Willamina School Board to consider policy that would permit Tribal flag

06.12.2015 Dean Rhodes Culture, Education, State Government

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

WILLAMINA – The Willamina School Board will consider a revised policy regarding flag displays and salutes at its Tuesday, June 23, meeting that would accommodate a parent’s request to place the Grand Ronde Tribal flag in the high school gym.

The revised policy, developed by Willamina School District administrators, would allow the display of flags other than the U.S. and Oregon flag “from a federally recognized sovereign nation located within district boundaries if the sovereign nation requests and provides an appropriately sized flag.”

The policy also states that the district will determine the location of the flag – gymnasium only -- and the appropriate size of the flag.

Willamina School District Superintendent Gus Forster said the revised policy will protect the district from receiving requests “from everywhere” to hang a flag inside school facilities.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is the only federally recognized sovereign nation within the school district’s boundaries.

The original request to hang the Tribal flag did not officially come from the Tribe, but from Tribal member Angela Fasana, who is a graduate of Willamina High School and has sent both of her children to Willamina schools.

Fasana’s original request was inspired by her visit to Pendleton, where she saw the Umatilla Tribal flag hanging in the high school gym. She sent an e-mail to Forster, requesting that the school district hang the Grand Ronde Tribal flag since about a third of district students identify as Native American.

Forster placed it on the School Board’s April agenda, but it was pulled from the “action item” list by Board President Craig Johnson, who suggested the Tribe pay $25,000 to hang the flag for five years.

At a tense May School Board meeting attended by more than 100 people, Tribal and community members were allotted slightly more than 40 minutes to testify regarding Fasana’s request. No one spoke in opposition to hanging the Tribal flag, but the School Board did not comment or take action on the proposal, leaving many in the audience frustrated and dismayed.

The ensuing controversy prompted Fasana, who had been the Tribal liaison to the School Board for eight years, to mount a last-minute write-in campaign for School Board that received more than 40 votes in the May 19 election.

Forster said the revised policy was sent to School Board members during its development and only one comment was received, which was incorporated into the final policy. “They didn’t say ‘no’ to it,” he said.

Forster said he also consulted with Winston Cornwall, a Civil Rights Education specialist with the state Department of Education, and with Betsy Miller-Jones, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, as well as his administrative team in the development of the policy.

He met with principals Tim France and Carrie Zimbrick, who will succeed him as district superintendent in July, and developed a policy that will hopefully address concerns on both sides and still gain support from a majority of board members.

 “The board is now in a position to vote,” Forster said. “They wanted a policy in place. I think this is one that meets their expectations.”

Cornwall said the state Education Department’s legal staff reviewed the proposed policy. “We have not seen the revised policy,” he said, to determine if the district utilized input from the state.

Cornwall and Education Department Indian Education Specialist April Campbell, who is a Grand Ronde Tribal member and former head of the Tribe’s Education Department, became involved in the controversy after the April School Board meeting.

“I was invited to attend a board work session,” Cornwall said. “When I attended the work session, I shared that I thought the request to have the Tribal flag be placed in the gym was very reasonable.”

Cornwall cited both the Pendleton and Jefferson County school districts, which honored similar requests to hang the Umatilla and Warm Springs Tribal flags, respectively, without the request reaching the board level or requiring a policy.

“I shared that I had witnessed the benefit of the flags and that relationship firsthand. I encouraged the board to speak with the superintendents and, if they wanted to, to speak with the board members,” Cornwall said. “The requests in those communities were received as a way to foster cooperation and represent as many of the population of those school districts as possible in the most appropriate manner.”

Cornwall, who attended the May School Board meeting, said he also will attend the June 23 meeting to see the issue to its hopeful conclusion.

“It’s a complex situation for the board members of this district,” Cornwall said. “I’m not a board member and I am not a representative of the community. I am more interested in the outcome and response based on how the board’s output has been received. I will be observing and supporting this process through its conclusion.”

Johnson did not return a phone call from Smoke Signals seeking comment on the proposed flag policy.

After adoption of the revised policy, the School Board is scheduled to vote on Fasana’s original request without the Grand Ronde Tribe having to make an official request to the School District, Forster said.

Other board members are Clinton Coblentz, Dan Heidt, Linda O’Neil and Ken Onstot. The board will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 23, in the school library on the Oaken Hills campus.