations over applicants for a vacant board position. In November 2022, Jessie Deardorff resigned from her position, citing a need to rest and relax. The school board is tasked with appointing someone who lives within District 3 to the position. The new board member will hold the position only through November 2023, when the seat will be up for reelection along with that of board president Kevin Erickson in District 1 and Melinda Cool in District 2. 

The school board received seven applications for the position. One applicant, Nancy Button, has since filed a formal ethics complaint against the school board following a Jan. 24 special school board meeting where members discussed the applicants and selected interviewees. Button’s complaint said the school board violated state laws by making false statements as public officials and violated the board’s own governance policies regarding improper conduct. She also asserts she was not adequately informed of board procedures during the application process. 

“My record is impeccable,” Button said in an email to Cascadia Daily News. “In applying for the school board position, my goal was to focus on improving academia and ensure transparency between the district and parents.”

She asserts she was defamed by board member Cool, who spoke strongly against interviewing Button due to emails she and the rest of the board received accusing the former teacher of being homophobic, transphobic and racist.

“When we have 15, 16 emails from people that have had experience with her — this includes parents, it includes teachers, it includes paraeducators and it includes students — saying that she is not fit for our district where everyone belongs … I rest my case on that,” Cool said at the meeting.

Board member Steve Childs said the emails were unproven rhetoric, and board member Peggy Uppiano lauded Button for her 20 years of teaching in the district and her knowledge of district procedures. 

“She has so much to offer, so to move her to the bottom of the list I believe is really, quite frankly, political,” Uppiano said. “I’ve seen some things written, that knowing her, I disagree with.”

After further discussion, the board unanimously opted to interview the four candidates they agreed upon after coming to an impasse regarding a fifth candidate. Button will not be interviewed for the role, the school district said. 

In her complaint, Button demands Cool recuse herself from participating in director selection, make a public apology to Button and resign from the board. She also demands that Erickson — who also voted against Button and weighed in on the discourse — make a public apology and that a teacher who made a Facebook post in a private group against Button be censured.

“The progressive agenda does not allow for dissent,” Button said in the complaint. “When presented with a different perspective on issues, Melinda [Cool] and her ilk, go straight to character defamation and name-calling instead of reasoned debate.”

If the requirements are not met in a timely manner, Button wrote in her complaint, she will pursue further litigation.

When a formal complaint is made, the district has 30 days to investigate and respond with a summary of any wrongdoing that might have occurred, according to the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

At the next board meeting on Jan. 31, Cool apologized for her tone of voice, how she addressed fellow board members and for disclosing the specifics of the emails, which are public records, rather than simply summarizing them. Cool said in an email to Cascadia Daily News she will not recuse herself from deliberations nor resign from her position. 

Button said she has not yet decided if she will run for the position in November, and Cool declined to comment on whether or not she would seek reelection. 

Public comments at Ferndale School District

At the Jan. 31 meeting, Button and her supporters argued during public comments that the remarks by Cool damaged Button’s reputation, which in turn blocked her from the opportunity to get the position without the opportunity to defend herself.

“You robbed the applicant for the right to both address the defamatory garbage in your inbox as well as present her case on why she’d be the best candidate for the open District 3,” said Andrew Gustafson, a Ferndale resident, at the meeting.

Button, Gustafson and several others have been regular commenters at Ferndale School District meetings, decrying vaccine and mask mandates, sex education curriculum and the general direction of the school district. Gustafson and other regular commenters wrote an “against” argument filled with misinformation in the voter’s pamphlet for Ferndale’s 2021 levy, seeking to “hold the district accountable” by blocking funding. The levy was approved.

Since Button’s retirement in June 2021, she has spoken during multiple public comment segments at school board meetings to share her thoughts on the “indoctrination” of Critical Race Theory, sex education and policies for transgender students in the school district. During public comment in a March 2022 meeting, she specifically condemned the school district for affirming children’s gender choices and teaching them “to question their own biology.”

“School leaders, you need to take a good, hard look at what Ferndale is teaching our children,” she said. “Sexual identity politics have no place in our schools.”

Board policies change

At the November 2022 meeting, the school board reviewed its public comment policy and moved to limit each session to 45 minutes with a 3-minute limit for each speaker. In recent months, the school board has also decided to enforce the rule that only residents of Ferndale and employees can speak during public comment — a rule they’d been lax on in the past. They also reviewed policy language.

The board president has reserved the right to “interrupt or terminate an individual’s statement when it is too lengthy, defamatory, abusive, repetitive, obscene or irrelevant.” At the meeting, Cool made a motion to include language that is “harmful to children” as grounds for the board president terminating a statement. She argued any board member should be able to call for a recess, discuss the comments with the board president and continue the meeting with the president’s ruling on whether or not the comments are harmful. Cool argued, specifically, that language and discussion that denies students of their chosen identities is harmful to them and should be limited.

“If sexual identity politics has no place in the schools, what are you saying to transgender youth?” Cool asked. “Do they not belong in our schools?”

After back and forth among the board, Cool was the only one in favor, and the board decided to seek legal counsel on the topic before proceeding.

“I don’t sense that there’s disagreement in that we don’t want things to be harmful for students,” board president Erickson said. “I think the question becomes, what is the definition of what is harmful? Therein lies the debate that is going across America and beyond.”

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