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Policy prohibits 'political, quasi-political or controversial' symbols in schools, but can't be enforced

PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Members and supporters of the Newberg Education Association gathered at the flag pole on First Street Tuesday afternoon prior to the school board meeting.

Marking the culmination of a months-long effort by its conservative majority that has received legal, political and community pushback, the Newberg school board passed official policy at its Tuesday meeting to ban all "political, quasi-political or controversial" displays in schools.

The policy language passed narrowly 4-3 with its architect vice-chairman Brian Shannon, chairman Dave Brown and directors Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell voting in the affirmative. Directors Brandy Penner, Rebecca Piros and Ines Peña voted against it. Public comment was not taken during the meeting, although the board listened to two hours of public comment at a special meeting Sept. 22.

The policy language itself is vague and wide-ranging, given the subjectivity of a topic that could be construed as political, quasi-political or controversial in today's heated political climate. District administrative staff and dissenting board members expressed concerns about how this policy will be enforced and the potential legal challenges it could face.PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - The roughly 50 people who attended the rally were generally well accepted by motorists driving by, although a few displayed their discontent with the crowd's message.

"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," reads the policy written by Canby attorney Tyler Smith, who hired was by the board majority during a potentially illegal session in August. "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. Any person concerned with a particular display should first notify the district employee believed to be responsible for the display. Alternatively, the concerned person may file a complaint with a supervisor, school principal or the principal's designee pursuant to district policy."

Before passing the resolution, the board voted 7-0 to rescind its directive to superintendent Joe Morelock to immediately remove all Black Lives Matter and Pride displays from schools, with the majority citing legal advice from Smith. But lawyers retained by the district prior to Smith's hire told Morelock he couldn't enforce that directive because it was illegal, in their view.

The adopted policy, however, creates a pathway for the district to essentially ban those and all other perceived political symbols if complaints about them surface. Complaints will be handled through the district's standard procedure, starting at the individual school level and ascending the district's administrative ladder, if need be, Morelock said, and the district will now craft an administrative regulation (AR) to determine how it will handle what is expected to be a flood of wide-ranging complaints.

"The difficulty is that we have different people in different buildings and different leaders who will be taking these complaints," Morelock said. "I think one of the biggest challenges is for us to have consistency across all of the buildings about what is okay and what is not okay. If people don't find a resolution they'd like to at the lowest level, which starts at the building, then it would come to either myself or my designee to determine whether or not it's political.

"One of the hardest things for us will be determining what a controversial subject is for some and not others. It will be very interesting to see what people come up with when they are going to decide to make a complaint. One of the things I am most concerned about is how that works on a procedural level. We could see people saying we are being discriminatory in our selection of those."

Contention and division remain on board

A vote on the policy did not come without attempted roadblocks from the board minority and outright indignation on their part toward what they view as policy that is illegal and unenforceable. Piros moved to pass the policy along to a superintendent standing committee, comprised of a balanced group of educators, administrators and school board members that would aim to find common ground on the issue and craft a more specific policy.

"I feel this is something that will bring us out of the debate between this and will turn it over to the educators," Piros said. "We will show the educators we have listened to them, we have heard them, we trust them to come up with something that is equitable and meets every student's needs. We need to reach out and make every student safe."

Shannon, who brought forth the initial BLM/Pride ban directive to Morelock and has led the effort crafting the political ban policy, was not having it.

"I think we've spent way more oxygen on this issue than we should have already," Shannon said. "I don't want to spend five or six more minutes on this issue let alone six more weeks. This policy is so innocuous. It just says that teachers can't display political symbols at work while they're on school time. That should not be controversial. We should pass this very mild policy tonight."

A vocal critic of Shannon and the board majority, director Penner sounded off on the policy itself and the conduct of the board's conservative members. She warned that despite the majority's desire to move on from this issue, resistance in the community will not be quelled, nor will the overarching legal concerns.

"I think the point of this is to show you are trying to sew division with extremist views and you have no interest in listening to the community," Penner said. "Quite frankly, I think you're fearful of getting a group together to discuss this because, overwhelmingly, our community has shown us that they do not support these extremist actions. I think you trying to hide it behind education is ridiculous, because this has never been about education, nor will it help us focus on education.

"We know that legally this policy is a wreck when it comes to putting it into any kind of actual practice. We know it's not about students, we know it's not about staff, we know it's about outside extremism and political agenda. This entire document is riddled with grammatical errors. It's not even a professional document let alone a policy that is supposed to govern an employer of 500 people. It's going to continue to intensify this divide in our community and that's the point. Clearly, after the last vote, you four are not at all interested in bringing this community together."

NEA to move forward with legal action

The local teachers' union, which filed a tort claim notice in August notifying the board of its intent to sue, said it will not relent despite the board majority's insistence that this policy is legally sound. After hosting a rally against the policy earlier in the evening Sept. 28, the Newberg Education Association posted an official statement on its Facebook page after the board meeting concluded.

"We are extremely disappointed that the four-member board majority were unwilling tonight to continue the culture of collaboration and look at any policy change in a superintendent standing committee," the NEA statement reads. "It's clear their personal politics are stronger than any real desire to come together as a school community. We will continue on our legal path to keep these board members in check.

"In addition, we have endorsed the recall of board member Brian Shannon. We cannot let this group of four impose their own political agenda, erode our rights and strip our support of our students. Our educators are united in their goal to create classrooms where students can walk in and feel like they belong. We are more committed than ever to this goal."

Whether the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which has previously threatened legal action, moves forward on its lawsuit remains to be seen. Other legal challenges could pop up as well, which could prove expensive for the district as it already feels the financial squeeze of the pandemic.

The school board's next scheduled meeting is set for 7 p.m. Oct. 12. To read the entirety of the newly adopted political ban policy, view the board packet for the Sept. 28 meeting at bit.ly/3kRTH25.


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