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Oregon OSHA fines Alsea schools $43,000 for making masks optional

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Oregon Occupational Safety and Health has fined the Alsea School District $43,000 for knowingly not enforcing the indoor mask mandate in accordance with statewide guidelines. 

This is considered to be a “high/serious” and "willful" violation, according to a letter Oregon OSHA sent the district.

The minimum and maximum penalties for a willful violation are $9,753 and $135,653, respectively. The Alsea School District also faced a $420 penalty Jan. 4 as a result of an inspection Oregon OSHA conducted late last year. 

Alsea school board meeting 05 (copy)

In this file photo, Alsea School District's then-Superintendent Marc Thielman addresses parents and community members during a school board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. He resigned 12 days later.

The most recent investigation was triggered by employee complaints, which poured in after they learned on Jan. 20 that 10 days earlier, the school board voted to declare "local control" and make masking optional despite a statewide mask mandate put in place by Oregon Health Authority.

Responding to a request for documents, Oregon OSHA turned over to Mid-Valley Media 710 pages, including a rundown of the investigation. Fifteen Alsea school employees were interviewed by phone in February, during which investigators learned approximately 80% of the students in the district's schools and about half the staff did not wear masks. 

The documents state employees were told they were not allowed to “mask shame” if they wanted to take measures to correct an unmasked staff member or student. 

The documents reveal Superintendent Marc Thielman tendered his resignation the same day he was informed of Oregon OSHA’s decision — Feb. 22. He also appears to have thrown the Alsea school board under the bus during an Oregon OSHA interview.

Publicly, Thielman — who is also running for governor — has touted the school district’s decision, appearing on Fox news, reiterating his school district is reclaiming “local control.” 

But privately, he told Oregon OSHA: “This was not a decision he made, it was made by the school board,” one report in the file says. “He stated that he did not vote, he did not need to vote, nor would he have voted.”

The report includes every employee complaint filed with Oregon OSHA and the follow-up letter each complainant received. Names were redacted. 

One name wasn't. Richard Sugerman, who teaches at the district’s farm school program in Corvallis, decided to lift the veil of anonymity.

He informed Oregon OSHA in writing that Thielman said in a staff meeting, “if OSHA shows up and starts accusing people of violations, the Benton County Sheriff and Undersheriff have agreed to trespass them.”

To Sugerman, it was for show — and intimidation. Oregon OSHA wouldn't just appear on campus and start writing citations. “It was false bravado,” Sugerman said in an interview Friday, March 4. Asserting it offered a “false bit of protection. ‘I’m going to protect you from these things that are not going to happen.’”

In response to lifting the mask mandate, the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers union, hired an attorney to send a letter to Thielman, according to the documents.

In a Jan. 25 letter, Bennett Hartman Attorneys at Law write: “(Y)ou are placing students, staff and their families at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 at a time when a highly contagious variant is spreading rapidly throughout our communities.”  

Another consequence of the Jan. 10 resolution is that the state Department of Education has withheld federal funds designed to help school districts navigate the coronavirus pandemic. At stake is $270,000 in remaining eligible funds for the district.

Sugerman said the whole episode basically has “ruined” the district. 

“There is an unbelievable amount of turmoil right now,” he said. The district is split in two, divided by those who would like to obey the rules “and those who believe in Marc.”

He predicts the episode will turn off any would-be candidates for Thielman’s replacement. 

“I can’t imagine anyone taking the job, so we’re going to get a bottom-tiered candidate.”

Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_. 

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