North Tama board declines to address OSHA mandate for now

Motion to bring back Tama Co Canine Asst fails, pushed to January

Four returning members of the North Tama Board of Education were given the oath of office in the North Tama Jr. High Commons by Board Secretary Terrill Karr (left) during this past Monday's board meeting including incumbents Rod Zobel (second from left), Cheryl Popelka (center), and Haley Blaine (right) as well as David Calderwood who was sworn in by phone. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Discussion of potential federal vaccine/testing requirements for employers and the use of the county’s canine assistant in-school program occupied much of the North Tama School Board meeting on Nov. 15.

Prior to those discussions, four board directors that won seats in the Nov. 2 school elections took the oath of office.

Incumbents Haley Blaine, David Calderwood, Cheryl Popelka and Rod Zobel were sworn in during the Nov. 15 meeting by board secretary Terrill Karr.

Following the oath, Zobel was re-elected to serve as Board President, Popelka was re-elected to serve as the board’s Vice President and Karr was re-appointed Board Secretary/Treasurer.

The third Monday of every month beginning at 7:00 p.m. was approved as the date and time for regular meetings of the 2021-2022 board. The North Tama Telegraph was approved as the official publication and several other routine board designations and appointments were made.

OSHA’s new COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing ETS

On Nov. 5, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a new Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring employers of 100 or more workers to require their employees to either provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 by December 6, 2021 or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing beginning January 4, 2022 and wear a face covering beginning December 6, 2021.

The OSHA directive also requires employers provide reasonable accommodations for medical or religious exemptions and provide paid-time for employees who are not vaccinated to get vaccinated.

The 100-employee threshold includes full-time, part-time, and temporary employees such as substitutes or seasonal coaches. According to Superintendent Hill, North Tama hovers around the 100 mark — some months the district is over and some months under. The testing requirement could create a financial hardship for the district, Hill said.

A policy primer from Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) explored the legal landscape of the OSHA directive.

“Our legal counsel … believes that [OSHA’s COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing ETS] does apply to Iowa and that it is constitutional, however, the current stay in the federal court applies to Iowa so it won’t take effect until that’s resolved in courts, that is our legal counsel’s opinion,” Hill told the board.

“There are schools who will say this whole thing is unconstitutional and yet those schools could have OSHA come in and ask to see their records … those schools could be fined by OSHA,” Hill said.

As part of the board’s discussion around the new rule, Hill further shared that the vast majority of North Tama’s staff was vaccinated, a fact he knew because “I’m the one that set up their appointments [last school year].”

But Hill also told the board he was worried what effect the new rule could have on staffing due to the state of employment in America right now.

“We do have some [employees] that I do believe would resign if they were required [to be vaccinated],” Hill said. “My larger goal right now is to make sure we fully staff our school.”

Hill gave the board several options for action they could take including putting a policy in place immediately ahead of Dec. 6, prepare a policy and then have a special meeting at some future date to approve it, or approve the policy, suspend it, and then ask the superintendent to reinstate the policy at a future time.

“I could give my sermon on why I think you should be vaccinated,” board member Doug Dvorak said at one point during the discussion, but he ultimately expressed nervousness about losing employees and did not think the board should take action yet.

“So 12/6 is your date, if you approve the policy but then we suspend it … we’re still just as not in compliance, right?” Popelka asked Hill who responded yes.

The superintendent asked for the board’s support no matter what option they chose.

Calderwood, who was attending the meeting by phone, felt the board should do nothing for the time being while monitoring the ongoing legal wrangling over the new rule in hopes it gets resolved before they have to do anything.

Ultimately the board felt the legal situation could change even further before Dec. 6 and elected to take no action at this time.

Contraband detection dogs discussion

The topic of campus searches using the Tama County Sheriff’s Canine Assistant and a proposed letter for parents/guardians, students and staff detailing such searches occupied much of the regular meeting following the vaccination policy review.

A lengthy discussion centered around why there was a need to bring back the contraband detection dogs. Both Hill and Secondary Principal Jeromiah Bliss explained that using contraband detection dogs to conduct campus searches is routine in many school districts. They explained it was a part of North Tama’s handbook and as such, had been done in previous years though not recently.

Bliss answered questions from board members about the policy including several from Val Bradley and Popelka. The two board members expressed concern about bringing the policy back amid perceived negative connotations from the recent uptick in student behavior referrals addressed during the October board meeting and published as part of the Telegraph’s coverage of the meeting.

“It isn’t that we suspect there’s anything going on,” Bliss told the board. “It’s actually to make sure students feel safe, not to make them feel unsafe.”

Both Bliss and Elementary Principal Susan Johnson told the board such a policy was good practice and a preventative measure meant to keep students safe and to deter contraband from entering the building. During the Canine Assistant searches that would happen once or twice per school year, students would be safely located inside locked classrooms.

Calderwood asked Hill to clarify that there was a search and seizure policy already on file to which the superintendent responded, yes.

“A lot of the public goes to [school board members] when they have concerns or they hear something,” Principal Johnson said to the board. “You are the number one offense to explain — this is a good thing, this is preventative, this is keeping our school safe.”

Calderwood was asked for his thoughts on pushing the proposal to a future meeting to which he stated that the Tama County Pork Producers make annual donations to the Tama County Sheriff’s Department’s canine program for training and upkeep of the Canine Assistant.

Calderwood then made a motion to allow the dogs to come in for a search of the school. Dvorak asked if he could “amend a motion” but was told he could not. The motion ultimately failed for a lack of a second.

A motion was then made by Dvorak to postpone consideration of the proposal to the January school board meeting. Popelka seconded the motion. The motion passed unanimously and the consideration of the proposal to conduct campus searches using contraband detection dogs will be placed back on the January agenda.

New hires for the district

As part of the consent agenda, new district hires were discussed including Bill Aguiar as the new Behavior Interventionist pending his release from his current contract as a special education teacher with Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools’ Lied Center Program.

Other new hires include Jan Dillon as a night custodian.

Melissa Bliss will be transferring from sixth grade teacher to half time family and consumer sciences and half time reading interventionist pending hiring of a suitable replacement.

Popelka asked who Melissa Bliss would report to now that she would be moving from the elementary building to the secondary building where her husband Jeromiah Bliss is the principal.

“Her principal will be Mr. Bliss,” Hill responded, “but as far as her formal evaluations, we’re going to assign that to [Principal] Johnson.”

Popelka also expressed some concern about switching a classroom teacher mid-year, stating that students often form attachments with their teachers by this time in the school year.

The consent agenda passed unanimously and all hiring appointments and adjustments were approved.