Kettle Falls board controversy highlights need for courageous parent involvement

The following is an investigative report looking into some of the issues that resulted in the resignation of two Kettle Falls school board members in the fall of 2023. Since many of these issues are not unique to Kettle Falls schools, and point to systemic concerns that impact many public education communities, we wanted to make 

parents aware and encourage their meaningful involvement.

 

 

 

 

Kettle Falls, WA – Kat Snider is a working mom who lives here in Stevens County with her husband and two boys. She was overwhelmingly elected to continue serving on the Kettle Falls School Board last November, even after she tried to withdraw her candidacy.

 

 “I began my involvement with the school board back when the Covid issues were emerging,” Snider explains. “I was traveling heavily at the time and was disturbed by what I was witnessing in communities throughout the United States. When mandates were dropped by a majority of states, yet still forced by ours, our local school board, backed by parents, courageously decided to opt out of the mask mandate. I was proud of them. It was encouraging to see my community stand up for their children. I attended every meeting I could because I wanted them to know they were supported—they were not alone.”

 

The district’s February 2022 decision to affirm the rights of parents to decide whether their children continued to wear masks at school was short-lived. While Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdahl had already called for an end to the masking mandate, and Governor Jay Inslee had announced his mandates would be lifted within a few weeks, both state officials came down hard on the Kettle Falls district, demanding that board members reinstate mask requirements. “I am prepared to … withhold, and eventually reduce, state funding,” wrote Reykdahl. In addition, the State Department of Labor & Industries threatened fines up to $70,000 per unmasked staff or student in the schools.

 

Under state officials’ threats to deprive schools of funding, the board reversed its decision by a 3-2 vote, though many parents and community members urged them to hold the line. This led to a situation common in bullying: fearful victims come to view the courageous as a threat and accuse them of being the source of the harm threatened by perpetrators. Thus, parents and community members who questioned the effects of certain state-driven policies were accused of wanting to “defund the schools.”

 

When a school board member resigned in October 2022, Kat Snider volunteered and was appointed to take his place. She saw it as an opportunity to serve the community and local students, including her two sons.

Two specific issues Kat hoped to help address as a board member were the district’s poor academic performance (see graphic) and what she saw as a lack of transparency and productive communication between school staff, parents and the board.


 

“I was under the impression that the school board made decisions for the local schools,” said Snider, “but my experience over the next year changed my perceptions.”

 

When she first took office, Snider toured each school to introduce herself to teachers and staff and learn about the curriculum and teaching methods. When she learned the district planned to review its math curriculum in the coming months, she expressed her desire many times to be part of that process and was assured she would be informed when the analysis took place. But she was not.

 

“Incidents like that changed my perception of the school board. I did not feel welcome as part of the process,” Snider said. “I began to slowly realize the desired role of the board was to just go along with what was being presented—to show up and vote. I felt that if I was voting on anything, it was my duty to ask questions and understand what this vote affects. This was not encouraged, but rather discouraged.”

 

Questions about school’s gender policies

 

 

When Snider reviewed the district’s student handbook, she discovered that its non-discrimination policy included “gender identification and preferred gender.” The handbook says the district “guides an inclusive approach towards transgender and gender-expansive students by facilitating a learning environment that is safe and free of discrimination for all students.” It further defines the term transgender “to be inclusive of gender-expansive, gender transitioning, gender expression, and gender identity, to incorporate the concept that students may not fully connect with the sex assigned to them at birth.”

 

At the July 2023 board meeting, in light of continued and increasing concerns nationwide about student safety related to various controversial state-mandated gender policies, Kat requested a delay on the handbook vote until board members could discuss and understand the district’s application and possible effects. A study session was scheduled, but Kat received an email shortly before it took place informing her that no changes would be made to the policy regardless of what board members learned or decided.

 

An August 15 email from Superintendent Olsen to community member Nicole Wells confirms the district had no plans to amend any gender-related policies: “We actually aren’t making any changes to our handbooks regarding gender identity/expression,” wrote Olsen. “The language in the non-discrimination statement has been in place for some time, and has been in our handbooks as well as every other place that we are required to have it.” (It is noted on the Kettle Falls website that the policy was updated in November, 2019).

 

“The reason it has become a point of conversation,” he continued, “is because one of our board members noticed it this year.”

 

At the study session, board members were informed that the gender non-discrimination policy meant any student was permitted in any private area (locker rooms and bathrooms) and on any team sport, based on gender identity and regardless of biological sex.

 

Two board members, Kat Snider and Jaya Fowler, expressed concerns that these policies might impact student safety. While other board members spoke agreement, Snider reports that they, along with Superintendent Olsen, felt it was irrelevant because the policy was required by state law. Board members were told if they did not affirm the policies they could be personally sued.

 

 

Asked by the Stevens County Times (SCT) if board members were told they could be personally liable for voting against a policy they disagreed with, Superintendent Olsen stated that any publicly elected official who violates the laws of Washington can have their liability insurance coverage withheld.

 

When asked about the district’s approach to transgender issues, Olsen said it is his goal to foster an “inclusive education environment where all feel welcome.”

 

Further asked what the school does for students who feel uncomfortable with the effects of a very broad inclusivity policy, for instance if they are required to share bathrooms and locker rooms with students of the opposite sex, Olsen said the school works to teach those students “tolerance.”

 

Tolerance, he said, is to “honor others’ opinions and feelings as you would hope they honor yours.”

[Interested readers are encouraged to consider the different meanings of those two terms: to tolerate and to honor, and consider how school policies may be affected by one approach over another.]

 

Kat Snider says as a result of the study session, the board came up with a plan to add some private stalls to school bathrooms, as well as add another single-use bathroom, to provide options for students who might be uncomfortable sharing private spaces with members of the opposite sex.

 

Teacher removed after gender-transition discussions with students

 

 

Controversial gender policy issues are not just theoretical or contained inside handbooks in Kettle Falls.

An investigation into local teacher Shannon Elquist concluded in a May 11, 2023, report that “the preponderance of evidence substantiated that during Ms. Elquist’s conversations with [7th grade] students … Ms. Elquist made a statement to the effect that students should not go home and tell their parents she was encouraging them to become transgender. Ms. Elquist also told students they could talk to her privately about transitioning and she told [the investigator] she meant she was willing to talk to students about anything.”

 

Union contracts can make it difficult to remove a teacher from a public school classroom, even after misconduct. The school board and administrators arrived at a separation agreement with Ms. Elquist that provides a full year’s pay and benefits (ending August 2024) and ensures a recommendation if she seeks teaching work in another district.

 

Are parents well-informed by the district?

 

 

Since Kat and Jaya, as parents and board members, had both been unaware that Kettle Falls schools already had policies in place requiring shared private spaces between genders, they felt many other parents might also be unaware. Kat suggested adopting a policy of full and intentional disclosure to parents, particularly on obviously controversial issues, as has been adopted by other districts around the country.

 

Not long after the study session where these issues were discussed, board members received an email stating that any policy to inform parents of the handbook non-discrimination requirements, or to restrict private areas to single biological genders, would effectively shut down the school. (Presumably because many parents might oppose the controversial policies, setting up a stand-off with state officials willing to withhold public education funding to force their compliance.)

 

Responding to the idea of not informing parents, Kat says “Any policy that requires teachers or staff to keep secrets as they relate to your children and their wellbeing are a gross overreach of government. I feel this is both dangerous and harmful to children. Policies putting students in unsafe situations are wrong. That means all policies should be questioned and discussed, not just immediately accepted. It is not illegal to question policies; it’s the board’s obligation.”

 

In a conversation with Superintendent Olsen, SCT asked about the district’s policies related to parents who may want to observe their children’s classes. “We welcome parent volunteers,” he said.

But what if a parent simply wants to come in and sit and observe their child’s class one day? “That would depend on the situation,” Olsen said. “It’s not a common practice. Some teachers may not be comfortable with that.”

 

Why might teachers not be comfortable? “It’s the principal’s job to observe and assess,” he said.

Ultimately, Olsen would refer parents to the local building principals, noting that it is important for the school administration to know who is in the school and why at a given time.

 

Few would argue against reasonable school safety policies, though common sense suggests that more parental presence in the schools would facilitate greater safety for students. Instead, parent observation seems to be viewed as a risk that must be mitigated.

 

Another contentious board meeting

 

 

A few weeks after the gender policy study session, Kat Snider was surprised when approximately twenty teachers showed up to the August 28 school board meeting. While teacher involvement is always welcome, it was unusual. 

 

It was not a pleasant meeting. 

 

 

 

 

“Some teachers accused Jaya and me of trying to harm transgender kids and cause suicides,” said Snider. “A couple of the teachers were yelling and pointing fingers at me directly. Others cheered and clapped.”

 

Kat is quick to point out this was not the conduct of all the teachers present, though most seemed to support these vocal teachers. Technical issues prevented parents and community members who were viewing the meeting live online from hearing much of what was said, though a community member who did watch and listen carefully, and reviewed the recording after, confirms Kat’s description.

 

The event was confusing to Kat. “I strongly feel that communication solves many concerns, so I wrote an email to all the teachers and staff I could identify from the meeting, asking how they came to their conclusions and offering to speak to them.”

 

SCT obtained a copy of Snider’s email, dated September 1, 2023:

 

 

Dear Teachers and Concerned staff that attended the Board meeting on 8/28:

 

 

Firstly, I want to thank Michelle Thomas for her insight, I appreciate her perspective and felt she made

some very valid points.

 

 

Secondly, it breaks my heart to see such division in our community, I honestly believe we all want to keep

kids safe, all kids. I would like to have an open discussion on what your fears are, come together as a

community and close the gap between parents and teachers. There is a lot of distrust on both sides at this

time.

 

 

As a Parent it feels that schools have become very secretive and are trying to push parents out of their

children’s lives, this is deeply concerning. I don’t know what Teachers are feeling but to understand both

sides of the argument is the first step in uniting our community and building trust on both sides.

 

 

I am disappointed that many of you were so quick to jump to conclusions, without ever coming to me and

having any conversations. I was taken aback by the sudden hostility. I repeatedly heard that we wanted to

“oust” all the Transgender students. I am confused to why you all thought this. I would genuinely like to

understand how you came to that conclusion.

 

 

If anyone would like to set up some time to have an open-ended conversation, please reach out to me.

 

 

 

 

Not one teacher responded to Kat’s invitation.

 

Threats overheard

 

 

The next day, Kat received information from a school employee who reported overhearing a group of teachers in a local coffee shop speaking loudly about their concerns that Kat would be reelected to the board in November and expressing their hopes that they might find her in a dark alley to prevent it.

 

After the hostility she had experienced at the August board meeting, Kat feared the possibility that someone might harm her and filed a police report. The officer who recorded the incident confirmed that another caller had contacted the police department to give a firsthand report of the overheard threats, but remained anonymous and feared “retaliation from coworkers.”

 

At this point, Kat Snider and her husband decided to withdraw their sons from the school district, feeling concerned about their safety. Jaya Fowler’s family had already decided to find other schooling options for two of their children.

 

Snider then requested that certain teachers (those who had pointed fingers and made accusations about Kat and Jaya intending personal harm toward students) take conflict resolution training. Supplemental contracts are given over and above regular salaries to compensate teachers and staff for additional duties, such as coaching. Jaya Fowler agreed this might be helpful.

 

Kat was vilified on public Facebook pages for wanting teachers to “lose their jobs” and wanting to “withhold contracts.” But that was not at all true. She wanted a couple of teachers to take conflict resolution training along with their next supplemental contract pay. (As far as we know, no decision was ever made by the district to require conflict resolution training.) One Kettle Falls teacher posted on Facebook (on the local discussion board) that: “Both women broke the law again at the last board meeting by withholding two teacher contracts because they were personally angry with the two teachers.” People in the community were being misled by careless exaggerations and rumors. This kind of extreme rhetoric continued as November school board elections got closer.

 

Choosing to resign from the board

 

 

The next board meeting on September 25 was again attended by about twenty teachers, and for the second time technical issues kept online listeners from hearing what was said. A community member in attendance
recorded this meeting and provided SCT with the audio.

 

During public comments, teacher and local union president Shealyn Hansen said to the school board, “I’m really curious about the intentions of some of you, especially those who have pulled their students from the schools, and what you’re wanting as far as being on a school board for a school district that you don’t even attend anymore, and that you don’t trust us enough to educate your children.”

 

Hansen continued: “I know there’s a big push right now of defunding the schools and I’m curious if that’s part of the agenda. We’re hearing stuff about wanting to go against laws that could effectively shut down our school district and … turn us into a state-run entity. … What’s been proposed would destroy our city. If you shut down the schools, we’re done.”

 

This concern about being “run by the state” was also expressed by the district’s public service employees (PSE) president, Jeff Graves, who acknowledged he was hearing secondhand reports about what board members had said in past meetings. 

 

“It is concerning that there are some things being said about a few board members wanting to break the law [and] go against the non-discrimination law we have to abide by,” said Graves. “That’s scary for me. I think when you go against the state you line yourself up to be defunded—to be run by the state. I’m ashamed of those board members that have made those statements.”

These expressed fears of state control seem ironic, given that the desired prevention seems to be “doing what the state says to do.” This illustrates a classic bullying tactic: “Don’t make me do this the hard way.” Compliant victims are preferable to those who resist.

 

Graves continued: “The other big thing to me is that you two [Kat and Jaya] have chosen to take your kids out of the school. That shows a lack of trust [in the] school district, which is sad to me. If you’re a board member, your kids should be going to the school, and if you have issues, you should be talking to them, not just pulling your kids.”

 

Science teacher Nathan Ballance was more direct: “I’m going to speak slowly and clearly so our two board members that have pulled their kids from our school understand something: If you don’t want your kids in our schools, we don’t want you on our school board.”

 

At this point, community member and grandmother Trudi Snider (not related to Kat Snider), who had watched the past board meetings in question, spoke: “[This all] started with a rumor, a lie, and not one person coming and asking these two if they said what is being said. Not one of you did that. But three of you went to a public place and sat at a table and said by name specifically to kidnap, take ‘em into an alley, assault and physically harm them! Why do you think they took their children out of the school? If someone has just threatened to kidnap you, what is going to happen to your children in that school?”

 

Trudi continued: “If you had acted like adults and talked to these two people, you would have heard their side of the story. But it’s so much easier to condemn two people and tell them they shouldn’t be on the school board.”

 

Board member Jaya Fowler took time to say she was “happy to talk about” her “reasons for pulling two of my three kids” from the district. “I have nothing to hide. Come to me. I have no problem talking to you.” 

She further pointed out that there were “also other board members who don’t have kids in school. What difference does it make? I can still represent the community that elected me.”

 

Ultimately, both Kat Snider and Jaya Fowler chose to resign their positions on the board after this meeting.

“There is little to no actual discussion or analysis in how the school board operates,” Kat explained. “It’s a façade to give the illusion that the community has a voice within the district. Board members receive their ‘packet’—sometimes 150 pages of material—on the Friday before a Monday meeting. It would be difficult to read this in full and it likely is not [read in full]. Board members are just there to show up and vote, with little information on the possible outcomes, options or effects of their votes. They are compelled to follow the direction of the local superintendent, who gets his orders from the state.

 

“If your views do not align with those of state officials,” she continued, “you will enter a labyrinth of tricks and protocols trying to get any real information. You will be targeted, perhaps by the teachers’ union or school lawyers—threatened that if you fall out of line, even your private livelihood will be at risk.”

 

“This model just didn’t work for Jaya and me.”

 

Election delays Kat’s resignation

 

 

Kat and Jaya’s resignation did not end the hostility though. With the election just a few weeks away, Kat Snider was unable to get her name removed from the ballot. A write-in campaign was mounted to defeat her, and voters, including this reporter at a visit to the local Democrat party booth at the Marcus Cider Fest, were told that Kat was the candidate “who wants to defund our schools.”

 

Rumors continued to be circulated on a local Facebook discussion page: “It is too late for Kat to be removed from the ballot,” wrote the same Kettle Falls teacher mentioned previously Marisa Burke, accusing Kat and Jaya of “recruiting” another candidate who was on the ballot in an attempt “to flip the vote in their favor to be able to make those changes [to the school’s gender policies].”

 

Burke later published a correction written by the local union president, who apologized for going “off of rumors” and explained that the candidate in question was actually a personal friend whose name she had not recognized.

 

“All politics aside,” Burke posted, “[Kat and Jaya] keep doing things that make us break the law and we, as teachers, are the ones who are paying the price.”

 

On election day, Kat was reelected by more than 60 percent of voters, though she still ultimately declined the position.

 

The price teachers might pay

 

 

In Kettle Falls, 75 percent of the district’s secondary teachers receive salaries higher than $80,000, and salaries for some district employees top $130,000. The state’s threats to withhold the funding that provides those paychecks would naturally feel very personal and frightening.

 

Kat Snider has sympathy for the predicament many teachers and other school staff face. 

 

“It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the state,” she says. “No one at the school is willing to do so, and you can’t fault them when parents are not standing up right beside them. As the state demands more and more control of your children’s minds and bodies, the school will relinquish that [control to the state] without question.” 

 

Parents must advocate for children

 

 

Just as teachers will naturally consider their own families and livelihoods as a priority, it is up to each student’s parents to makeconsider his or her educational wellbeing a priority. Parents are the best qualified to do so and the most powerful participant in the process.

 

There is no one more capable of assessing children’s educational, emotional and physical needs than their parents. This does not detract from the benefits of good teachers and school staff, but recognizes a simple truth: teachers and staff must and will all go home at the end of the day.

 

Many well-meaning teachers and community members speak of children as belonging to everyone. In a 2022 KXLY news interview, Superintendent Olsen said, “They’re our kids; they’re everybody’s kids whether they’re actually a parent or not.”

 

These phrases are generally expressing a desire for the community to act together in the best interests of its individual members, which is a good goal. But of course, sometimes there is a natural and appropriate tension between caring for someone else’s kids versus caring for your own. A teacher considering his own children must and will have different priorities than the parents of his students.

 

Indeed, the idea that children belong to “the village” can actually be quite dangerous, especially when people in positions of authority believe it or use the familiar rhetoric as a cover to push controversial and harmful policies. If all children are theirs and everyones, they can feel quite justified in pursuing and exercising power over them “for their own good,” even when it’s obvious to others that children are being harmed in the process.

 

This is what our state’s Governor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and L&I officials have done and continue to do when they threaten to deprive students of their current means of education and teachers of their jobs, if schools don’t comply with state’s demands. This is what local school teachers and officials are themselves supporting when they allow and participate in an atmosphere of unquestioning fear and compliance in their own schools.

 

This is why every child’s well being in public school education ultimately depends on his or her parents’ involvement and participation.

 

What power do parents have?

 

 

Parents have more options and more direct power than they often realize. For one thing, they control the selection and the purse strings of education.

 

Though many people think of public schools as “free,” they most definitely are not. They are not even among the least expensive education options, all of which are paid for by someone. (See chart for Stevens County school costs.)

 

Here in Kettle Falls, each student enrolled in the school district brings in more than $16,000 of funding to the district’s annual budget. (Many other Stevens County school districts receive even more per student, and all are significantly higher than most private school tuitions.) At the state level, total spending averaged $22,191.58 per K-12 student in the 2022-23 school year, giving state officials control of many thousands of dollars per student over and above what they dole out to local schools.

 

Parents ultimately control the faucet on this funding when they choose to enroll their child in a particular public school program. As Kat Snider pointed out, “When parents of one student have an issue with the school, it can be easy [for the school or district] to ignore them. But if ten parents make a firm stand, they represent $160,000 [in revenue for the school or state]. That’s influence.” 

 

Many parents have chosen to pursue other alternate education opportunities, for one simple reason: While ten years for education officials or teachers is just that—ten years—in the life of a student ten years is “their childhood” and “their primary education.”

 

Sometimes it will take too long, in the life of a particular child or student, to reform or repair something broken, particularly in giant institutions and systems where the systems in which the livelihoods and interests of many thousands of adults are concerned.

 

That is the very best reason for making immediate choices and starting necessary hard work today. The good news for Stevens County parents is that there are many beautiful and rich education options in the area: public, private, home-centered, parent-directed, digital, co-op, alternative, etc. Mark your calendars for the Stevens County Education Fair on April 27 to learn more (see flyer to the right).

 

How about long term?

 

 

A desire for true and local public education without state control is the reason so many concerned citizens and policymakers would like to see public education dollars serving students directly. This is accomplished by empowering parents to put that public money to use in the education programs and options they feel best serve their unique children. The great value of public education is achieved through many family-level choices.

 

While this idea is often viciously attacked (usually as a harmful agenda “to defund schools”), it models the kind of freedom and choice most of us take for granted in many other areas of our lives. Even the toothpaste aisle at Walmart is evidence enough of that—our unique needs, even small ones, are better served by choices.

 

Many people recognize that more locally directed education options would also be a huge benefit to creative and skilled teachers and administrators, who would then have the freedom to work closely with parents to operate schools that genuinely serve their local community needs.

 

Important questions moving forward

 

 

When SCT asked Superintendent Olsen if he believed Kettle Falls teachers demonstrated (in the last several months during the board controversy involving Kat Snider and Jaya Fowler) the kind of tolerance and kindness the school district expects of its students, he said he believes they did. “There were passionate individuals on both sides and teachers are community members and parents also” who have “the same free speech rights.”

 

Olsen said he regrets that Kat and Jaya resigned because he appreciates “a diverse board” in which members have “different perspectives.”

 

Ultimately, the issues discussed in this article will be decided by Kettle Falls parents. What ideas and experiences are defining and impacting your child’s education experience? What positive and negative influences make up their days and months at school? Are there any education programs that may serve them better—academically, emotionally, physically? Are the dollars contributed to public education by the hard work of our taxpaying friends and neighbors being spent efficiently and effectively to achieve specific academic outcomes? How can parents meaningfully be involved in the local schools?

 

These are the questions every parent, no matter what school options they’ve chosen for their kids, should regularly ask and consider. They are the kinds of questions school board members Kat Snider and Jaya Fowler tried to ask. 

 

Out of many wise answers and actions comes truly public education.

Marsha Michaelis can be reached at marshamichaelis@gmail.com.