2017: School board dissidents go toe-to-toe with superintendent
Editor's note: This story is part of the News-Times' special series, "Decade in Review." This series features three stories that helped to define each year of the 2010s. These can retell single stories that mattered to readers of the time, a saga that played out across many articles, and even stories that were crowded to the margins by other news at the time but have made a lasting impact on our region.
For years, the internal politics of the Forest Grove School District were animated by two principal figures: Yvonne Curtis, who took over as schools superintendent in 2008, and Kate Grandusky, her leading critic on the elected Forest Grove School Board.
Tensions had been especially high since a devastating round of budget cuts in 2011, including the closure of Gales Creek Elementary School. A Gales Creek resident and former teacher at the school, Grandusky ran for — and won — a school board seat that year in response to the closure, which she was among the leading community voices in opposing.
Her election gave Grandusky a seat at the table. But as she lamented six years later, she was in the minority on decisions like whether to hire teachers, resurrect Outdoor School and provide contraceptive services.
"I have been outvoted 4-to-1 in each of these decisions," she said.
In 2017, Grandusky's time finally came.
Unusually for a sitting school board member, she actively called for voters to dump three fellow board members who were running for re-election that May, even going so far as to personally recruit challengers to run for those seats. Grandusky told the News-Times that while she thought incumbents John Hayes, Charless Waterman and Lonnie Winkler were "nice people," they should be replaced by more independent-minded candidates.
"Yvonne would like these three people to come back because they do everything she wants," Grandusky asserted.
Whether that was true or not, voters agreed with Grandusky, and they swept out the three incumbents in favor of three challengers: Brad Bafaro, Mark Everett and Valyrie Ingram, the latter of whom also beat out the candidate Grandusky had endorsed. The composition of the school board swung overnight from frequently leaving Grandusky as a minority of one to putting her at the head of an ideological majority — one that was opposed to district administration. The new school board elected Grandusky as chair and Bafaro as vice chair, although not before the outgoing board voted 4-1, with Grandusky as the sole "no" vote, to extend Curtis' contract as superintendent.
Once the three new board members took office, it didn't take long for the majority to flex its muscle. Led by Grandusky, the school board voted to bring back Outdoor School, which had been a controversial casualty of budget cuts. Then, in October, over the objections of Curtis and her sole remaining supporter on the school board, Fred Marble, the school board voted 4-1 to hire several new elementary school teachers.
"This puts us in a really precarious place with the budget," Curtis argued.
Within weeks of the vote, though, Curtis was out. At an emergency meeting on Dec. 12, 2017, the school board approved a separation agreement with Curtis. The meeting took all of three minutes. On Dec. 18, Portland Public Schools announced it had hired Curtis as a deputy superintendent.
In an unusual move, the school district released the results of Curtis' last evaluation after she had already resigned. While previous, internal evaluations had been glowing, the school board had broken with the practice in 2017 by approving an evaluation by an outside firm. The results were scathing.
"There has been a climate of fear of retaliation for voicing concerns or a difference of opinion," one school district employee reported anonymously.
"She is either unwilling or unable to communicate directly with or show empathy toward those impacted by her decisions," said another.
Curtis worked in Portland for less than two years, resigning in June 2019 due to "a number of a challenging family situations," she said.
The political battles at the Forest Grove School District, meanwhile, have largely abated. The school board hired Dave Parker as schools superintendent in 2018. Grandusky was re-elected in May 2019 over two challengers, winning 47.5% of the vote. Marble didn't run for another term, and Narce Rodriguez, who touted Ingram's endorsement during the campaign, was easily elected to his seat.
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