AROUND OREGON: Adrian School Board fires superintendent for obeying state’s mask mandate

Kevin Purnell gives an emotional farewell to the Adrian community after the Adrian School Board fired him after meeting in executive, or closed, session for about 30 minutes on Monday, Aug. 30. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

ADRIAN – Kevin Purnell was fired Monday as superintendent of the Adrian School District just one week after students returned to school.

The Adrian School Board, convening in a special meeting, voted 4-1 to terminate Purnell Monday night after meeting in executive, or closed door, session for less than half an hour to consider the matter.

The board provided no public explanation for its surprise decision to oust a superintendent who has been on the job for three years and in the district for 14 years. 

Board Chair Eddie Kincade said after the meeting that the decision was because of Purnell’s failure to follow board directives. He declined to elaborate.

Kincade and board members Bobby Davis, Ryan Martin, and Quinten Shenk voted for the motion to terminate Purnell while Eric White opposed it. They took the vote without comment.

After the board emerged from executive session and had its vote, Purnell gave an emotional speech to an emotional crowd. 

He said that he had at times failed to communicate well, and that board members had at times failed to communicate in a civil manner.

“Ultimately, I feel that I have lost my way, and it began to consume me,” Purnell said. “I have become tired. Tired of disappointing myself, my family, my friends, my colleagues.” 

The conflicts Kincade and Purnell alluded to emerged amid rising Covid cases in Malheur County and continued opposition to government-mandated mask-wearing in Adrian. Purnell has said he is not in favor of Gov. Kate Brown’s mandates, but he was described in comments by Adrian residents as a “rule follower” who would enforce them anyway.

No one has yet been named interim superintendent.

Adrian taxpayers will pay out the $52,500 plus health insurance costs owed under Purnell’s contract over the next six months as a new superintendent is sought. 

Purnell has been an educator for 37 years, and an administrator for 19 of those.

Before coming to Adrian, he held a variety of roles – including superintendent, high school principal, geometry teacher and volleyball coach – during 18 years in Prairie City. 

Monday night saw Purnell energetically defended by the community he has served. 

“I know firsthand that Mr. Purnell is one of the best superintendents in the county, and it breaks my heart that we are in this position,” said Nickie Shira, Malheur Education Service District STEM coordinator and Adrian 2040 founder. “It’s sad that it has come to this. But beyond mask mandates, there’s a lot to running the school, to leading the staff and being an administrator. And Mr. Purnell is a man of integrity and ethical leadership.”

“We say that an outcome of education at Adrian is to produce good citizens. To achieve that, our children must be led by honorable and moral leaders,” said Eric Ellis. “Dismissing Mr. Purnell would send the exact opposite message – that we want only educational leaders who lead when it is convenient and non-controversial, and in accordance with the short-term passions of the vocal minority.” 

The subject of masking, opposed by some as government infringement on rights, came up during public comments to the board.

“I’m a senior this year at Adrian and I don’t really care what it takes,” said Elizabeth Nielson, Associated Student Body president. “Being online in school was not good. And if it means doing something I don’t want to do, because I don’t want to wear a mask, I’ll do what it takes.”

Across Oregon, school boards have been angered by Gov. Kate Brown’s mandates, including the requirement that everyone in a school building wear a mask. Two other local superintendents, Alisha McBride in Vale and Darren Johnson in Nyssa, have publicly come out against the mask order since it was announced in July, but their districts have been complying. 

“It depends on where you are in the state and which community, but all superintendents are facing some level of community pressure related to the mask and vaccine mandate,” said Craig Hawkins, executive director of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. “Honestly, superintendents only really have one option, and the same is true of their administrative teams and their teachers, and that is to follow the law.”

The mask mandate was a key topic at the Adrian School Board meeting on Aug. 12.

Speaking during public comment, Paul Shenk said that while he enjoyed skirting rules, “Kevin likes rules.”

“What I feel the frustration is, is that we expect the administrators to advocate for the community,” said Shenk. “As superintendents, you guys need to band together to fight.”

“(Purnell) is going to protect the district by protecting its employees, and a lot of the community would say, ‘I think that the superintendent needs to protect the kids, and protect the education the school gives by protecting the kids,’” said Jake Speelmonn, former Adrian School Board member, in an interview with the Enterprise. “They see those things as opposing. Before, you could do both. Now, with the political nature of vaccines, masks, government threats and that stuff, I think you’ve got to pick a side. You’ll toe the line, or you’ll stand on your beliefs.”

Among those beliefs is a conviction that masks are at best unnecessary, and at worst, actively harmful to children. 

Some also see the mandate to wear masks as an incentive to take their children out of Adrian and shift to nearby Parma, Idaho, where there are virtually no Covid restrictions. 

Recent census results show that the population of Adrian dropped 11% in the past decade to 157 residents. The school district’s boundary is larger than that of the town, but their fates are intimately tied.

“I am fearful that if we require all students to wear masks to school, we will be closing our school,” said Sarah Martin at the recent board meeting. “Please don’t unenroll to make a point. That’s only going to hurt our local school.” 

“It would be a shame if we let this school die because we can’t buck the system just a little bit,” said Joel Brice at that meeting.  

So far, however, enrollment is up from last year at 275 students, and the “system” Brice referred to is hardly impacting behavior. 

While Adrian High School Principal Billy Wortman insisted in an interview with the Enterprise that masks are required in his building, observers reported that few students at the high school are wearing them.

One high school student interviewed said that “not many” of her peers wear masks, but that at the elementary and middle school levels there has been more compliance.

The student said that when Wortman talked about masking, he invoked the framework of “discrimination.”

If a fellow student wasn’t wearing a mask, the student said, “We were told not to discriminate or bring it up as much. Try not to be discriminatory, basically.” 

“We don’t want to discriminate against anybody here, and if I hear about discrimination against anybody, it gets dealt with swiftly,” said Wortman.

Another student said that the only authority figure who had insisted on mask compliance in his experience was his bus driver. School buses are covered under a federal order mandating face coverings on public transit. 

The Enterprise is not identifying students interviewed to protect them from retaliation.

Masks or face shields are currently mandated throughout Oregon in public indoor and outdoor spaces, with the first restrictions announced specifically for schools. Districts can face heavy fines for flouting the mandate, and teachers and administrators stand to lose their licenses. 

Still, Purnell has been a vocal opponent of the state’s right to impose masking on Adrian. On July 31, he wrote in a letter to the community that “it is my belief that local agencies have a better understanding of the social, emotional, psychological and physical needs of their schools and communities, rather than the one-size fits all approach that is now mandated.” 

He promised that during superintendent meetings with the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority, he would continue to advocate for Adrian. 

Throughout the pandemic, Adrian residents have consistently opposed state protocols for dealing with Covid in schools. 

Last September, the Adrian School Board sued the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority, alleging that the state’s system for determining which schools could open for in-person instruction was both arbitrary and capricious, and that their students should be allowed to go back to school.

Then, at a board meeting on Dec. 10, Purnell remarked that “if a group really wanted to protest, they would just drop their kids off. Schools would then be forced to do something with the kids.” 

Quickly, a plan for a two-part protest emerged. On Dec. 15, parents and kids staged a rally, with signs, marching and speeches. And on Dec. 17, there was a “Parent Force Open,” in which students were dropped off for a full day of school in violation of the state’s two-hour maximum.

Purnell backtracked on his comments before the Parent Force Open. But in the end, 102 children participated.

“We’ve seen protests that have been called peaceful all summer that have happened around the nation and in our state. This is a peaceful protest,” said Purnell at the time. “It’s disruptive, which protests are, but the parents and the community want kids back in school.”

Adrian families got their wish soon thereafter, with Brown announcing new, more permissive Covid metrics in late December that enabled the district to return students to a full day of class in January. The district’s suit against the state was dismissed without prejudice in February.

But masks, which were still required, were unpopular. 

When the school board considered in July whether to recommend or require masks, board members enthusiastically supported the less stringent wording – only to confront new state restrictions by the end of the month.

Kincade said that the Adrian School Board is now considering joining a class action lawsuit against the vaccine mandate for school staff and volunteers.

“I think they are trying to stand up for their community and stand up for their kids,” said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association. “In both instances (when the board decided to sue), I told them, ‘Guys, I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be successful, but it’s totally within your rights to do so.’”

Even before the latest tension around masking, the Adrian School Board decided earlier this year not to renew Purnell’s contract, due to expire in June 2022.

“Back when we didn’t renew Kevin, it wasn’t because we were planning on firing him,” Speelmon said. “I said to him as a friend, ‘Kevin, is this really what you want to do?’”

Speelmon said he told Purnell that the superintendent was choosing to “sit here and fight with this board about rules that after the meeting, you don’t agree with.”

In his speech Monday night, Purnell aligned himself with the community, highlighting the need for unity in Adrian.

“I hope that this community can heal, that grace can be extended, and that the love I saw when we came here 14 years ago can return,” Purnell said.

He quoted a Bible passage, Ephesians 6:12, which says that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Purnell closed his speech with his signature “Go green, go Lopes!” – a reference to the Antelopes, Adrian’s mascot.

His supporters stood to applaud as he left the high school gym where the meeting was held, but a significant segment of the crowd remained seated.

People gather in the Adrian High School auditorium on Monday, Aug. 30, to witness the school board’s decision to fire Superintendent Kevin Purnell on Monday, Aug. 30. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

A speaker gives an emotional statement about Kevin Purnell during the public session of the Adrian School Board on Monday, Aug. 30. The board voted to fire Purnell as superintendent. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

Kevin Purnell attends his last meeting of the Adrian School Board as superintendent on Monday, Aug. 30. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

Adrian community member Paul Shenk speaks about Kevin Purnell during the public session of the Adrian School Board on Monday, Aug. 30. The board voted to fire Purnell as superintendent. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)