Big 0.6% April wholesale price jump catches many off guard
WASHINGTON — Wholesale prices, driven by escalating costs for services and food, jumped 0.6% in April, surprising economists and providing more evidence that inflation pressures are starting to mount with the country emerging from a recession brought on by the pandemic.
The increase in the producer price index, which measures inflationary pressures before they reach consumers, was double the 0.3% gain that economists had been expecting. The increase, reported Thursday by the Labor Department, followed a sizable 1% advance in March.
Over the past 12 months, wholesale prices are up 6.2%, the largest advance since the data was first calculated in 2010.
Food prices shot up 2.1% in April, the biggest monthly tick higher since a similar increase last October. Costs for things like airline services and food retailing services climbed 0.6%. Two-thirds of the increase in wholesale prices was attributed to the jump in the overall cost of such services.
Energy prices fell 2.4% after a string of big gains that began in December. Economists believe that energy prices will resume their upward march soon, reflecting among other things the temporary shutdown of the nation’s largest fuel pipeline due to a cyberattack.
Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, rose 0.7% in April, reflecting widespread price pressures that are showing up as demand increases with the wider reopening of the economy. Over the past 12 months, core inflation at the wholesale level is up 4.1%.
The report on wholesale inflation came a day after the government reported that consumer prices shot up 0.8% in April, the largest monthly jump in more than a decade, with one-third of the gain attributed to a record 10% increase in used car prices.
Federal Reserve officials including Fed Chairman Jerome Powell insist that the recent price increases will be temporary as the economy reopens, and not a sign that inflation is getting out of control.
Yet rising prices have jarred Wall Street, which just registered three days of losses and the biggest one-day drop in the S&P 500 since February. Investors fear rising prices will force the central bank to abandon the ultra-low interest rate policies put in place to support the economy after pandemic shutdowns forced millions of people out of work.
However, private economists said despite the reports this week of sizable gains in consumer and wholesale prices, they still believe the price surge is temporary.
“Since we believe much of the acceleration in inflation will be transitory, we share the Fed’s view that this isn’t the start of an upward inflationary spiral,” said Mahir Rasheed, an economist at Oxford Economics. “We look for the pace of inflation to gradually cool heading into 2022.”
McDonald’s raising U.S. workers’ pay in company-owned stores
McDonald’s is raising pay at 650 company-owned stores in the U.S. as part of its push to hire thousands of new workers in a tight labor market.
The fast-food giant is also encouraging its franchisees — which make up 95% of its restaurant base — to boost pay.
McDonald’s follows other chains including Chipotle, which said Monday that it will raise workers’ pay to an average of $15 per hour by the end of June. Darden Restaurants, the owner of Olive Garden and other chains, said it March that it will guarantee workers $12 per hour including tips by 2023.
Amazon, Costco and other big companies have all announced pay raises in recent weeks.
Wages and benefits for U.S. workers have been rising quickly as vaccinations increase and employers try to meet growing demand at restaurants and other businesses. U.S. workers’ total compensation rose 0.9% in the first three months of this year, the largest gain in more than 13 years, according to the Labor Department.
McDonald’s, based in Chicago, said Thursday that its hourly wages will increase an average of 10% over the next few months to $13 per hour, rising to $15 per hour by 2024. Entry-level workers will make at least $11 per hour; shift managers will make at least $15 per hour.
Fight for $15 and a Union, a labor group which is trying to unionize fast food workers, said the increases aren’t enough and it will continue to demand a starting wage of $15 per hour for all McDonald’s workers.
“Clearly, McDonald’s understands that in order to hire and retain talented workers, something needs to change,” union organizer and McDonald’s employee and union organizer Doneshia Babbitt said in a statement. “Now, they’re raising pay for some of us and using fancy math tricks to gloss over the fact that they’re selling most of us short.”
Fight for $15 is planning strikes in 15 cities next Wednesday ahead of McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting.
However, the vast majority of McDonald’s nearly 14,000 U.S. stores are owned by franchisees who set pay in their own restaurants.
McDonald’s said it didn’t have data on wages at franchised restaurants but said that it’s asking them to follow suit.
“We encourage all our owner/operators to make this same commitment to their restaurant teams in ways that make the most sense for their community, their people and their long-term growth,” McDonald’s U.S. President Joe Erlinger wrote in a letter to employees.
In a prepared statement, the U.S. National Franchisee Leadership Alliance which negotiates with the company on behalf of franchisees expressed support for the wage hikes and encouraged restaurants to stay competitive in their local markets.
Back to square one? Trump decision still weighs on Facebook
Suppose you were Mark Zuckerberg, recently ordered by an advisory board to decide how long former President Donald Trump should stay banned from Facebook. How do you make that decision without alienating key constituencies — advertisers, shareholders, users, lawmakers and others — while staying true to your own sense of what Facebook should be?
It’s a hypothetical exercise, but one that illustrates the high-wire act Facebook’s leadership now has to pull off.
Facebook’s quasi-independent oversight board last week said the company was justified in suspending Trump because of his role in inciting deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. But it told Facebook to specify how long the suspension would last, saying that its “indefinite” ban on the former president was unreasonable.
The ruling, which gives Facebook six months to comply, effectively postpones any possible Trump reinstatement and puts the onus for that decision squarely back on the company — the exact scenario Zuckerberg was likely trying to avoid in the first place.
For years, he and other Facebook executives have insisted that Facebook should not be the “arbiter of truth” and that as a tech company it shouldn’t be making decisions on thorny societal matters such as free speech. Zuckerberg has stated publicly numerous times that he supports government regulation, although the rules Facebook wants aren’t always the same as those regulators might seek.
The company said this week it has no updates on its plans for Trump’s accounts beyond what it said last week, when it said it will review the board’s decision and “determine an action that is clear and proportionate.” It plans to respond to the board’s recommendations within 30 days of the decision.
Here are some of the constituents that could have strong and wildly different reactions to Facebook’s ultimate decision.
Facebook has more than 2.7 billion users worldwide — most of them outside of the U.S. For most, Trump’s presence or absence on the platform is unlikely to greatly influence whether they should stay or they should go. Most people remain on Facebook even if they’re not entirely happy with it, studies show.
While some users are leaving Facebook — often citing the toxicity of political conversations and the platform’s broader actions against hate speech and misinformation — enough are staying (and joining) for the company to report rising user numbers quarter after quarter. For those who’ve left, even a decision to keep Trump off the platform forever is unlikely to make a difference.
Younger social media users are more likely to be liberal and, based on Pew Research studies, are more likely to use newer social media platforms that are still growing in the U.S. such as TikTok or Snapchat. In other words, if Facebook wants to keep expanding Instagram, its platform most popular with that demographic, banning Trump permanently is unlikely to hurt.
While many Americans might look to Facebook’s final decision as a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on Trump, the approach the company takes could also affect its relationship with users around the world and their local and national political leaders, said David Kaye, a former United Nations special rapporteur on free speech.
“What kind of platform does Facebook want to present to the world?” asked Kaye, now a law professor at the University of California at Irvine. “A platform that cares about its users, cares about offline harm, and devotes resources to solving problems about offline harm? Or do they want to be known as the place that facilitates ethnic cleansing?”
U.S. POLITICIANS AND REGULATORS
Whatever Facebook decides will probably enrage one side of the political aisle.
That could be even messier if Trump decides to run for president again in 2024, since he’d once again be a major political figure. Facebook isn’t bound by the U.S. First Amendment, which prevents the government from muzzling free speech, so it can technically do whatever it wants under its rules. But a private company banning a major party candidate from its service could be complicated and might invite further scrutiny from antitrust enforcers over its power.
Of course, Twitter banned Trump permanently without a backward glance, and it’s still standing. Its shares, which briefly dipped after it announced the Trump ban in January, have since recovered. But a permanent silencing of the former president on Facebook would still anger Trump and his supporters.
Since before Trump was even elected, a vocal and growing set of conservative politicians have pushed the narrative, with no proof, that Facebook and other tech companies are biased against conservatives. A permanent ban would further cement this belief, possibly pushing sympathetic users to other, smaller platforms.
On the other hand, allowing Trump on Facebook again could fuel the push by some civil rights advocates to seek stricter rules against harmful misinformation — perhaps in ways that could hurt Facebook’s business model, which thrives on any kind of engagement.
SHAREHOLDERS AND ADVERTISERS
Facebook holds so much sway over how online advertisers reach consumers that whether Trump is on or off the platform is unlikely to matter much to them, said Cathy Taylor, of the London-based World Advertising Research Center.
“There’s not many places for them to go to spend their ad dollars,” she said. “They kind of are backed into being on Facebook whether they like it or not.”
Taylor said major marketers did get the company’s attention last summer when they launched a boycott pushing Facebook to take a stronger stand against hate speech, but those big brands — from Starbucks to Unilever — still accounted for less than 1% of Facebook’s revenue in the U.S.
The company’s stock is trading close to last week’s record high, despite some skittishness due to regulatory pressure on Facebook’s plans for an Instagram aimed at children. Its advertising revenue is soaring, thanks in large part to a boost in online ads during the pandemic. Revenue grew 48% to $26.17 billion in the first three months of this year — a pace more typical for startups than for massive global corporations.
And as long as Facebook profits from advertising spending, the company’s shareholders will stay happy, too.
“Facebook in particular has tons of small and mid-sized businesses that don’t even enter into these big political conversations,” Taylor said. “There’s no sign that anything is changing with these social media sites based on whether or not Donald Trump is on the platform.”
Stocks rise after three days of losses, Bitcoin drops 11%
Stocks were posting strong gains in midday trading Thursday, following three days of losses and the biggest one-day drop in the S&P 500 since February.
Technology stocks, which were hurt hard earlier in the week, were among the bigger gainers. Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook were all up 1% or more.
The S&P 500 was up 1% as of 11:47 a.m. Eastern. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 367 points, or 1.1%, to 33,955 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite was up 0.5%. It’s not uncommon for markets to reverse direction after sharp gains or losses over a period of days as investors reassess markets and pause during period of volatility.
Investors have had things to be concerned about. Last week’s jobs report was showed fewer employers hiring than had been expected, and on Thursday the government reported that wholesale prices jumped 0.6% last month, driven by higher costs for services and food. That was more than expected and the latest indication that inflation pressures are mounting.
Rising prices reflect growing economic activity after last year’s global shutdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic. However investors worry inflation might disrupt the recovery or prompt central banks to withdraw stimulus and near-zero interest rates.
“The capital markets are clearly grappling in a tug of war,” said Bill Northey, senior investment director at U.S. Bank Wealth Management.
Investors have been questioning whether rising inflation will be something transitory, as the Federal Reserve has said, or something more durable that the Fed will have to address. Currently, the central bank has maintained low interest rates in order to help the economic recovery, but concerns are growing that it will have to shift its position if inflation starts running too hot.
“Is there something more durable being embedded within rising prices? The next several months will not likely resolve this debate,” Northey said.
Bond yields rose sharply this week in response to the data but pulled back slightly on Thursday. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was 1.67% compared to 1.70% the day before.
In other markets, the price for Bitcoin plunged 11% after billionaire Elon Musk changed his position on the digital currency, citing the environmental impact. He said Tesla Motors would no longer accept Bitcoin as payment for its cars.
Crude oil prices fell 3% after a key gasoline pipeline on the East Coast was reopened late Wednesday. The price of crude oil is now down slightly for the week. Energy companies lagged the market as prices fell. Occidental Petroleum slipped 4.1%.
Biden team aware of political perils from pipeline shutdown
The Biden administration swung aggressively into action after a primary gasoline pipeline fell prey to a cyberattack — understanding that the situation posed a possible series of political and economic risks.
The pipeline shutdown was an all-hands-on-deck situation for a young presidency that has also had to deal with a pandemic, a recession, an influx of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border, a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and high-stakes showdowns globally that carry the specter of war.
The administration devoted the first half of the week to showcasing all the steps it was taking to get gas back to service stations in affected areas. It scrambled into action after ransom-seeking hackers on Friday shut down the pipeline, which delivers about 45% of the East Coast’s gas. The shutdown caused a supply crunch and spiking prices — all of which the administration was preparing to address.
President Joe Biden was scheduled to deliver remarks on the pipeline incident Thursday morning, more evidence of his administration’s awareness of the political perils associated with the shutdown and of White House efforts to turn the situation into a new reason to argue for his infrastructure package.
Hours before the Colonial Pipeline was restarted on Wednesday, Biden had signaled that there were reasons for optimism.
The president followed with an executive order to improve cybersecurity. Biden’s team seized on the shutdown as an argument for approving the president’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the cyberattack was a reminder that infrastructure is a national security issue and investments for greater resilience are needed.
“This is not an extra, this is not a luxury, this is not an option,” Buttigieg said. “This has to be core to how we secure critical infrastructure.”
The Department of Homeland Security issued a temporary waiver of a federal law overseeing maritime commerce to an individual company, not identified by the government, to allow the transportation of additional gas and jet fuel between Gulf Coast and East Coast ports.
The Transportation Department was surveying how many vessels could carry fossil fuels to the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard to provide gasoline. Waivers were issued to expand the hours that fuel can be transported by roadways. The Environmental Protection Agency issued waivers on gas blends and other regulations to ease any supply challenges.
The technology firm Gasbuddy.com found that 28% of stations were out of fuel in North Carolina. In Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, more than 16% of stations were without gas.
The sudden supply crunch after last week’s hack showed the challenges that can pop up for a White House that must constantly respond to world events.
Republican lawmakers were quick to criticize the administration for previously canceling plans to construct the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Biden had canceled its permit over risks of spills and worries that climate change would worsen by burning the oil sands crude that would have flowed through the pipeline.
“The Colonial Pipeline crisis shows that we need more American energy to fuel our economy, not less,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California said on Twitter. He said Biden had “left our energy supply more vulnerable to attacks” by blocking the Keystone XL pipeline.
The cyberattack was but one of many challenges confronting the president.
Within just a few days, the Biden administration has also been dealt a disappointing monthly jobs report, a potentially worrisome increase in inflation and lethal violence in Israel. It is still trying to vaccinate the country against the coronavirus, send out hundreds of billions of dollars in economic aid and pass its own sweeping jobs and education agenda.
“You have to be prepared to juggle multiple challenges, multiple crises at one time, and that’s exactly what we’re doing at this moment,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
Higher energy prices often have political fallout, complicating reelection campaigns for incumbents outside oil-producing regions. The 1979 fuel shortage crushed Jimmy Carter’s presidential reelection efforts and helped usher in the Reagan era.
Research published last year by the World Bank looked at 207 elections across 50 democracies and found an oil price spike a year before the election “systematically lower the odds of incumbents being reelected.” The findings applied to both conservatives and liberals, showing a degree of pragmatism by voters.
The best way for Biden to respond was probably to show that he understands how rising gas prices can hurt family budgets and to move quickly to help fix the pipeline problem.
“It’s important for the president to show empathy and recognize the position that the average American is in vis-à-vis gas prices,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “Gas prices are something that don’t affect the elite — and our politicians are all among the elite.”
Seattle software firm NetMotion to be bought for $340 million
Seattle firm NetMotion Software agreed to be purchased by a technology company based in Vancouver, B.C., for $340 million in cash.
Absolute Software said its deal for privately held NetMotion, announced Tuesday, is expected to close in late June. Both companies focus on providing security solutions for their customers.
NetMotion has at least 3,200 customers worldwide and employs about 180 people, about half of which are in Seattle, and there are no plans to change that after the acquisition, said Joel Windels, NetMotion’s chief marketing officer. Absolute has more than 530 employees, Windels said.
NetMotion had about $60 million in revenue in the 12 months ending March 31, up 18% from a year earlier; it posted adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $18 million, according to an Absolute news release.
U.S. jobless claims sink to 473K as more GOP governors bar aid
WASHINGTON — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to 473,000, a new pandemic low and the latest evidence that fewer employers are cutting jobs as consumers ramp up spending and more businesses reopen.
The decline — the fourth in the past five weeks — coincides with a rash of states led by Republican governors that have blamed expanded jobless benefits for a slowdown in hiring and are acting to cut off the additional aid.
Thursday’s report from the Labor Department showed that applications declined 34,000 from a revised 507,000 a week earlier. The number of weekly jobless claims — a rough measure of the pace of layoffs — has fallen significantly from a peak of 900,000 in January.
Last week’s unemployment claims marked the lowest level since March of last year, when the viral pandemic erupted across the economy. The decline in applications is coinciding with a steadily improving economy. More Americans are venturing out to shop, travel, dine out and congregate at entertainment venues. The reopening has proceeded so fast that many businesses aren’t yet able to staff up as quickly as they would like.
In April, employers added 266,000 jobs, far fewer than expected. The surprisingly tepid gain raised concerns that businesses may find it hard to quickly add jobs as the economy keeps improving and that regaining pre-pandemic employment levels could take longer than hoped.
In Thursday’s report on jobless claims, the government said nearly 16.9 million people were receiving unemployment aid during the week of April 24, the latest period for which data is available. That is up from 16.2 million in the previous week and suggests that hiring wasn’t strong enough last month to pull people off unemployment.
The rise in unemployment recipients occurred mostly in California and Michigan, where more than 600,000 people were added to the federal jobless benefit program that was set up for gig workers and contractors.
The hiring slowdown has led to a political backlash against several federal expansions to unemployment benefits, including an extra $300 in weekly benefits paid for by the federal government, on top of state payments that average about $320. The supplement was included in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus measure, approved in March, and is set to expire the week of Sept. 6.
But so far, 12 states — all with GOP governors — have announced that they will stop paying the extra benefit as soon as June or July. In Tennessee, for example, Gov. Bill Lee said the state will stop issuing the payment July 3. In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson said on Twitter that it will end June 12.
The 12 states will also end their participation in two federal benefit programs: One that has made gig workers and the self-employed eligible for assistance for the first time, and a second that provides extra weeks of aid. Together, those programs cover 12.5 million people nationwide.
Businesses have cited the extra $300 as a reason they are struggling to hire. An analysis by Bank of America economists found that people who had earned up to $32,000 in their previous jobs can receive as much or more income from jobless aid. Some unemployed people say the extra benefit allows them to take more time to look for work, which can make hiring harder.
There are other factors that help explain why many people who are out of work might be reluctant to take jobs. Some worry that working in restaurants, hotels or other services industries will expose them to the virus, according to government surveys. In addition, many women, especially working mothers, have had to leave the workforce to care for children who are still in online school for at least part of the week.
The Century Foundation, a think thank, estimates that the move by the 12 states will cut off benefits for 895,000 people. In addition to Tennessee and Missouri, the other states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming.
In some states, the impact will fall the hardest on African-Americans, the Century Foundation calculates. Half the unemployment benefit recipients in Alabama and South Carolina are Black; in Mississippi, two-thirds are.
Biden earlier this week disputed the notion that the $300 payment is to blame for the drop-off in hiring last month. But he also urged the Labor Department to work with states on renewing requirements that recipients of unemployment aid must search for jobs and take a position if offered.
The job search rule was suspended during the pandemic, when many businesses were closed and employment opportunities were few. A majority of states have now reinstated it.
“Anyone collecting unemployment, who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits,” Biden said.
Pandemic-hit oyster farmers turn to conservation to survive
DURHAM, N.H. (AP) — When the pandemic struck last year, oyster farmer Chris Bertis soon realized the restaurants that bought his oysters had mostly closed. Without a new market, his Ferda Farms faced potential economic ruin.
Then, Bertis heard The Nature Conservancy in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts was buying millions of bivalves around the country for rebuilding decimated oyster reefs — and he quickly joined the effort.
One recent day, he pulled up cages packed with eastern oysters on the New Meadows River in Brunswick, Maine, readying them to be trucked to oyster reefs on a patch of New Hampshire’s Great Bay.
“Yeah. it really has been kind of a lifesaver to be able to keep some revenue coming in,” said Bertis, decked out in orange waders as he poured the caged oysters into shipping crates.
The program, known as Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration or SOAR, is spending $2 million from an anonymous donor to buy more than 5 million oysters in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Washington state to restore shellfish reefs at 20 locations. The Nature Conservancy is coordinating its efforts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offered similar but smaller programs in several states.
The SOAR program was launched in October with a goal of helping more than 100 oyster farmers, many who lost as much as 90% of their business during the pandemic. Their bigger oysters — known as Uglies because they’re too large for the traditional raw bar market — were piling up on farms due to a lack of demand, and the growing surplus was causing prices to crater.
Farmers needed to find a way to offload the oysters — and the program was made to order. It paid an industry—negotiated price of about 20% below pre-pandemic prices.
“What had started off as a great year for oysters going out to the restaurants just immediately stopped once the restaurants closed,” said Brian Gennaco, owner of the Dover, New Hampshire-based Virgin Oyster Company, which has sold oysters to the program and was among oyster farmers placing them in the Great Bay.
“We were on the farm looking around saying what are we going to do,” he said. “We have these oysters and they are going to outgrow the market if we can’t get them off the farm.”
The Nature Conservancy saw an opportunity to jump-start long-running efforts to rebuild oyster reefs, which the group says have declined an estimated 85% globally due to pollution, overharvesting, development and the emergence of several deadly pathogens. Oyster reefs provide habitat for fish and other wildlife as well as bolster shoreline protection. They also help clean polluted waterways, since the larger bivalves can filter as much as 50 gallons (189 liters) of water each day.
“It’s the major silver lining that comes out of the global pandemic for oysters,” said Alix Laferriere, the marine director for the conservancy in New Hampshire, who was on one of several boats in the Great Bay deploying more than 20,000 oysters.
“The growers get money during a global pandemic and we can use their oysters for conservation,” she said. “Great Bay used to be covered in oyster reefs. And because of historical overharvesting, disease and environmental stressors, a lot of those oyster reefs are gone. We need to do oyster restoration to replace those ecosystem services that are lost.”
Since 2009, the group has deposited nearly 3.5 million oysters to help rebuild nearly 30 acres (12 hectares) of reefs in the Great Bay. Unlike SOAR, those oysters were raised from larvae at the University of New Hampshire’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory.
On a recent morning, a van load of oysters arrived on the docks of the Jackson lab. The smells of sea water wafted out as the back door swung open. An army of oyster farmers dragged the crates down the wooden dock and onto three waiting boats.
As a bald eagle flew overhead, the oysters were transported to a patch of a protected waters near an uninhabited island where the farmers dumped the crates into the tranquil bay waters. They will remain there to begin proliferating and building new reefs.
The efforts come at a critical time for oyster recovery in New Hampshire — which has seen its oyster reefs decline from around 900 acres (364 hectares) to around 100 acres (100 hectares).
The population along much of the East Coast has been decimated primarily by two pathogens that arrived in the 1990s and shorten the bivalves lifespan from upwards of 15 years to three or four. The pathogens cause oyster shells to become porous and brittle.
The hope is that oysters from farms — most resistant to the pathogens — could bolster the ongoing restoration efforts.
Laferriere said her organization tried it on a smaller scale in 2018 and found that none of the 20,000 the oysters were sickened by disease and 71% survived.
Raymond Grizzle, a University of New Hampshire professor who has studied oysters in the bay for two decades, welcomed the restoration effort. But he said it was too early to say what the long-term impact of introducing farmed oysters will be on the the reefs. He works with the conservancy but did not help with the SOAR program.
The theory, Grizzle said, is that the disease-resistant oysters will breed with those in the wild, enhancing the population’s resistance to disease.
“I see it as an experiment,” he said. “We are hoping for the best. It’s almost a sure thing … that they are going to do some good. They are going to be filtering the water. They are going to be providing habitat.”
Camas parents rail against ‘woke agendas,’ masks in schools
More than 20 Camas-area residents — including the owner of a Washougal pediatric health clinic and several parents who have pulled their students out of public Camas schools — wrote letters and spoke at an in-person Camas School Board meeting on Monday, May 10, lambasting mask mandates and other COVID-19 safety measures; remote learning; racial justice and equity programs; and “woke agendas.”
“I no longer believe our children’s futures and educations are at the core and heart of the school board and district,” Kenric Thompson, who identified himself as a father of two children in the Camas School District, told Camas school board members Monday. “This is one of the reasons why I am pulling my daughter out of the school district.”
Thompson accused the school board and district leaders of “perpetuating woke agendas” including “critical race theory, pronouns, sexual education, politics and lobbying by the teachers unions, perpetual fear inside classrooms and ultimately enabling illiberal teachers to divide classrooms and target those children who do not agree with their viewpoints.”
Thompson focused on the district’s racial equity program, which he called “disgusting and shameful” and claimed is teaching Camas children “to be racist and judge each other based on the color of one’s skin.”
The school district ramped up its focus on equity issues in 2016, after hearing from several parents who were concerned about racist incidents happening inside the Camas School District. The district hosted a series of equity forums with students, parents, teachers and district administrators throughout 2018, and the school board adopted its new equity policy in October 2018.
The district’s equity policy examines how race, as well as gender, sexual identity, special education status and socioeconomic factors play into student equity and success. District leaders said then they will know they’ve achieved their equity goal “when the factors that predict any student’s success or opportunity are no longer correlated with any group identity.”
Several of the parents who spoke at the Monday night school board meeting and submitted written comments said they are concerned about “critical race theory,” an academic movement that originated with civil rights scholars in the 1970s that seeks to critically examine how social, cultural and legal issues relate to race and racism in American society.
Thompson said he believed critical race theory “is actually teaching children to be racist,” and accused the school board of “trying to introduce a woke, illiberal agenda.”
“We are not a racist country,” Thompson said, “and your liberal and divisive agendas are being pushed on our children and brainwashing them into thinking we should judge others based on a characteristic they cannot change.”
Thompson said everyone on the board who voted for the equity policy should “immediately resign.”
“The community is coming for you,” Thompson said. “You thought by hopping on the ‘woke train’ it would save all of you, but you had no idea about the sleeping giants that have been (awoken) by your illiberal push. We’re tired of these woke agendas ruining our schools and our children’s futures. And I can’t wait to see the board this next year, as it’s going to look very different if you keep this up.”
Dacey Thompson, a Camas mother of two, also spoke Monday night and said her children’s education “has been a joke over the last 14 months” due to COVID-19 restrictions that implemented remote, then hybrid and now four-days-a-week of in-person learning at Camas schools.
“Children are not affected by this virus,” she said. “My child’s right to fresh air does not stop at someone else’s fear … it is time to remove the mask to allow oxygen to get to their brains.”
According to a mid-April 2021 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least 297 children in the United States have died of COVID-19 and nearly 15,000 children have been hospitalized due to complications from the coronavirus.
Dacey Thompson accused the school board of “government overreach” that used “masks to keep people silent” and said she would not be allowing her children to continue attending Camas schools.
Like most of the speakers Monday night, neither of the Thompsons wore masks, despite a district policy requiring guests at in-person school board meetings to wear face coverings over their noses and mouths.
Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell later told the Post-Record “several people cited a medical note for not wearing their masks during the meeting” and said the district would review the state’s directive regarding masks at indoor meetings “and communicate that in our board meeting attendance requirements for future meetings.”
Snell added that some of the concerns shared Monday were frustrations with COVID-19 protocols that are established by state and county public health departments.
“This has been a challenging year with a lot of polarized views about how to navigate the pandemic and best serve our students,” Snell said. “Throughout the year, we’ve seen the protocols (for COVID-19 prevention) evolve based on the current situation with the pandemic. We expect that to continue and will stay up to date with them.”
Another parent, Kelsey Hartley, who said she had lived in Camas for about 10 years, said she also did not agree with the district’s equity policy.
“I do not agree with the new equity agenda,” Hartley said Monday. “As we all know, regardless of how much money you have or what your experience is, life will never be fair. It doesn’t matter what race you are, it will never be fair.”
Hartley said her chief concern was that she saw “buzzwords in the equity (policy) that sound like communism.”
“Social justice and Black Lives Matter as an organization we want to follow?” Hartley said. “Black Lives Matter is a misnomer. If they really cared about Black lives, there would be major unrest in the ghettos. This is like Chicago, L.A.”
“I know there have been horrible, abysmal things and behaviors of racism in our schools,” Hartley added. “However, I also feel that it is not going to work to try to make life fair for everybody. It’s impossible.”
Pediatric health practitioner claims he knows COVID cure, accuses board of ‘pure evil’
Scott Miller, a certified physician assistant who runs Miller Family Pediatrics in Washougal, was one of those who spoke out against masks and other COVID-19 safety protocols at the Monday evening school board meeting.
“I don’t know anybody that’s died (from COVID-19),” Miller said. “I’ve treated 350 COVID patients. Do you know there’s treatment? … I treat people every day. I had 90 COVID patients come into my clinic last month.”
Miller then falsely claimed ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasites in animals, as well as vitamin D and vitamin C were cures for the novel coronavirus that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans since March 2020. The European Medicines Agency and the United States Food and Drug Administration have both said the available data “does not support the drug’s use for COVID-19 outside of well-designed clinical trials.” Likewise, the World Health Organization has warned against using ivermectin for COVID-19. In February, the drug’s manufacturer, Merck & Co., Inc., stated it has found ivermectin has “no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against COVID-19” as well as “a concerning lack of safety data in the majority of studies.”
In his comments to the school board on Monday, Miller said he has felt anger “every day” because of the Camas School District’s leaders and railed against the district’s requirement for students to wear masks during their in-person learning days.
“Do you not know what you’re teaching these kids or what you’re doing to them?” Miller asked. “Or do you know and you don’t care, which is nefarious and evil? It’s either gross negligence or pure, unadulterated evil.”
Miller also brought up an off-campus COVID-19 outbreak that impacted more than two dozen Camas High students and their close contacts and was linked to a student party where teens were socializing with their peers without masks.
Miller said he would talk to students in his pediatric practice about the outbreak and when they would tell him it was bad that their peers had broken COVID-19 safety protocols and gathered unmasked, he would pull out his phone and bring up photos of himself “hanging out with a bunch of buddies in Montana, skiing, in a bar with live music,” and say, “No, they’re doing exactly what kids should be doing: (being) engaged in life.”
Miller drew applause from the audience at the board meeting, and went on, saying he did not allow his own children to wear masks during the pandemic.
“I do not allow them to wear a mask,” Miller said. “I did not allow them to wear a mask when we went to the airport and got on a plane.”
The pediatric care provider added that he has been “begging and begging” parents to unenroll their students from Camas schools, reject COVID-19 safety protocols such as wearing face coverings in public and to “start acting normally, letting go of the fear-mongering.”
Other parents also spoke against the mask requirements for Camas students attending in-person classes. The district does offer fully remote learning options for all of its students.
Geri Rubano, of Camas, said she was speaking for her son, a Camas student.
“Mask wearing presents severe risk of harm and should not be required for children,” Rubano told the school board on Monday.
Rubano compared the district’s mask-wearing policy to “forced medical experiments performed on human subjects without express permission,” and said she did not consent to her son “or any child in this district” being masked.
“Shame on you,” Rubano, who slid her mask down around her chin while speaking, told the board before walking away to applause and cheers from the crowd gathered inside the district’s board room on Monday.
Camas School Board President Tracey Malone said the school board will not change its policy regarding its requirement to wear masks at the in-person board meetings.
“If community members are unable to wear a mask, even for medical reasons, we will ask that they view a live feed of our meeting outside of the board room and submit public comment in writing,” Malone told the Post-Record on Tuesday.
Malone added that the school district does not implement critical race theory into its curriculum.
“Our focus on equity is the mission of the district to see and serve each student,” she explained. “Talking about student experiences and owning our responsibility as a district to better serve students can be uncomfortable but we want to be clear that conversations in the classroom around historical racism or systemic racism doesn’t correlate to a curriculum.”
“We understand that critical race theory is an academic movement focusing on systemic racism and we do not have curriculum based on this movement,” Malone added. “Our equity policy, approved in 2016, is about eliminating the predictors and barriers to student achievement. We hold several equity forums throughout the year.”
The district will host its next equity forum in the fall of 2021, Malone said.
COVID-19 rates continue to climb
After the 55-minute public comment period on Monday, Snell gave his superintendents report.
“Unfortunately, (COVID-19 transmission) rates are going up,” Snell said.
On Tuesday, Clark County Public Health reported a rate of new COVID cases of 276.6 per 100,000 residents, up from 110 cases per 100,000 residents in early April.
Snell said though the state has given clear guidance on how school districts could reopen classrooms as COVID-19 transmission rates fell, the guidance for what to do when students are already in the classrooms but community COVID rates are climbing is less clear.
“At this point, there are not a lot of recommendations for transitioning out (of a low or moderate COVID activity rate),” Snell said Monday.
He said district staff are not recommending making another transition, possibly going back to a more restrictive hybrid learning model, “at this point.”
“We would love to have the rates go down,” Snell said. “We continue to remind our community to wear masks, distance and do the things that help our students remain in class.”
Snell added that “another wild card” was the FDA’s announcement this week that it has approved the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 in addition to all people age 16 and older.
With that announcement, several people in the audience cried out “no” and “not approved” and “experimental” in regard to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Snell said district leaders continue to “recognize the importance of minimizing transmission for students and staff,” and urged the school board to think about what in-person learning will look like when students return in the fall for the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Board member Connie Hennessey said she would like district staff to look into possibilities surrounding the district’s requirement that masks be worn during recess and while children are outdoors.
Malone said the board “continues to strongly encourage and enforce masks inside schools,” and said, if COVID-19 rates continue to climb in Clark County, “it could be necessary to return back to our hybrid model and/or cohorting of students.”
To view the May 10 school board meeting, visit bit.ly/33xSd3R.
Engage Camas asks residents to share thoughts, concerns
One and a half years after the contentious “pool bond” election of November 2019, in which more than 90 percent of Camas voters shut down the city’s bid to build a $78 million public community-aquatics center and hundreds of Camas residents loudly complained in online forums of a perceived communications breakdown between city officials and the community, the city has launched Engage Camas, an online platform designed to be “an alternative to traditional public engagement.”
“As many people know, traditional public engagement or community involvement usually involves attending a public meeting or providing a written submission to the city council,” the Engage Camas site informs Camas residents. “This can be time consuming and inconvenient; it can also be a little intimidating. Engage Camas gives you the opportunity to have your say on issues that are important to you, at a time and place of your choosing.”
Camas Communications Director Bryan Rachal, who spearheaded the Engage Camas project, has used Engage platforms in his work with other cities, including Boulder, Colorado, and said the online platform is another tool for the public to communicate with city staff and officials.
“This isn’t the be all, end all,” Rachal said of the new Engage Camas platform, which launched in early April on the city of Camas’ recently redesigned website. “We still have to do outreach. But this is another touchpoint, another type of engagement tool.”
Rachal, the city’s first communications director, started his new position at the start of the new year, on Jan. 11. He landed in Camas as the website redesign was wrapping up, and said he heard from the city’s new administrator, Jamal Fox, as well as Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell, about the importance of establishing better methods of communication with Camas residents.
Engage Camas was a tool he’d used before, and one he knew was working in other Southwest Washington cities, including the city of Vancouver.
“A lot of cities around us use it,” Rachal said, “but we hadn’t seen that type of engagement tool in Camas.”
Residents can sign up for Engage Camas at engagecamas.com, and submit questions or comments about the city’s various projects. Currently, the site offers two opportunities for the public to weigh in: the city’s “Keep the Mask Camas” campaign, which encourages Camasonians to continue wearing face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and a question-and-answer section for Mayor McDonnell. Soon, residents will be able to contribute to conversations about the city’s new Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces comprehensive plan update and on other major city projects, Rachal said.
“This will give us a better idea of what people think about things,” he said.
Once the city has posted more projects and has more conversations happening on the Engage Camas site, Rachal will update the public on how the Engage Camas conversations are impacting city policy decisions.
Rachal will keep public records of the Engage Camas questions and comments, and plans to post — and answer — most of the questions people submit to the site.
Though the site launched just a few weeks ago, on April 5, Rachal said he thought, based on conversations he’s had with Camas residents concerned about open dialogue between city officials and the public, that the site would garner more interest.
“I did think we would have a hotter start,” Rachal said. “We’ve had three questions, but one was more of a statement and one was not specific. We did answer the (third) publicly.”
That question concerned Discover Recovery, a company slated to operate a 15-bed inperson drug treatment and rehabilitation center in Camas’ mostly residential Prune Hill neighborhood.
“How can we have any confidence that Discover Recovery will be safely overseen when the city can’t even seem to get the nearby restroom timers (in the city’s Dorothy Fox Park) to work?” a Camas resident known as “Heather M” on the Engage Camas site asked McDonnell.
“Our crews do a cleaning and inspection (Monday through Friday) and are finding lock mechanisms tampered with by filling the latch with paper,” Rachal responded on the Engage Camas site. “We know this is the case for certain at Dorothy Fox (Park). We also will be taking a look to see if there are additional issues going on with the locks in response to this inquiry. We always appreciate to hear from our park users, as this is usually the best source of information to finding these issues out.”
The Engage Camas site is one of several ways the city has been trying to reach out to its residents, Rachal added, noting that the city has also tried to become more active on social media sites, posting events and news to the city’s NextDoor site and partnering with the Clark County Historical Museum to post historical posts on the city’s social media channels every Friday.
“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” Rachal said. “We know people are (using social media to communicate), so we’re putting our messages out there and hoping they hit home.”