Greater Albany Public School's so-called listening sessions were supposed to quell emotions, to be a safe space for people to voice questions and concerns. But the first stab of this new kind of public forum on Monday prompted a school board member to walk out amid outbursts from audience members and an analogy equating masks with the Nazi Germany's use of the Star of David.
The analogy came from an employee assigned to tend to the district's most vulnerable students.
GAPS devised the listening sessions in response to the length of public comments at school board meetings. Currently members of the public may submit written comments, which are either read aloud or summarized by interim Superintendent Rob Saxton, about items on the school board agenda.
Monday's session at Central School was the first. Another is planned from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14 at South Shore Elementary School, 910 Bain St. SE.
On Monday, Tara Dixson, foster care liaison at GAPS, compared mask wearing to being forced to wear a yellow Star of David during the Holocaust. Some audience members protested that the comparison was inappropriate, while others gave a standing ovation when Dixson finished speaking.
In response, school board member Michael Thomson left the meeting.
“There are lines and as a volunteer I can choose to leave,” Thomson said in an interview the next day. “Had it been a racial epithet, I would have done the same thing.”
After Dixson's comment, Saxton made clear that the comparison was inaccurate, as the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of millions, and mask-wearing protects people.
“I do think that when you invite public opinion you get full opinion from the public,” Saxton said in a separate interview. “There are times when people might say things that will stretch your thinking personally. There were a couple of things that I felt were difficult to listen to, and one that I thought was not appropriate.”
Other comments made Monday included concerns about critical race theory, the upcoming vaccine mandate for teachers and the potential merging of Takena and Central schools.
Each speaker had eight minutes to address Saxton, Thompson and board member Pete Morse. Board members will rotate for each listening session.
Because the entire school board does not attend each listening session, they are not live streamed or recorded.
This was the first listening session of many throughout the year in place of traditional public comment during school board meetings. Thomson said the listening sessions are a good idea, but it would be better if they were livestreamed, so people who cannot attend could watch them later.
“If you make a comment at a regularly scheduled meeting, it gets put in the minutes,” he said. “That’s what’s missing here.”
The full schedule for the listening sessions is available on the district website at albany.k12.or.us/listening-session.
Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_.