While students, families and educators across the Wood River Valley spent 2020 adjusting to sudden changes to the very structure of school itself in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Blaine County School District saw similarly abrupt changes in personnel at the administrative level.
2020 kicked off with a new makeup and leadership for the district’s Board of Trustees, with more turnover as the year went on. The fall resignation of Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes compounded a year of disruption in the BCSD—and promised more changes to come in 2021.
Here’s what happened in Blaine County education in 2020, and what to look for next year.
The Blaine County School District announced on March 14—the same day that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Blaine County—that it would close all its schools and facilities for three weeks. Private schools in the Wood River Valley, including the Sage School, Syringa Mountain School, and Sun Valley Community School, followed suit in announcing temporary closures shortly after.
But as the number of COVID-19 cases in Wood River Valley continued to rise in the following weeks, catapulting the local infection rate to one of the highest in the world, the BCSD extended that closure to the end of the 2019-20 school year, shifting to an online-only learning model. That decision came after the Idaho State Board of Education extended its “soft closure” of all K-12 schools in the state—which allowed for some schools to reopen under certain conditions—through the end of the school year.
In August, the district’s board of trustees voted to begin the 2020-21 school year with a hybrid learning plan, which called for students to attend school in the classroom two days a week. Those with surnames beginning in the first half of the alphabet would attend on Monday and Wednesday, and the remainder would attend on Tuesday and Thursday. On the days they weren’t physically in school, including Fridays, students would participate in online learning.
Meanwhile, other schools in the region took different approaches. The Sun Valley Community School began the school year with fully in-person learning and has largely remained in that model since then. The Sage School also reopened for in-person learning, but divided the student body into four separated groups to allow for increased social distancing. In late October, the Community School’s high school temporarily shifted to online learning after multiple COVID-19 cases were confirmed among students and faculty.
The BCSD plan has remained in place since the start of the school year, with two schools in the district—Alturas Elementary and Silver Creek High School—temporarily shifting to online learning for two-week periods at different points due to COVID-related staffing challenges. In early December, the trustees approve a resolution stating that the district would continue to operate under the hybrid plan until the end of the first semester of the current school year; the new semester begins at the start of February.
That resolution also directed district administrators to prepare a plan for resuming full-time in-person instruction and an assessment of whether the district should do so, both of which will be presented to the trustees at their regular January meeting. The resolution does not guarantee that the district will move into full-time in-person learning at any point this school year, however. If and when the district does decide to return to fully in-person learning in 2021, schools will need at least three weeks’ notice to prepare, according to administrators.
New school board members
When the year began, the Blaine County School District Board of Trustees consisted of three newly voted-in and two returning members, with newcomer Keith Roark at the helm as chairman. Trustee Rob Clayton and Trustee Kelly Green remained from the previous board; Roark, Vice Chair Lara Stone and Trustee Amber Larna were fresh faces.
At the end of April, Clayton, who had served on the board since 2014, announced that he was stepping down from his Zone 4 seat because he was moving out of the zone: “My hands are tied by code,” Clayton told the Mountain Express at the time.
He was replaced in June by Dan Turner, who lives north of Ketchum. Turner, who previously worked as general partner with Rubicon Capital Group LLC in Los Angeles, had served on the board of directors for the Wood River Community YMCA since 2012, serving as chairman of the board between 2013 and 2016.
In August, Green, the last remaining veteran board member, also stepped down, citing a “bullying culture” and “toxic environment” allegedly perpetuated by Roark as the reason for her resignation. Roark responded by telling the Mountain Express that Green “served on a prior board where the superintendent had a great deal of sway” and “was never comfortable when the current board changed that direction.
“I respect that,” Roark said at the time. “I thank her for her service.”
Green’s seat was filled in December by Gretchen Gorham, Ketchum resident and co-owner of Johnny G’s Sub Shack. Gorham is not a resident of Zone 2, as Green was—but under Idaho law, a school board vacancy for a specific zone may be filled by anyone in the school district if no one from that zone has filled the vacancy within 90 days.
After six years of serving as superintendent of Blaine County schools, Holmes announced in March that she would step down from her position at the end of June 2021, when her current contract ends. Her announcement kicked off the search for a new superintendent, with the district ultimately receiving 27 applications for the position from candidates spanning 15 states.
On Nov. 12, Holmes announced that she would be leaving sooner than expected, submitting her resignation again—effective immediately. Wood River Middle School Principal Fritz Peters was named interim superintendent and will serve in that role until the new superintendent assumes office on July 1.
In the meantime, the search has been narrowed to two candidates: James Foudy, current superintendent of the McCall-Donnelly School District in McCall, and Heather Sanchez, who serves as executive director of schools for the Bellevue School District in Washington. Foudy and Sanchez are expected to visit Blaine County in the first week of January to meet with the community, tour district schools and answer questions from administrators, teachers and staff. They will also meet one-on-one with individual trustees and with the whole board.
Two virtual meetings with the community will take place on the evening of Jan. 7, according to Peters; further details will be published in the Mountain Express when they become available.