Hecklers, screams disrupt Richland, WA school board meeting

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The Richland School District Administration Building on Keene Road in West Richland is lit up at night.

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A group of loud and angry attendees nearly derailed the Richland school board meeting on Tuesday night.

Chair Jill Oldson eventually called a 5-minute break after the group got angry at the board’s new deadlines for commenting on the board.

In recent months, the school board has imposed restrictions on its public comment period in an effort to keep meetings to a manageable length.

It was not uncommon for some meetings starting at 6:30 p.m. to go on until 11 p.m.

Under the revised system, public commentators are allowed 2 minutes each to speak, with the first 15 minutes reserved for those attending in person and the last 15 for those on Zoom. All comments were cut off after 30 minutes.

Community members and parents can still submit the board public comments via email.

Kat Espinda, a Richland mother and vocal council critic, approached the council table during the transition to online commentary and accused Oldson of not wanting her to talk, also calling her a coward.

That’s when Oldson gave a short break to “take back control of this room, on both sides,” she said.

The disruption came shortly after three in-person commentators told the board they were against the district paying attorneys’ fees to defend three of its board members against a recall challenge.

The board finally agreed later that night to pay legal fees if a judge determines the petitions do not meet Washington state’s standard for a recall vote.

Board members Audra Byrd and Semi Bird tried to ease the tension.

“I’m just going to ask you, if it’s okay: can we end the school board meeting?” Because what’s going to happen is there’s going to be an option to bring it to Zoom, which means you’ve wasted your time here,” Bird said.

“It’s not my choice, I’m not the chairman of the board,” he added.

After some bickering that lasted a few minutes, Oldson resumed the meeting with the intention of moving on to Zoom commentators.

“What I want the whole community to understand and realize is that we have a student in this room with us right now,” Oldson said, pointing to the board’s student representative. “We have a room full of divided parents.”

The Richland student representative also intervened.

“I don’t think it works to heckle and tell people what to do and be rude, or to see students as a monolith,” the student said.

A teacher who commented via Zoom said she was disappointed with the advice.

“It’s so sad. It’s embarrassing to work for this district right now,” she said.

But the discomfort persisted.

During council comments, council member Rick Jansons spoke about attending a poetry slam at Hanford High School.

Students spoke of hurtful anti-LGBTQ comments in the community and at school.

“I want to first apologize for not speaking more, but second, emphasize that we serve and appreciate every student – ​​no matter what – in this district,” Jansons said.

But he was interrupted by a man at the meeting who started heckling him with shouting. Jansons told him to calm down.

“I want him gone if he does it again,” he said, banging his fist against the table. “Throw him out.”

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Eric Rosane is a civic responsibility reporter who joined the Tri-City Herald in February 2022. He previously worked for the Daily Chronicle in Lewis County, covering education, county government and the Legislature . He graduated from Central Washington University in 2018.

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