What happens after rare recall leaves a WA school district with no quorum? What we know

For the first time in decades in Washington state, three members of a five-member school board are being recalled from office for voting to make COVID face masks optional.

That will leave the Richland School Board without a majority on the eve on the start of the 2023-24 school year.

While two of the seats are up for election in November, there’s confusion among public school administrators about what the next steps are to appoint enough board members to form a voting quorum until then.

Molly Curtiss, communications director with Educational Service District 123 (ESD 123), said they are working with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office to receive information and direction as to what the next steps are.

More details on what that process will look like are expected by Friday.

“At this time, we are working to finalize timelines and meeting dates,” she wrote.

It’s possible they could request an opinion to clarify laws that guide filling vacancies. State law says the task of filling vacant seats on a school board falls on the ESD when a quorum of the school board cannot be reached.

What comes after that is unclear.

“My understanding, for school board directors, this is a first for the state,” said Richland School District spokesperson Shawna Dinh. “We know that we will be getting more guidance over the next couple days from ESD 123 and solidify a plan to move forward.”

Dinh said the Aug. 22 Richland School Board meeting is still scheduled to take place, pending any new action or guidance from ESD 123.

“Everything is sort of learn as we go,” one Richland official told the Tri-City Herald.

Three of Richland’s five school board members — Kari Williams, Semi Bird and Audra Byrd — will be removed from office by Aug. 15 if recall election is successfully certified.

As of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 55% of voters were supporting the recall of each of them, and they were needing at least 1,400 votes to overcome the lost ground.

If the recall succeeds, Rick Jansons and Jill Oldson would be the only school board members available to preside over the board’s business after Aug. 15.

But a school board is legally required to have a quorum — in this case, three of five board members present — to conduct business.

ESD 123 — a regional education organization that assists local school districts with public education in Southeast Washington, from Clarkston to Prosser — will appoint one board member so the board can function until the next election.

But what seat will be filled and for how long is unclear.

Richland School Board members Semi Bird, Kari Williams and Audra Byrd, from left.
Richland School Board members Semi Bird, Kari Williams and Audra Byrd, from left.

Possible scenarios

The seats of two of the three school board members under recall, Williams and Bird, are up for reelection this November.

Whoever wins those races in November will earn a multi-year term on the school board.

Audra Byrd is the third recalled board member with the longest term still to be served out. Her current term doesn’t end for another two years.

It’s possible ESD 123 appoints an applicant to fill out the rest of her term, and that the newly established three-member Richland School Board appoints two candidates to serve until after the Nov. 7 general election.

But it also is possible that ESD 123 could fill any of the expiring terms currently filled by Williams or Bird.

Kari Williams is the only candidate who is facing both a recall and reelection.

It’s possible she could be recalled, removed from office and then reelected in November to a new term.

In that case, she would be out of office for only a few months.

Semi Bird is not running for a second term in order to focus on his 2024 run for governor.