Opinion: West Linn-Wilsonville School Board's recent history shows disturbing pattern
In 2021, I filed a complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission against the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board for deciding in closed executive session to sell Oppenlander Fields for development.
A prior board approved recommendations to keep the land as a sports field; voters approved a construction bond believing in that promise. Although the ethics commission eventually dismissed the complaint, it was after they voted to investigate on substantial evidence of violation and staff's preliminary findings of violation.
Also, the secretary of state found WL-WV for Better Schools, run by former school board members Dylan Hydes and Regan Molatore, in violation of election laws. That committee supported the 2019 bond.
I believe these are examples of disturbing patterns by the board — of breaking promises, blaming and/or not listening to the public — or worse, an "ends justify the means" mindset transcending transparency and accountability.
• Due to the failure to file its 2021 audit, over $24 million in state school funds have been withheld. The board/district blamed and terminated the auditor — their third in three years. However, the auditor was finding material deficiencies, management weaknesses, etc.
• Similarly, the board blamed the bank when our tax rates increased after we approved a 2019 construction bond, despite saying rates wouldn't increase.
• In December, board Chair Chelsea King moved to limit public comment at board meetings, advocating for "filters" giving her more control. New policies and practices restrict public input in certain circumstances.
• Parents begged the board not to spray carcinogens on school grounds, but King said she was comfortable with the policies, suggesting concerned parents pull weeds.
• Public records requests can be met with steep charges or delays like "We need to check with attorneys."
• Citing a number of incidents, students and parents pleaded with the board to protect students and adopt complaint regulations. However, when policies were finally updated three years later, the requested regulations weren't included.
• A student-led petition for anti-racism curriculum has 1,700-plus signatures.
• Opponents of the board's decision to sell Oppenlander gathered nearly 2,500 signatures.
• Opponents of siting a new school in forested wetlands gathered 500-plus signatures and was appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals. The district proceeded regardless, clear-cutting the forest despite promises to selectively cut.
• The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality recently found violations of environmental law for turbid water discharges in the wetland along Willamette Falls Drive.
• In prior school construction, residents fearful of property damage from deficient stormwater management filed a LUBA appeal, but the district proceeded, regardless.
These may be examples of a bigger problem: An "ends justify the means" mentality in pursuit of hundreds of millions in bond revenues, repaid with our tax dollars. Continuous construction bond measures since the 1990s have been justified by claims of enrollment increases. However, enrollments have been declining despite the pandemic. Moody's decreased the district's bond rating because of overindebtedness and lack of reserves.
We all want our students to succeed and are grateful to our wonderful educators and staff. However, it appears the board/district have let the pursuit of bond revenues override their duties of transparency and accountability.
Nothing requires the board/district to proceed with the current construction of unneeded schools. It's time to spend less on attorneys, PR staff and pollsters of "what will sell" prior to bond elections and more on the academic success of our students.
It's past time for the board/district to be transparent and accountable to the public. Rather than campaign for the state Senate, Chair King needs to fulfill those responsibilities.
Karie Oakes is a resident of West Linn.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.