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NCSD leaders met in private before district changed course on face mask decision, emails show
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FACE MASKS

NCSD leaders met in private before district changed course on face mask decision, emails show

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School Board Meeting

The Natrona County School District board of trustees meets April 19 to discuss requesting an exemption to the state's face mask mandate, ultimately voting against it. Public records obtained by the Star-Tribune show district leadership held a private meeting days later before announcing it would in fact request the exception.

Natrona County School District leadership held a private meeting organized by Superintendent Mike Jennings a day before the district announced it would request a mask order exemption, despite the board of trustees’ vote against doing so, according to emails the Star-Tribune obtained through a public records request.

The emails shed light on a decision-making process district officials have refused to answer questions about. The district had not previously acknowledged that a meeting took place between the trustees’ public vote and the district’s announcement less than a week later that it would seek an exception to Wyoming’s K-12 face mask requirement.

Trustees voted in a public meeting April 19 not to ask state health officials to approve an exemption to the mask rule. The 5-4 decision proved controversial, particularly among parents who had been surveyed by the district about the proposal. More than 80% of parents who responded said they supported getting rid of the requirement. Many told the Star-Tribune they were frustrated trustees did not vote in line with those results.

April 20, the day after the vote, Jennings emailed trustee leaders asking to schedule a board leadership meeting three days later.

Trustee leaders include board Chair Ray Cattalier, Vice Chair Clark Jensen, Treasurer Dave Applegate and Secretary Rita Walsh, all of whom attended the meeting, according to emails. None of the four returned calls seeking additional information about the meeting. The meeting did not constitute a quorum of the board, and so was not required to be public according to Wyoming public meeting laws.

The next day — a Saturday — district spokesperson Tanya Southerland announced via email that the district had changed course and would seek an exception to the mask requirement at a regular board meeting May 10. Trustees received the email a few hours before it was released publicly, according to email timestamps.

The district has refused to say who was involved in making the decision to pursue the mask exception, or if trustees were contacted prior to the decision. District officials have not mentioned a trustee leadership meeting when asked for information about the decision.

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At least one trustee was confused by that Saturday announcement, according to the emails. Trustee Kianna Smith replied to Southerland’s email later that day, asking Jennings, “Is the board not required to take a vote on this?”

No response to Smith from Jennings was included in the Star-Tribune’s record request.

Smith did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

The district has since told the Star-Tribune that the decision does not need trustee approval.

“Based on advice from the Board’s attorney, variance requests are not required to be voted on by the Board of Trustees because they are operational in nature,” Southerland wrote in an email April 28 after declining to take phone calls from Star-Tribune reporters. “The Superintendent’s path forward takes into account questions voiced by Trustees during the April 19th, Board Meeting Special Session. The Board of Trustees could take action within a public meeting to affirm or modify the actions of the Superintendent.”

District officials have not explained publicly how the decision was made or why the board’s approval was initially sought if it is not required, as administrators now say. Nor have they made themselves available to reporters, declining to speak on the phone since the announcement was made. Officials have provided scant details via email.

Trustees are expected to discuss the mask exception at a meeting Monday, though the agenda for that meeting was not yet available as of 1 p.m. Friday.

Twenty-two of Wyoming’s 48 school districts have received exemptions to the state’s K-12 mask mandate, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. Three districts have pending requests. Natrona County School District had not submitted a request as of Friday afternoon.

All but one of the districts with an approved exception serve fewer than 2,000 students. The outlier — Sheridan 2 — serves about 3,500.

Follow health and education reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @m0rgan_hughes

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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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