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The West Ada School Board chairman resigned from the position — but not the board — Tuesday night, citing friction with other trustees.

Ed Klopfenstein stepped down after a more than four-hour meeting in which he expressed frustration, especially at Trustee Amy Johnson. She proposed a new plan that would change the district’s framework of determining when in-person and remote classes are appropriate; the new plan apparently discussed ahead of time with Superintendent Mary Ann Rannels and public health officials, but never the chairman.

Char Jackson, chief communications officer for the school district, confirmed Wednesday morning that Klopfenstein will remain on the board.

After an executive session, Klopfenstein offered sharp parting words. 

“I can’t continue like this. This is ridiculous. And I’m sorry, but … to be very frank, I’ve risked my business. I’ve risked my family. The internal conflicts that I’ve had, to the time investment that I’ve had and I can’t get a phone call that there’s an emergency … some sort of surprise … Obviously I’m not a leader here and it’s a shame. I … feel that obviously that the board does not appreciate the work that I’m doing and it would prefer to work by yourselves, so I give that back to you, so this evening I resign as chairman of the board. Meeting is adjourned,” he said, slamming his gavel and walking out.

Emotions ran high during the latter half of the meeting, when the board considered a continuation of in-person classes or switching to an all-online model. Central District Health recommended earlier this week that Ada County schools move back to all-online learning as the district moved into the “red” or most severe designation for case spread.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first since a group of parents launched a campaign to recall West Ada trustees over limitations they placed on in-person learning to prevent COVID-19 spread.

Teachers responded in sometimes tearful testimony at the meeting.

“We give our lives to teaching, but we don’t want to lose our lives to teaching,” Heritage Middle School teacher Christen Sapnas said.

Galileo STEM Academy teacher Sue Darden said, “a few weeks ago, I was talking to a distraught teacher, and it broke my heart when she said ‘Sue, I don’t want to die.’ Frankly, neither do I.”

West Ada Education Association President Eric Thies said fellow union members are experiencing panic attacks, sobbing as they drive home at night and calling him about it.

REOPENING

Ahead of the meeting, a COVID-19 task force composed of West Ada administrators released a collaborative plan to alter the school’s reopening framework based on discussions and surveys of parents, students and teachers. Under the proposal, grades 6-12 would learn remotely at their own pace when the district is in CDH's "red" designation, as it is now, or its "yellow" designation, which signifies more moderate coronavirus case spread in Ada County. In the red category, K-5 students would also learn remotely on Mondays; in yellow, they'd have an early release from in-person classes that day. Students would have attended classes in person on alternating days the rest of the week, with the plan going into effect next week.

Johnson’s proposed plan would have medical professionals review the district’s health and safety protocols and present recommendations on how to improve safety and move between in-person and online classes based on CDH case reports. She called for a panel of teachers, experts and administrators to present a solution to the board in two weeks. The board would agree to follow the panel's recommendation.

Klopfenstein interjected twice as Johnson unveiled her proposal ahead of the board opening the motion up to discussion. He said the plan may violate Robert’s Rules of Order, failing to fulfill an agenda item that called for direct action in response to changes in CHD's recommendations.

“This is a surprise,” Klopfenstein said.

“OK, thank you,” Johnson said, continuing to read the motion.

Johnson’s proposal gained some traction.

“I see this as a potentially good thing,” said Trustee Rene Ozuna.

Ozuna said she didn’t want to move the district back online in accordance with CDH guidelines because she didn’t see case spread as severe enough within the school system to warrant closing down schools.

“The numbers don’t show us at least what we’ve been shown that the spread is happening in our schools,” she said.

The room, filled with 11 masked teachers who previously outlined their concerns, bustled in response.

Others, including Klopfenstein, criticized Johnson’s idea.

“We don’t come to some conclusion about whether we’re changing red or not, but my other problem is that it’s a whole new thing that just got sprung on everyone … People want to say that the board is in disarray. It's because of this kind of stuff,” Trustee Philip Neuhoff said.

Klopfenstein echoed those comments.

“This is shooting over everybody and shooting for the end result. And I appreciate your spirit. I do appreciate your logic you’re putting into it, but suddenly everyone else is dismissed from the process,” he said.

Trustee Steve Smylie in part agreed, saying “a lot of this is a big surprise to me.”

That proposal was shot down, with Johnson its only supporter and Ozuna abstaining.

No motion to move all classes online was proposed.

Johnson then proposed another motion that surprised Klopfenstein. It pushed a decision on changing the district’s hybrid model out two weeks and called for a new workgroup to discuss improvements to online learning before the board considers a move back to remote classes.

That passed with no discussion. Klopfenstein was alone in dissenting. Neuhoff abstained.

CASE SPREAD IN SCHOOLS

It’s unknown just how many students and staff have contracted the virus in West Ada schools.

The district has lagged behind some of its neighbors, such as the Boise and Kuna school districts, in publishing coronavirus case totals by school. Administrators said they were relying on the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to publish data, which it did earlier this month by school.

“We were relying on Idaho Health and Welfare data. It appeared to be incomplete,” said Jackson.

She said IDHW’s breakdown by school was incorrect in part because it counted students who contracted coronavirus while using West Ada’s online-only option, Virtual School House.

Administrators plan to roll out a coronavirus case dashboard, but they won’t report cases by school, citing privacy concerns; Jackson said legal counsel was sought.

The Idaho State Board of Education echoed West Ada’s concern that in smaller schools, case reporting could out people positive cases, and subject them to social stigma.

While many school districts nationally have declined to report cases by school for this reason, many have not. School board trustees Amy Johnson and Rene Ozuna criticized administrators’ move, calling for added transparency and reporting by school.

“I don’t know why we’re not being as transparent as the state,” Johnson said, adding that gaps in reporting have left the board without crucial information. ”We haven’t had data to make decisions from, so we’ve been pulling data from everywhere.”

A prototype of the dashboard showed 18 staff cases and 38 student cases over the last 14 days. It’s unclear when the live dashboard will be released.

Blake Jones covers Kuna and Meridian for the Idaho Press. You can reach him at bjones@idahopress.com and follow him on Twitter @jonesblakej.

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