Political, legal divide deepens on Newberg school board
After a day where school district officials scrambled to do damage control on a Newberg High School student's involvement in an online "slave trade" group filled with racist and homophobic epithets, the embattled school board met for its planned Sept. 14 regular meeting over Zoom.Â
Political issues, as was expected, did not disappear when chairman Dave Brown smacked the gavel on his home office desk. Instead, they remained top-of-mind for board members and public commenters alike throughout the meeting.
Public comment itself was the first dividing line of the night among school board members. After the first speaker finished, former board chairwoman Brandy Penner cut in to ask Brown if he'd been soliciting public comment for the meeting. Brown grew frustrated and deflected at first, but after director Penner's repeated attempts, he eventually answered, "No."
In August, text messages between Brown and board secretary Jenn Nelson showed that Brown requested his preferred speakers on various matters receive priority during public comment. Additionally, the board majority amended the public comment submission form earlier this week (without consulting the minority members) to include a question about where commenters side on an issue — a potential violation of board policy BDDH because procedures for public comment must be established in open meetings.
Irene Dunlop, the parent of two local students, was the night's first speaker and commented on the changes to public comment procedure and Brown's alleged attempt to stack the speakers.
"I would like to shed light on the dysfunction of tonight's public comment selection," Dunlop said. "I have a friend sitting here with me who is a district employee. She signed up weeks ago to give public comment at this meeting, then re-signed up when everyone was told to do so and asked what side they hold on the issue. She was not selected. It appears you are intentionally silencing the bulk of dissenting voices. In fact, I received a letter assuming I was a conservative voice inviting me to speak. I was chosen, and she was silenced."
In Brown's rebuttal to Penner's questions about soliciting speakers, he claimed the person Dunlop was referring to had spoken multiple times at recent board meetings, and that's why she wasn't chosen. But this newspaper reached out to that employee, Elaine Koskela, who said Brown was being untruthful and attempted to silence opposing voices in the community to create false balance.
"Tonight, Chair Brown said I have spoken multiple times," Koskela said. "This is not true. What is true is that every person who spoke in favor of their policies has spoken multiple times. Only one of them has students in the district. No staff members.
"I signed up for comment as soon as it was available, and then again when I received a message saying everyone had to sign up again. I was not picked. Apparently, the criteria has changed about order? Is this even legal?"
For much of the roughly 40-minute public comment session, speakers alternated between sides of the most prominent issue on the board's plate: its ban on Black Lives Matter, Pride and other political displays. Contrary to Brown's assertion that he wants new speakers to enter the fold, most of those who spoke in favor of the ban were repeat speakers from previous meetings.
This included Newberg resident and parent of two Newberg students Brandon Casey, who supported the BLM/Pride ban. He later called for superintendent Joe Morelock's firing because the district has said it will not comply with an order that its lawyers deem illegal.
"I am getting a little tired of people saying a BLM sign is a symbol of love," Casey said. "It's certainly not a symbol of love to those of us who have members of our family who are in law enforcement. That group (Black Lives Matter) has called for the murder of police officers and that White people are genetic defects. I'm unclear as to how that's a symbol of love and how that makes our children feel safe in the classroom."
Outside lawyer appears at online meeting
A surprise guest at the Sept. 14 board meeting was attorney Tyler Smith, hired by the board majority of Brown, Brian Shannon, Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell at a contentious meeting in August. The majority didn't notify the other three board members (Penner, Rebecca Piros, Ines Peña) when they moved to hire Smith to represent the board, nor did they notify the minority that Smith would be sitting in on the meeting on Tuesday.
Still, Smith appeared via Zoom, ready to ask questions of district staff about COVID-19 vaccine mandates. It was unclear whether he had the authority to ask those questions. His presence at the meeting drew the ire of the board minority, but their concerns were ignored as Smith pressed forward.
It's unclear if and how much Smith was being paid by the board majority for his time listening to what ended up being a four-hour board meeting, where those funds came from and how he accessed the meeting.
"How did he know to be here?" Piros asked.
"I called him," Brown replied. "I wanted him here during a time when we have something like this. We're talking about firing staff (over the vaccine mandate)."
"When are you going to start including the rest of the board members on this decision?" Piros asked.
"And he's illegally retained," Penner added. "He was illegally retained. It was a violation of public meetings law."
Brown and the majority's concerns circled around the potential consequences for school district employees who don't comply with a vaccine mandate. Smith's perspective on the matter was quickly refuted by Lisa Freiley, an attorney retained by the Newberg school district and a dozen others throughout the state.
In short, Freiley said there is no getting around the vaccine mandate for school district staff, although there are very rare religious and medical exemptions that will require proof should staff members choose to go that route. Otherwise, they risk losing their jobs.
Smith argued otherwise and provided unsolicited legal advice to district staff and Superintendent Joe Morelock, then left the meeting.
Policy language eventually discussed, but not read
The big ticket item of the night was the policy language proposal for the BLM/Pride/politics ban.
Shannon, the architect of the ban that faces multiple legal challenges and has influenced a recall petition filed against him, was set to read aloud the policy language written by Smith and approved 2-1 (Shannon and DeHart voting in favor; Piros against) by the board's policy committee. But Piros cut in and made a motion to refer the policy language to a superintendent standing committee and allow students, staff and community members on that committee to review the policy over a timeline of six months.
Shannon opposed Piros's motion, saying the goal of the policy language as written by Smith is to "diffuse any potential litigation" that the board faces for its initial ban on solely BLM/Pride symbols. But the policy language written by Smith, which district staff have pointed out is not written in the proper format and district lawyers still have "grave concerns" about according to Penner, may not quell the legal actions of the ACLU and Newberg teachers' union as both move forward with potential lawsuits.
Powell brought Smith back into the meeting to opine on the legal soundness of the policy he wrote. Eventually, Piros's motion to refer the policy to a standing committee failed, 4-3. Shannon, Brown, DeHart and Powell were the nays, while Piros, Penner and Peña voted in favor.
The proposed policy language for the politics ban didn't get a first reading by Shannon during the meeting, although it is available in the board packet provided to directors and available publicly online (bit.ly/3tHq7z8).
"No district employee shall, while acting within the scope of their employment, either during school hours, or inside their physical area of responsibility at a school (such as a classroom, meeting room, desk area) hang, post, erect, or otherwise display (hereafter 'display') any posters, signs, flags, banners, pictures or other digital or physical image that depicts support or opposition relating to a political, quasi-political or controversial topic," the initial draft proposed to be added to Policy GBG reads. "For purposes of this policy, a controversial topic shall be defined as one that a professional educator could reasonably understand to have students on more than one side of said issue. For purposes of this policy, a political or quasi-political topic includes contemporary issues being debated in the local, state or national political climate."
District-retained lawyers have told board members they still have significant problems with this language, as do Oregon School Boards Association officials who've advised the school board on the matter. Morelock and the district itself has said they will not implement policy or act on a directive that district lawyers deem is illegal, and lawsuits may still be on the horizon from the Newberg Education Association and ACLU. There was no time for an extended board discussion of this policy proposal at the meeting Tuesday, but it will be revisited at future meetings.
The school board's next regular meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 28. A special meeting that is reserved just for two hours of public comment is slated for Sept. 22.
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