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‘Our hands are tied’: Bend-La Pine School Board fires three teachers who defied state’s COVID vaccine mandate

(Update: Adding school board decisions, comments from teachers, rally participant)

District waited months to see if OHA changed course, but instead it made rule permanent

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Before a crowd, some holding signs like “Rehire Don’t Fire” and "Jobs Not Jabs," the Bend-La Pine School Board unanimously accepted Superintendent Steve Cook’s recommendations and fired three teachers Tuesday evening for failing to meet a state requirement to receive a COVID-19 vaccination or sign a religious or medical exception form.

Supporters of the three teachers rallied outside the school district Administration Building during the board's closed-door executive session just before the hearings.

Supporter Adin Hess explained why he came out to support the teachers.

"They were mandated in order to have a job," he said. "So it's unfair, and we see that there needs to be justice for them. We're here in support of them."

The group then went inside as the board held three public (but limited – no public testimony) hearings on the staff recommendations, which Cook and Chief Human Resources Officer Steven Herron said were based solely on the now-permanent Oregon Health Authority requirement for educators.

First up was former Mountain View High teacher and freshman football coach Mark Schulz, a 25-year member of the Cougars coaching staff, who had told his players nearly a year ago that it was likely his final game as coach.

Schulz was not asking for his job back – in fact, after the events of the past two years, he said he's decided not to return.

But Schulz, along with La Pine Middle School teacher Zachary Webb and Ensworth Elementary kindergarten teacher Kelly Lundy, each gave statements to explain why, from their moral and religious perspectives, the school district and board had a choice -- and was making the wrong one.

Herron said at the start of each termination hearing that the district bore “no ill feeling” toward any staff members. “This, from the district’s perspective, is strictly the need to follow the law, until or unless a court declares the OHA requirement unlawful or the OHA vacates its regulations.” Until then, he said, refusal to provide a COVID-19 record or provide an exception is, technically, insubordination.

Asked why it took nearly a year after the deadline to reach this point, Herron noted that last spring, Gov. Brown lifted the vaccine requirement for state workers, so the school district “wanted to wait to see if it was waived for school district employees,” as they “had no desire” to terminate anyone. But “to the contrary, the OHA adopted a permanent rule, and there’s no evidence to suggest OHA is considering vacating that regulation.”

Schulz, 51, said he’s been a teacher and coach for over half his life, and “my life was always about relationships. … I was the teacher who would take the time to stop and talk with students like (naming the Safeway gunman) as he walked by himself.”

He said he had nothing against the vaccine, though he noted the FDA’s emergency use authorization and pointed to other issues familiar in the fierce debate over the vaccine, including that most people now getting the virus were vaccinated.

“I did not want to give up my God-given constitutional rights by signing the exception,” Schulz said, later adding that he’d “already decided I will never work for Bend-La Pine Schools again,” but saying he wants an apology for its actions and full compensation and benefits.

The recorded meeting can be viewed here:

“The whole vaccine mandate was never about safety, and the public deserves to hear that,” he said. “To be clear, I am not anti-vax. People should have a choice.”

After noting that in Oregon, “a mother has a choice to kill her unborn child,” he believes he should have the choice not to have an “unproven vaccine. My body, my choice.” He quoted the book of Timothy in the Bible and drew applause at his conclusion.

Webb had been a seventh-grade English teacher in La Pine but focused on his role as an unpaid, volunteer head skiing coach.

“Your decision here affects more than me and my family,” Webb said, noting how behavior issues have arisen among students after he was told not to return: “Athletes say they’re not going to ski If I’m not back to coach.”

“It was never about the vaccine. I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I did not believe the vaccine was the right choice for me. I don’t have a religious conviction against this vaccine,” he said, but believes in “the right and freedom we have in this country to choose what is best for ourselves. … May my students learn this lesson and stand for the rights they still have.”

Webb said he would appeal his termination to Oregon’s Fair Dismissal Appeals Board.

Herron, given a chance to respond, noted that “under the law, we have very limited capacity to challenge the sincerity” of any stated religious belief.

As for the other requirements, such as reporting testing results, Herron said, “At the end of the day, it is not about what we believe the reporting mandate is. It’s what the law is.”

Lundy, the Ensworth kindergarten teacher, said she was “devastated” by the impact on her students and staff she’d come to think of as family.

“You may have argued that I had a choice,” she said. “But I didn’t have a choice, to say no.”

Likely reflecting the guidance from that executive session, board Chair Melissa Barnes Dholakia reminded colleagues they were not to discuss the request for compensation and an apology, their belief in the mandate or its constitutionality.

But she did ask Cook, "If the board were to say we actually want these teachers back in classrooms, would the district be able to?”

Cook said if they submitted the exception forms, they could return to district employment, but without that, it would “violate the statutes as they stand.”

“It’s unfortunate that we’re here,” the superintendent said. "But the law is clear. We believe without compliance with the law, our hands are tied.”

Barnes Dholakia said given the circumstances and the state regulations, “I do not feel there is a choice available to this board, other than to uphold the decision in these cases for termination.” When no other board member made the motion, she did, seconded by board member Marcus LeGrand, and each vote was unanimous.

After the hearings and votes, Lundy and Schulz offered their reactions.

"I'm at peace about it, and I'm thankful that there's finally some finality, after all this time," Lundy said.

Schulz said, "We wished some of the administrators at Bend-La Pine would have stepped up against this mandate and made a stand with us."

Earlier in the day, Schulz told NewsChannel 21 that 25 Bend-La Pine staff were placed on unpaid leave last fall, as the district had warned would happen if they did not submit proof of vaccination or a religious/medical exception form to the district, in accordance with OHA regulations.

“Our own President Joe Biden has declared for this pandemic to be over," he said, a message he repeated to the school board. "It’s time for this mandate to be done."

Webb said he'd found another job, with the U.S. Postal Service for the past year.

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus

KTVZ News Team

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