Columbia police were called to intervene during a meeting of the Columbia School Board on Monday evening.
During general public comment, parent Marisa Hagler used pointed language toward School Board members that prompted board President Helen Wade to call a recess. The board filed out, and police closed the room after the heated conversation.
Police officers have been present at both of the Monday night board meetings so far this school year, so the officers who stepped in were already at the Aslin Administration Building.
Hagler was asked to step down from the podium when she called out board members, including Superintendent Brian Yearwood and Chief Financial Officer Heather McArthur, for failing to properly answer her emails and questions.
"I've asked the board, Dr. Yearwood and Heather McArthur in 10 different emails one single 'yes or no' question, and I've also left four voicemails for Heather. I haven't gotten an answer still," Hagler said. She said she wanted to ask McArthur whether the district would be able to retain federal ESSER funding for COVID-19 relief if the district were to end its mask mandate.
Wade said Hagler used derogatory language toward the board, which warranted asking her to sit down.
"We have certain rules that we announce at every board meeting about the way which we receive public comment. One of the things that we request and require from the public is that comments refrain from being direct (and) derogatory to a person," Wade said after the meeting.
In this case, Hagler's direct criticism of a board member and district official by name, in the board's view, constituted “derogatory” language, which according to the board’s rule, warranted asking her to sit down.
Wade determined Hagler was out of order during an earlier session of public comment regarding the extension of the district's 2021-2022 Coronavirus Plan. Hagler criticized Wade by name for her response to student comment on their preference for in-person instruction when the board decided to keep learning remote during the 2020-2021 school year. Wade called Hagler out of order while attendees in support of Hagler shouted in protest.
The board unanimously voted to extend the district’s COVID-19 plan for another month. The plan has been in effect since mid-August and gives the superintendent the authority to direct a mask mandate. One is in place for students, staff and visitors in school buildings and on school buses. It was last extended at the Sept. 13 meeting.
During public comment, many speakers spoke against the plan, citing concerns over mandated masking and quarantine procedures.
Kristy Reichard, a community member, echoed the sentiment of other speakers opposed to the continuation of a mask mandate and offered solutions.
"The district needs to reward vaccinations. If students, teachers, administration, support staff, etc. are willing to share their vaccination status, then maybe they should be allowed to remove their masks once they get to their seat," Reichard said. She also showed special concern for those with learning disabilities, as did many anti-mask mandate community members. "We have teachers, students and support staff and administrators unable to do their jobs to the best of their abilities because of masks."
Multiple speakers also supported the board's extension of the plan.
The district's mask mandate has been debated for some months and prompted a lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt aimed at the district but initially meant to go after all state school districts with mask mandates. At the trial's first hearing in late September, a Boone County Judge ruled the state cannot add every district with a mask mandate to the suit.
As of late Monday, 146 students across Columbia Public Schools had COVID-19 or were in quarantine, according to the district’s tracker. Elementary schools had the highest rate of student infections. Of the 40 students with the virus, 23 were elementary students, and 62 elementary students were in quarantine. Six staff members were isolated for testing positive, and four more were quarantined.
Higher pay for bus drivers approved
Columbia school bus drivers are officially receiving a raise in salary.
The School Board amended its agreement with Student Transportation of America to boost drivers' pay by a minimum $2 an hour. The agreement will include additional staff for the Columbia office of STA, which handles school bus services for the district.
The district will pay 8% more per bus route for driver raises and other expenses, and the entry-level hourly pay for a Columbia school driver will now be $18.25.
"Drivers can also make more based on the salary schedule," district spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said in a text Friday.
STA will bill the district about $800,000 for the wage and staff increase.
The move is meant to retain and recruit bus drivers as the district grapples with a driver shortage. The shortage, which is nationwide, continues to be a problem this school year, and families have struggled to navigate bus delays and no-shows.
In September, the district told Columbia parents to have alternative plans to get their children to and from school in the event a bus is late or never arrives. During the Sept. 13 board meeting, Yearwood said the shortage is linked to the pandemic.
"We want to resolve the problem, but it is going to take help from all of us. We are going to communicate with you about the busing situation," board member Della Streaty-Wilhoit said Monday.
Scott McFarland, a community member and parent, said the bus situation is indicative of a greater issue with STA.
"We have a massive equity and education issue on our hands," McFarland said. "You have a contract with Student Transportation of America, and they are not fulfilling their contract. I hope you keep that in mind when the next bid process happens.”