Newberg school board: A global look at how it all came to this
The last nearly seven months have been rife with political tension in the Newberg and Dundee communities.
From what started as seemingly harmless spats between conservative and liberal school board candidates in April, quickly snowballed into the complex political turmoil the area now faces that has captured both state and nationwide attention.
Among the issues that have catapulted Newberg and Dundee into the spotlight are the school board's ban on political symbols in schools (first proposed to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags in particular), the firing of the district's popular superintendent, several lawsuits filed against the school district and school board and two recall efforts against school board chairman Dave Brown and vice-chairman Brian Shannon — to list just a few.
With so much happening in such a short amount of time, and with so much emotionally charged and sometimes erroneous information circulating about, it can be easy to forget how this controversy first began, so the Graphic initiated an in-depth recap of school board-related events that threaten to divide the community.
Board member votes against anti-racism resolution
On June 23, 2020, the school board approved an anti-racism resolution that committed the district to dismantling systemic racism in the schools. Dave Brown was the only school board member to vote no on the resolution.
After receiving pushback from members of the community and demands for an explanation, Brown wrote a letter to the Graphic defending his decision to vote against the resolution. Brown said that in the decades he worked with Newberg youth as a coach, he prided himself on "ensuring the importance, safety and development of all individuals regardless of race, gender, age or background" and that people have too quickly concluded that anyone who votes against the resolution is racist or excuses racism.
Instead, Brown said he disagrees with the "approach, methods and message this resolution sends to the community," doubts it will be impactful and believes that the district already practices the contents of the resolution.
He also said he believes the "anti-racism movement reduces all issues to race and will lead to polarization, not progress" and that the movement claims people are inherently racist, an idea he later described as "damaging."
Additionally, he said the resolution is directly influenced by the Black Lives Matter organization, which is either attempting to "undermine" the search for solutions to racism or is "ignorant" to the "damaging" effects of its methods. He also criticized the organization for espousing what he characterized as anti-American sentiments.
"We must stop the violence and hate," Brown said. "We must stop seeing each other through lenses of color and race and seek the heart of the person."
A foreshadowing of future issues the school board will face
In HYPERLINK "https://pamplinmedia.com/nbg/142-news/505958-405049-school-board-race-targeted-by-outside-political-organizations-pwoff" April 2021, about a month before the school board election, "Save Our Schools" (S.O.S) signs endorsing then-candidates Trevor DeHart, John Read and Renee Powell began cropping up throughout town.
Community Oriented Public Servants (COPS), a political action committee that promotes conservative viewpoints, was responsible for the signs.
The COPS PAC received criticism for its lack of transparency behind the ownership of the SOS Facebook page, alleged ties to the Oregon Republican Party and the fact that several candidates or their relatives donated to the committee (Powell and Dehart's wife for instance), receiving campaign funding in return.
Board incumbent Ron Mock warned Newberg residents that politics were beginning to influence a traditionally non-partisan race, adding that candidates Ines Peña and Tai Harden-Moore were also "supported by political networks extending throughout Oregon and beyond," organization's whose views were "consistent with the DNC's non-(Bernie) Sanders left wing."
He cautioned that if "national partisan concerns" had too great an influence on school board matters, "the idea of local control of our schools takes a serious blow" and "Parents' appeals for this or that may fall on deaf ears."
Tensions run high as campaign signs are destroyed and new directors elected
In May, before the school board election, tension brewed between the Hardin-Moore and Powell campaigns. The conflict began after Harden-Moore, Powell's opponent in the Zone 5 race, received permission to erect signs on a supporter's property and was asked to remove S.O.S signs from the same land, which allegedly were not permitted to be there.
In response to the removal, a social media war ensued, resulting in Rebecca Wallis, who described herself as a supporter of S.O.S candidates, accusing Harden-Moore of theft and encouraging opposing candidates to press charges.
Hardin-Moore called Wallis' accusation "slander" and said the allegation was "rooted in racism" and perpetuated the stereotype of Black people being criminals. Wallis denied the claims of racism.
Harden-Moore further accused the S.O.S campaign and its supporters of racism when her campaign signs were vandalized and replaced with Powell's signs.
The next day, S.O.S signs near the Newberg Fred Meyer were destroyed. Despite she and her supporters being blamed, Harden-Moore denied any involvement, saying she wouldn't be surprised if the S.O.S campaign was responsible and trying to gain sympathy.
Powell responded and said that she neither condoned damaging Harden-Moore's signs, nor viewed herself as racist. Harden-Moore clarified that she meant the S.O.S campaign's actions were racist and argued that what she described as the S.O.S campaign's "us versus them" mentality targeted people of color.
On May 18, two of COPS PAC's preferred school board candidates were elected: DeHart prevailed over Mock in Zone 1 and Powell over Harden-Moore in Zone 5. Peña won by a small margin against SOS-backed candidate John Read in Zone 4. About 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the election.
School board incumbent in Zone 5, Bob Woodruff, who Mock described as having done an "outstanding job" as chairman during a "tumultuous" period for the board, withdrew from the race, though his name still appeared on the ballot. Despite his intentions, Woodruff still garnered 17.68% of the vote, compared to Harden-Moore's 36.51% and Powell's 45.81%. Had Woodruff withdrawn from the race earlier his name wouldn't have appeared on the ballot and, it can be argued, would have given Harden-Moore sufficient votes to be elected.
Mock said his loss was due to the S.O.S campaign's financial advantage and the fact that, overall, he "didn't do enough." Harden-Moore attributed her loss to a problem with racism in Newberg, stating that residents were not ready for her "equity-focused approach to leadership."
Concerns about LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter issues arise in the community
On June 7, recently-elected Newberg City Council member Mike McBride described Pride Month as discriminatory during a council meeting and stated he wished council members were allowed to vote on the city's proclamation celebrating the month, even though proclamations do not require a vote.
Despite widespread criticism and calls for an apology, McBride solidified his opinion a week later, saying he doesn't believe the city should "lift one group over another" or "be a politically correct atmosphere."
When opponents labeled his words as bigoted and homophobic, McBride said he didn't care if people found his opinions discriminatory and that, like everyone else, he's entitled to his opinion.
On June 10, after receiving complaints from some Dundee parents about Black Lives Matter and other inclusionary signs in schools, Dundee Elementary School Principal Reed Langdon released a statement explaining the purpose behind the signs.
Langdon explained the signs were erected to support BIPOC students, whose communities had experienced severe tragedy recently, not to "inflame political tensions." He also said the signs were not "anti-police," stating that he and the school district "love" their local officers.
Langdon added that he understands the concept of "all lives matter," but used a n analogy to explain that at different times certain kids will need more support and attention than others. Even so, he said all students in the district are loved equally.
He said the signs would not be taken down and that teachers can decorate their classrooms however they wish.
School board members clash, Pride and BLM ban proposed
With the additions of directors DeHart and Powell the board gained a four-to-three conservative majority. On July 13, the majority named Brown chairman and Shannon vice-chairman.
Prior to Brown and Shannon assuming their new roles, former chairwoman Brandy Penner, who along with Rebeca Piros and Ines Peña make up the liberal minority, discouraged the members from voting for Brown, criticizing his character and his previous performance as a board member.
Shannon disagreed with Penner and questioned her motives for criticizing Brown, pointing out that she had failed to add several items to the agenda like he had requested and that demonstrated her own unethical behavior.
However, before items can be placed on the agenda, a board member must bring up the desired topics at the end of a previous board meeting and have the other board members vote on whether to discuss them at the following meeting. Instead, Shannon emailed Penner and then-superintendent Joe Morelock asking that the items be added, which is against board protocol.
The items Shannon wanted added to the agenda included banning Black Lives Matter and Pride signs from school buildings, changing the language in the anti-racism resolution and overturning the All Students Belong policy passed in December and required by the state.
Despite the breach of protocol, Brown, Shannon, Powell and DeHart voted to add the items on the agenda for discussion at that meeting.
Shannon wanted to bring the motions up for a vote without hearing from the public or allowing other members to prepare, but district staff reminded the school board that doing so was illegal, so it was tabled until the Aug. 10 meeting.
In explaining the proposed ban, Shannon said schools should be focusing on education, not political indoctrination, naming Black Lives Matter as an organization trying to do just that.
Later in July, business owners Kristen Stoller and Remy Drabkin began an effort to gather public comment on the motions, encouraging community members to educate themselves and reach out to school board members with the hope they might sway some of the conservative majority to vote against Shannon.
Controversial ban passed, sparking outrage and threats of legal action
In early August, several state legislators and Newberg Mayor Rick Rogers condemned the school board's actions, arguing that removing the anti-racism and All Students Belong policies would be detrimental to students' education and potentially drive away business from the area.
Despite widespread public outcry, the school board voted 4-3 in August to pass the ban on Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols.
Shannon, Brown, Powell and DeHart voted yes; Peña, Penner and Piros voted against the motion.
The final directive banned all Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols, signs, flags, apparel, buttons and other displays from Newberg school buildings; U.S and Oregon flags were the only flags permitted on school property, though the board can identify exceptions.
The ban applies to district staff and faculty, but still potentially violates First Amendment rights, teachers' unions contracts and school board policies. Legal challenges were anticipated early on and materialized later.
Morelock conferred with the district's legal counsel to see if it was possible to enact the changes. He was advised that enforcing the ban would be illegal and cause the district calamity, so he told the board he would not enforce their directive.
Shannon said he was simply trying to remove politics from local schools, calling social justice an "ideology" and one that "people can legitimately oppose."
Voting on the district's anti-racism resolution and "Every Student Belongs" policy was tabled for a later date and never has been taken up again by the body.
School board members allowed public comment at the meeting; of the 31 people allowed to speak, a majority said they opposed the resolution.
Board castigated for its actions
The school board's actions received further admonishment throughout August, along with threats of legal trouble.
A Newberg couple erected a Pride display on their property on Rex Hill that can be seen from school grounds. They later added a Black Lives Matter flag next to it with fundraising help from Harden-Moore and others; the remaining GoFundMe money was distributed to the Newberg High School Black Student Union.
The Newberg City Council voted 6-1 to affirm Roger's letter opposing the school board's actions. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and the Legislature's House Democratic Caucus shared similar sentiments.
On Aug. 27, almost 200 people gathered at the flag pole on River and First streets in Newberg to protest the school board's actions. The ACLU of Oregon said the board's directive was unconstitutional and warned of a potential court case. The organization sent a demand letter to the board on Aug. 30, calling for an "immediate retraction" of the ban that it said violates the Oregon Constitution, the First Amendment and state laws put in place to protect Black and LGBTQ+ students.
The Newberg Education Association, an organization containing almost 300 educators in the district, filed a tort notice on Aug. 23 announcing its intent to sue the school board if the ban was not rescinded by Sept. 6. The board did not take action.
The Chehalem Valley of Commerce and young activists from the Oregon High School Democrats sent dissenting letters to the school board in late August; CVC revealed that people outside the city had begun boycotting Newberg businesses because of the school board's actions.
By trying to get out of legal hot water, board may have opened itself up for more lawsuits
During an online executive session on Aug. 24, the school board passed a motion authored by Shannon to hire Canby attorney Tyler Smith as a supplemental legal counsel, a move that potentially violated public meeting laws.
Penner accused the board's conservative majority of collusion, which Shannon denied, although the members who expressed approval of Smith appeared to have had access to more information about him than did the rest of the board. Holding a quorum outside of official board meetings is illegal, district staff and others informed the majority board members.
The board continued to push through the ban, despite facing tangible repercussions and several incidences of racism in the school district.
Efforts to recall board Shannon and Brown began.
Community outrage peppered by incidents of racism, recall paperwork filed against Shannon
During its Sept. 1 meeting, the board tabled a motion that would have blocked the ban until the district's policy committee could draft the official language, allowing the ban to continue and putting pressure on Morelock to carry it out.
The ACLU said it would go through with its lawsuit after the meeting.
Educators reported that the ban added more strain to an already stressful school year. Members of the NEA argued that the board's actions were an unnecessary distraction because few teachers had Pride or BLM flags in their classrooms and ones that did feature simple inclusionary messages.
On Sept. 13, Zachary Goff of Dundee filed recall paperwork against Shannon, who Goff accused of putting the school district in "the national spotlight," exposing the district to costly lawsuits and "driving his ideological agenda in a manner that is both ethically and legally questionable." The recall is supported by the Recall Brain Shannon campaign, a group comprised of Newberg and Dundee residents.
On Sept. 14, at least one Newberg High School student was reported to have taken part in a nationwide Snapchat group called "Slave Trade," where teenagers posted pictures of Black peers and pretended to auction them off. Homophobic comments were also found in the chat messages, which targeted two NHS students in particular.
During the Sept. 14 school board meeting, the school board allowed public comment about the ban. Penner and public commenters accused Brown of giving priority to speakers in favor of the ban. Brown had also amended the public comment submission form for that meeting to ask where commenters stood on the ban issue, an addition that potentially violated board policy due to public comment procedures having to be explained in open meetings.
Other accusations against Brown included ignoring some commenters in opposition of the ban to create a false balance. The board's controversial new attorney, Smith, also made an appearance, much to the surprise of the minority members, who were not notified ahead of time. The minority members questioned the legality of a policy Smith wrote and the district's retained lawyers and the Oregon School Boards Association have also expressed concern with its language.
Other high schools show support, special ed assistant appears in black face
On Sept. 17, the Southridge High School girls soccer team knelt during the National Anthem before a game against Newberg in solidarity with Newberg's Black students; some Southridge high school students held up signs as well. Tigard football players also knelt prior to their Sept. 24 game against Newberg, while their announcer, a senior football player, criticized the ban.
The same day, Lauren Pefferle, a special education assistant at Mabel Rush Elementary School, arrived at work in black face, calling herself Rosa Parks, to protest the vaccine mandate for school district staff. She was immediately placed on administrative leave and fired a week later.
A parent of an immunocompromised autistic child Pefferle worked with complained the woman had put her son at risk by not getting the vaccine. A day before she was fired, Pefferle went on conservative Portland radio host Lars Larson's show and said she did nothing wrong and that it was not in the child's best interest for her to get vaccinated.
On Sept. 22, NHS students joined nearly 40 others to speak during the school board's Zoom meeting. The students, numbering nearly a dozen and of whom many identified as part of the LGBTQ community, claimed their voices weren't being heard, despite the board saying students would receive priority that meeting. The meeting overall was balanced between supporters and opponents of the ban, but the students in attendances were universally in opposition to it.
It took over two months, but the board finally passed on a 4-3 party line vote the official policy banning all "political, quasi-political or controversial displays in schools" on Sept. 28. Morelock expressed concern that the policy's language was vague and might allow the policy to be applied inconsistently, leaving it up to him and his staff to determine if something is political. The ban extended to contemporary issues being debated in local, state or national political climate.
The recall effort against Shannon was endorsed during the Newberg Education Association rally the same night.
Emails reveal Brown was warned that hiring Smith would be illegal; legal action taken on both sides
In early October, the Graphic obtained emails showing Morelock had warned Shannon that making a motion to hire Tyler Smith as supplemental counsel would be illegal, as no motions or decisions can be made in executive session, only in a regular session noticed to the public within 24 hours. Yet Shannon still invited Smith to the meeting and emailed him the private Zoom link.
Shannon did not give the required 24-hour notice, nor did he provide anyone other than district staff, board members or permitted media to view the motion.
Under state law only an emergency meeting can take place without a 24- hour notice and even then the board must give justification for its haste. The session in which Smith was hired was never described as an emergency, neither by Shannon during the meeting nor in the minutes.
In his response to Morelock's email, Smith argued that because the board doesn't vote on who the district hires as its contracted lawyers, the public didn't need to be notified and the board didn't need to vote to hire him. Smith also quoted from a resolution that says the board can give authorization to the superintendent to pay for services within the district's budget, arguing that Smith was providing a service and a vote did not need to take place.
However, the board voted to have Smith represent the board, not the district; the resolution only encompasses budget adoption and fund appropriation, not legal services or personnel for the district. Questions remain, such as is Smith qualified to provide legal advice on educational and school board matters and how will he be paid?
Conservative majority files lawsuit against constituents; opponents counter-sue
On Oct. 18, the conservative majority filed a joint complaint in Yamhill County Circuit Court against county residents Debbie Tofte, Katherine Barrett, AJ Schwanz and Tamara Brookfield. Represented by Daniel Thenell of Portland, the four board members are seeking $40,000 in financial relief for alleged violations of an Oregon bill passed in June that pertains to releasing private information, also known as 'doxxing.'
They claim that the information spread by the defendants, all of which is publicly available, caused them immense distress and anxiety to the point where they felt unsafe and unable to adhere to their normal routines over several months.
On Oct. 22, seven Newberg residents filed the first lawsuit against both the school district as a whole and the four conservative school board members, alleging that hiring Smith was a violation of public meeting laws. The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial and a declaratory judgment that the board violated public meeting laws and Smith's contract is null and void. The lawsuit demands that Smith's attorney fees be paid by Shannon, Brown, Powell and DeHart.
November brings another lawsuit, Morelock's firing and a recall effort against Brown
On Nov. 3, the Newberg Education Association and four teachers and counselors from the school district followed through on the NEA's threat to file a lawsuit against the district and the school board's conservative majority for its political sign ban.
The lawsuit argues that the ban is too broad and thereby violates both the First and 14th Amendments, as well as components of the Oregon Constitution. Not only does the ban limit staff members' rights to freedom of speech and association (First Amendment), the lawsuit states, but it also does not give a definitive answer to what counts as political, potentially leading to staff being disciplined for actions they didn't know went against the directive (14th Amendment). The lawsuit also claims that the ban's broadness opens the possibility for the use of "unbridled discretion," which could lead to unequal treatment under the Oregon Constitution.
Filed in Yamhill County Circuit Court by Bennett Hartman, a Portland law firm, the lawsuit intends to stop the enforcement of the ban and for the bench to admonish the board for its actions.
During its Nov. 9 meeting, the school board's conservative majority fired Morelock after a lengthy executive session but short public meeting. They gave no explanation for employing the no-cause clause in terminating Morelock's contract, much to the surprise and dismay of minority members.
In past meetings, Brown and some of the public accused Morelock of not enforcing the ban, although few of the violation complaints, which must go through a multitier process, had reached his level. Morelock had also been advised by the district's retained attorney that the ban was illegal.
Minority members spoke out against the termination, lauding Morelock's contributions and lamenting the effects his firing would have on the district.
On Nov. 15, Brown joined Shannon as the brunt of a recall effort, a direct result of Morelock's firing. Chief petitioner Goff said the "rushed" termination would bring the district "financial harm" and disrupt an already "tumultuous school year." He also said the recall is not due to political or social reasons but because petitioners want to keep Newberg's education system functioning. For the recall to be placed on the ballot, the petition needed to gather 2,547 verified signatures and be submitted within three months.
Nearly a dozen superintendents from the Willamette Valley region came to Morelock's defense in a prepared statement and called for his reinstatement. The Oregon Legislature's BIPOC Caucus and Bonamici also weighed in, expressing their displeasure with the termination.
Superintendent search begins, Brown and Shannon recalls added to the ballot
The lawsuit filed in October against the school board's conservative majority for alleged public meeting law violations, was amended on Dec. 1 to include a demand that the four members pay the nearly $180,000 the district owes Morelock, per his contract.
The lawsuit states that Morelock's termination was not on the meeting's agenda, the public did not have access to the agenda 24 hours in advance and the three minority board members were not given the revised board packet for the executive session with information on Morelock's job performance prior to the meeting — all potential public meeting law violations. Another addition to the lawsuit is a request to set aside Morelock's termination.
Brown called a special meeting on Dec. 7 to start the search for a new superintendent. Brown received criticism for rushing the superintendent search process, approaching potential candidates without the knowledge or approval of other board members and requesting the district communication's director Gregg Koskela fulfill board secretary duties. The two people Brown approached to assume the superintendent job were Assistant Superintendent Derek Brown — who declined and later resigned to take a position in another school district — and Mark Thielman, superintendent of the Alsea School District and a Republican gubernatorial candidate, who Brown approached nearly six weeks before Morelock was fired.
On Dec. 16, students from Newberg High School, Catalyst High School and Mountain View Middle School staged a walkout to support their BIPOC peers.
Special ed assistant files lawsuit against majority board members
On Dec. 17, Chelsea Shotts, a special ed assistant at Dundee Elementary School, filed a lawsuit against the district and the conservative majority board members, with help from the ACLU and Portland law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. The lawsuit challenges the political ban and argues that a Pride sign Shotts erected prior to the ban is protected under the Oregon Constitution, the provisions of which "protect free expression, require equal treatment under the law, and ensure laws are not vague." Shotts is not seeking financial compensation.
Retired attorney Mike Gunn filed the complaint against Shotts' sign — consisting of a rainbow-patterned heart and the George Fox University slogan 'Be Known' — in September. In accordance with the ban's multitiered process, the complaint was first addressed by Shotts herself, followed by Principal Langdon and then Morelock, all who determined the sign was not political.
Gunn's complaint reached the board in November, where it was tabled indefinitely as members struggled to agree on whether the sign matched the policy's description of political.
Both Shannon and Brown's recall efforts gained sufficient signatures in mid-December to force a Jan. 18 special election for voters living within the Newberg School District, which includes residents in Yamhill, Washington and Clackamas counties.
The cost of holding the recall elections is yet to be determined, but Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen estimated it will cost $65,000 to $80,000, with the school district responsible for reimbursing his office for. The results of the election should be available a few days after the election, Van Bergen said.
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