School Reopen Illinois

Students wear masks as they walk to their classroom at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill., part of the North Shore school district, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

(The Center Square) – A Benton County Superior Court Judge has cleared the way for the recall of three Richland School Board members to move into the signature gathering phase for a public vote.

Judge Norma Rodriguez ruled Wednesday that most of the charges brought against the trio met state standards for recall, paving the way for the electorate to decide their fate.

With that decision, board members Semi Bird, Audra Byrd and Kari Williams will be responsible to pay their own legal fees.

Last month, the board voted to cover attorney expenses for the embattled members, but only if the judge ruled in their favor.

Bird and Byrd voted in favor of receiving conditional legal protection, while Williams recused herself from the vote.

Board President Jill Oldson and member Rick Jansons also voted in favor of potential legal fee coverage.

The board members now have 15 days to decide on whether they will appeal this week’s decision to the Washington Supreme Court.

Byrd, Williams and Bird are facing a recall effort launched by four individuals. They are accused of violating state law and multiple district ethics and policies when they voted in February to make masks optional.  

Brad Rew, one of the recall petition supporters, told KEPR News on Wednesday that the effort is about holding board members accountable for their actions.

"They not only violated many different things, but they just acted very recklessly and we can't let that continue. We can't let future boards tomorrow, next year, 10-50 years from now think this is okay," Rew said. "This type of behavior is not okay.”

According to a Feb. 15 meeting report, Byrd led the charge to defy Gov. Jay Inslee’s state’s mask mandate for students. Although Bird and Williams had previously opposed the idea, they ended up voting in favor.

With that vote, Richland joined Kittitas, Kettle Falls and Colville school districts in making masks optional before Inslee removed the mandate in March.

Richland schools were closed for two days so administrators and teachers could make adjustments to accommodate the new policy.

All four districts ended up reversing the removal of facial covering within days after being threatened with a loss of state funding if they did not comply.

The Richland School Board Recall group now has six months to gather signatures equaling 25% of the total votes cast in the elections that put Williams, Bird and Byrd in office. That equates to 4,700-5,300 for each school board member.

Under state law, signature gathering can begin on May 27.

Rodriguez heard arguments from both sides of the issue before determining May 11 that five charges had sufficient merit to be brought before voters. These included a violation of the open public meetings act because the vote on masks had not been included in the published agenda.

In addition, she determined the subjects held non-public meetings in violation of state meeting transparency rules. And that they voted to make masks at schools optional despite knowing their vote violated the law and being warned by counsel about the potential consequences.

The trio also violated the district court of ethics, determined Rodriguez, by failing to uphold all laws rules and regulations and consulting those who would affected by the change in policy.

The judge cut the charge that accused Bird of violating some of his constituents’ free speech rights by censoring and deleting comments on a social media page. The recall group had tried to convince Rodriguez that Bird’s Facebook page was a “public forum.”

Staff Reporter

RaeLynn Ricarte is the author of two books and an award-winning editor and reporter with more than 25 years in the newsroom. She now covers government in Eastern Washington for The Center Square.