After hours of emotional public comment from staff, students and community members at a meeting that lasted more than five hours and stretched past midnight Thursday, the Winlock School Board decided to table a vote on whether to terminate the employment of five school district employees, including three counselors, a migrant coordinator and a maintenance secretary.
Many staff members attended the meeting to show support for their colleagues while wearing matching green shirts. The shirts quoted a slogan used by the Winlock School District: “Every student, every day.”
“Wow, what a crowd tonight. Thank you for joining us,” Winlock School Board Chair Heath Palen-McBee said as he began the meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
Near the beginning of the meeting, prior to the public comment period, Winlock Superintendent Garry Cameron announced he would be submitting his resignation to accept a new job with a different organization. Cameron, when asked later about the nature of his new job, said he wasn’t able to provide more information at this time.
Shortly before 7:30 p.m., Palen-McBee opened the public comment period of the meeting, during which dozens of Winlock community members spent over two hours speaking against the proposed staff cuts. Due to the large number of people who wanted to speak during the meeting, Palen-McBee limited individuals to two minutes of speaking time, though he repeatedly paused the timer to allow speakers to collect themselves emotionally while speaking.
“We’re all here, I think, for one purpose,” said Tawna Wickert, a staff member in the Winlock School District.
Wickert asked members of the board to job shadow the counselors to see what they do while working with children.
Meg Matheson, another staff member, urged the board members to remember what the counselors do when making their decision.
“Knowing what these jobs do for students should be first and foremost in your mind when making these decisions,” Matheson said.
One issue brought up repeatedly was the importance of having staff members who could speak Spanish. Two of the five employees speak Spanish, which prompted several speakers to raise concerns.
“There’s a big difference between equality and equity,” said Rainy Johnson, discussing the need for support for Spanish-speaking families.
Diana Ortiz, a multilingual teacher at Winlock, told the board there had been problems helping Spanish-speaking families. Ortiz said she had sometimes taken attention away from her children to translate for Spanish-speaking families of students over the phone.
One woman, Rezelda Sanchez, said she was from a Spanish-speaking family and didn’t want families to face the same issues she had.
“I’m here to advocate for the Hispanic community,” she said.
According to Sanchez, the presence of school district staff who could speak Spanish had been a “great asset to the Spanish-speaking community.”
At one point during the public comments, a man began speaking in Spanish to the board, ending his comments by asking the board members, “Do you understand?”
Throughout the public comment period, the most common concern raised was the issue of mental health.
Della McMahon, a middle school science teacher, told the board that counselors had been helpful with students’ mental health, which in turn helped them academically. She also said counselors had helped students dealing with issues like suicide, housing and foster care.
One person read a letter from a Winlock student who was unable to attend. The student wrote that they had experienced a mental health crisis last year, threatening a staff member and putting the school into lockdown. One of the counselors came and spoke to them, ultimately helping the student receive necessary mental health treatment.
Spencer Hoven, the president of Winlock Student Community Advocates, told the board there would be “catastrophic consequences” if they were to let the five staff members go. Hoven also mentioned one of the counselors is currently helping about 20 students facing homelessness issues.
Tori Nelson, president of the teachers’ union, said the proposed staff cuts were uniting a usually divided group.
“Many things in this world divide us. … But one thing I know, for the first time maybe ever, the one thing bringing us together are these five people,” Nelson said. “The perception of what is happening here is terrible. … All we know is that five people we definitely need in this place are being cut.”
One Winlock parent said one of the counselors had helped her then-7-year-old son after he told her he didn’t want to live anymore.
“She saved him, but losing her might mean a lot more children who might be lost,” she said.
Mindy Kelly, a high school teacher at Winlock, asked who would take over for the counselors if they were let go.
“Who’s going to take over their jobs, who’s going to do that?” asked Kelly. “There’s not enough of them. We need more of them, not less.”
Another high school teacher, Dennis Tauscher, echoed Kelly’s concerns.
“It wouldn’t just be replacing a mental health counselor,” he said. “It would be replacing these mental health counselors.”
Brandon Marskell, a physical education and health teacher at Winlock, pointed to the “every student, every day” slogan in criticizing the proposal.
“Is it every student, every day? The decision being made here tells me it’s not,” Marskell said.
One district staff member, Angie Hylton, said she didn’t know what the district would do without the counselors. Hylton discussed her own experience helping counselors clean up blood from students who had cut themselves.
Rachel March, a high school special education teacher, said students need mental health support from people they can trust and pointed to the suicides of two students at W.F. West High School in Chehalis in 2021.
“In recent years, suicide has become an epidemic across America, but also in Lewis County,” March said.
Several Winlock students spoke in opposition to the proposed staff cuts.
Madison Pelagio, a student, said she struggled with mental health issues but had been helped by the counselors.
“I pray they see me grab my diploma. … We need our advocates. I would have never made it here without them,” she said.
“They’ve helped me so much in the years I’ve been in school. Without them, I don’t know if I’d be in school or here right now,” said Brooklyn Bradshaw, another student.
Caleb Hornburg said while he hadn’t interacted with the counselors himself, some of his friends had.
“Without that I would be a very lonely person,” Horburg said.
Eleanor Parker, a sixth-grader at Winlock, voiced her opposition to the staff cuts, but chose her words carefully.
“I have very strong opinions I can’t say because there are adults here,” Parker said to laughter.
Some of the speakers criticized Cameron over the proposed cuts.
One parent said her daughter had received help from a counselor after developing anxiety following medical treatments.
“I just want to say, Dr. Cameron, I think you’re a coward and now's a great time to leave,” the parent said.
“Mr. Cameron, I wish you a farewell,” one student said. “I hope to never see you again.”
Erika Molina made a series of accusations against the superintendent and the district administration, claiming to have documents to support her claims. Molina accused Cameron of driving out multiple principals with the support of the school board, failing to apply for grants, making bad business decisions, not taking action relating to an incident involving pornography, issues related to the hiring of a secretary and illegally using funds for travel. Molina was given extra time to speak after other individuals who had signed up to address the board said she could have their time and was repeatedly applauded by those in attendance.
“This is more corrupt than the Mexican government,” Molina said.
Several other speakers also raised questions about funding.
Amanda Shepherdson said she lives in Castle Rock and chooses to send her children to Winlock.
“Where’s the money? ... We have money to hire people,” Shepherdson said, noting that prior to public comments the school board had voted to approve the hiring of three employees. “Where's the money and who’s going to fix it?”
One parent said if the district were to cut the counselor positions, parents might pull their children from the district. Fewer children attending the district, she added, could further threaten the district’s funding.
At one point, Lynnette Hoffman, who operates the Lewis County News, asked if anyone had spoken to the state legislators about receiving funds from the capital budget.
Danielle Ford, one of the counselors whose position would be cut under the proposal, also spoke during the public comment period. As Ford went up to speak she was loudly applauded by those in attendance.
“I know things I will die with that you will never know,” Ford said.
Ford told the board about her experiences working as a counselor. She discussed a time she had locked herself in a bathroom to clean up blood from a student who had hurt themself because custodians were sick with COVID-19, as well as times she had been in the hospital with students who didn’t have family members to see them.
Ford also said some students in Winlock were holding on by a thread.
“Don’t pull that string, please,” Ford said.
Public comment ended shortly before 9:45 p.m. with the board going into executive session around 10 p.m. Members of the audience asked how long the executive session could take; Palen-McBee said it could take as long as four hours, prompting vocal frustration among some of those in attendance. After the board left the meeting room to go into executive session, a large portion of those in attendance left.
After the board members returned from executive session and resumed their regular meeting at 12:09 a.m. on Thursday, Palen-McBee noted the number of people still present in the room.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had people with us after executive session,” Palen-McBee said.
The board voted to table the vote on whether to terminate the employment of the five staff members with only board member Holly Orbino voting against the motion. Orbino had appeared sympathetic to speakers opposed to the staff cuts during the public comment period, repeatedly applauding with members of the audience as speakers criticized the proposal. At the beginning of the meeting, Orbino had also attempted to change the consent agenda — which included the proposed staff cuts — but her motion was defeated by the other members of the board.
Palen-McBee said a special hearing on finances would be held to allow further discussion of the issue.
The school board voted at 12:11 a.m. to adjourn the meeting.
The Winlock community has collected over 1,100 signatures on an online petition in support of the staff members.