With five months until the end of the school year, January is normally a time when students are telling Harney County Schools Superintendent Marilyn McBride about their plans for summer camps and colleges, or asking questions about upcoming class trips.
Yet, as almost a month has passed since the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge began, the conversation on campus has turned towards concerns about future violence.
“I had a conversation with a high school student,” McBride told OPB, “and she wanted to know if someone entered the school with a gun, what was she to do. And I had a 5-year-old come up to me and say she couldn’t sleep at night, because someone was watching her in the trees.”
“This is not okay,” McBride added.
McBride tied the stress she hears from students directly to the occupation.
“We’re seeing a change in the children’s behavior, especially with middle school children,” McBride said. “More outbursts, more worrying, and our teachers are having to give them more patience and time, which takes away from lessons and planning.”
Meanwhile, the occupation at the refuge – which has divided the town of less than 3,000 people – is also dividing teachers at the schools.
“It’s a hot issue,” McBride said. “Staff and students are passionate about what side they are on. Families … one is strong one way, and one is strong another.”
Asked if she had seen fighting or shouting matches between district staff about the occupation, McBride said she had, but declined to elaborate further.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Big Costs for a Small School District
While militants hunker down and refuse to leave the refuge, the Harney County School District is losing money to pay for mental health counselors, security personnel and other administrative costs.
According to district financial records, staff costs at the district are about $35,900 per day. That does not include costs for extra security and counselors for students.
“We don’t have the final tallies, but I believe it will cost an extra $4,000 or so per day,” McBride said.
The school also has to pay more in rent, as the Harney County Joint Information Center is using district space as a staging area for law enforcement personnel.
“They’re using a space that’s normally reserved for our Residential Treatment Center for special needs students,” McBride said. “We’ve moved that class out to another location, a private location, which costs the district about $100 per day.”
The district is also out $179,500 for the week schools were shut down, McBride noted.
“We had to pay teachers, even though they didn’t come in,” McBride said. “That week of instruction doesn’t go away, so basically that money disappeared from the district.”
The district, which has an annual budget of just under $18 million, would like to get reimbursement money from the state to cover costs related to the occupation.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, meanwhile, said she is asking federal officials to pay for the occupation.
In an interview with OPB, Brown also asserted that teachers were leaving the Harney County School District as part of the occupation. McBride told OPB she wasn’t aware of any retirements or departures.
But, the Superintendent said many long serving teachers were buckling under the pressure.
“I walked into one classroom of a teacher who has been there 25 years plus,” McBride said. “She was in tears because of the stress this is causing. I had never seen her cry before, and this is a teacher who’s been through thick and thin.”