The Newberg school board is more sharply divided than ever after four right-wing members voted to hire an “extra” lawyer to defend their decision to ban the Pride and Black Lives Matter symbols from district schools.
Newberg School Board President Dave Brown and Vice President Brian Shannon forced the vote to hire the cabinet without the notice required by Oregon’s town hall law, despite protests from three of their fellow council members and the community at large.
“Have a little respect for majority rule,” Shannon told dissenting board members at the August 24 meeting. “You lost an election. Things are not necessarily going your way on all issues right now. Do with it. “
But Brandy Penner, Ines Peña and Rebecca Piros, who all voted against banning the symbols and hiring a new lawyer, argue the school board’s conservative majority could amplify the desires of a vocal minority of voters. or even act on the suggestions and encouragement of people outside the neighborhood.
Shannon, Brown and board member Trevor DeHart dismissed Penner’s suggestions that the board should compile the many emails it has received over the past few weeks and determine how many of them were from students , parents and district employees.
“This is not a popularity contest,” DeHart said.
The episode illustrates the divide not only in Newberg, but across Oregon and the United States, as school boards have become ground zero for culture wars.
Superintendents of Albany and Adrian were fired due to disputes with their respective school boards, the elected supervisors of a district’s top trustee. Parents and community members in Redmond and West Linn have berated school leaders for promoting critical breed theory despite being taught almost exclusively at the college level.
In some cases, including in Newberg, infighting between school boards is the result of a controversial election cycle that has seen Conservative candidates win after fights to reopen schools and racial equity initiatives.
In May, right-wing newcomers backed by a political action committee that promoted fiscal responsibility, transparency and accountability ousted two Newberg incumbents.
DeHart and Renee Powell, the two candidates backed by the community-focused civil servants political action committee, voted with Shannon and Brown to contract Tyler Smith and Associates for $ 300 an hour to “top up” existing district legal services.
“All we’re asking is a second opinion, if you will,” DeHart said.
Penner, Peña and Piros didn’t have it.
“This is the four of you facing legal repercussions for an illegal vote,” said Penner, referring to the flag ban that critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union have called a violation of human rights. first amendment.
Over the past year, Smith and Associates has made headlines for opposing state-level pandemic policies and for advising county leaders on disputed orders.
Last summer, Tyler Smith was one of two lawyers to file a lawsuit against Governor Kate Brown, challenging his authority to require Oregon residents to wear face coverings in public. They lost.
On its blog, the firm postulates that the governor’s decree banning evictions is unconstitutional.
And in April of this year, Smith advised the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners on its Second Amendment Sanctuary Order, which allows county residents to sue sheriff’s deputies who enforce state gun laws. fire.
Smith responded to a request for comment from The Oregonian / OregonLive but did not respond to specific questions from the news agency, simply saying there was “misinformation” in other media coverage.
When asked for examples, he asked, “What information makes you think my opinion was a second opinion?” “
Commissioners repeatedly used the words “second” and “additional” to describe Smith’s counsel.
Brown and the other conservative Newberg board members have repeatedly dodged a call from their three fellow board members to publicly explain why the board needs a second opinion on threats legal action against its ban on the Pride and Black Lives Matter symbols. Brown would only say that the district has a budget of $ 36,000 for legal representation.
The decision sparked widespread condemnation in Newberg and beyond.
Last week, around 100 people protested against the ban on the Pride and Black Lives Matter symbols in the city center. The locally elected Newberg City Council and the statewide Black, Indigenous and Colored Caucus have issued letters denouncing the policy.
The Oregon ACLU told the Newberg Graphic it was considering legal action. And the union that represents teachers in the Newberg District has filed an official notice that it plans to sue, reports Oregon Public Broadcasting.
The resulting split among board members prompted Brown to ask the Oregon School Boards Association to hold some sort of mediation session to begin the August 24 meeting.
Board Development Director Steven Kelley told elected leaders they should work together to form common goals with Superintendent Joe Morelock, focusing on the collective needs of students in the district.
“If you can accomplish this, you will have a positive impact on students,” he said. “Otherwise, if you go the other way… unfortunately you’re going to have a negative impact on the kids.
Towards the end of Kelley’s 80-minute presentation, Shannon, the vice-chair of the board, asked how board members can find out about daily events at Newberg schools.
Kelley explained how school boards typically work with Oregon superintendents. The administrator, in this case Morelock, and his superiors establish a strategic plan. The superintendent then regularly informs the board of directors during meetings.
“So you’re asking us to set up an information flow with the employee that he’s basically controlling and somehow we’re supposed to hold him accountable on that basis?” It sounds a bit naive based on a system configuration, ”Shannon said.
Kelley previously said it is critical for school boards to establish a relationship with their superintendent that balances the trust that the administrator is working on a set of goals they share with board members while regularly evaluating progress. He reiterated this point to Shannon.
“Technically he’s your employee, sure, but if you don’t treat him like a partner out of trust and respect, I think you’re dead out of the gate,” Kelley said.
Other board members adopted a rather accommodating tone during the presentation. But after returning from a short break, the group quickly split up along ideological lines.
Penner, Piros and Peña repeatedly told Brown, Shannon, Powell and DeHart that they felt blinded by the poor coordination of the latter four before recruiting a second law firm.
The three women also rejected Brown and Shannon’s claims that they wanted to mend their broken relationship, citing the sudden introduction of the resolution to hire Smith, which could violate Oregon’s open meetings law.
“Faced with hundreds, thousands of community members saying, ‘Don’t do this. It hurts me, ”you stick to your guns and I find it very hard to believe what you are saying,” Peña said.
At the end of the meeting, Morelock suggested that school board members resolve their differences with the help of a facilitator, a suggestion Penner made earlier in the evening. After all, he told the school board, classes are starting soon and Newberg administrators need to make students their number one priority when they do.
“You can’t also focus on these things if you’re not going to work well together,” Morelock said. “I think an outside facilitator is a great idea.
–Eder Campuzano | 503-221-4344 | @edercampuzano | Eder on Facebook
Eder is the Oregonian education reporter. Do you have a tip about Portland public schools? E-mail [email protected].