Controversy plagues West Linn-Wilsonville School Board race
This story has been updated from its original version.
In lieu of a nonpartisan school board campaign season for the May 21 special election, the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board race has reared an ugly head.
Unproven allegations and name-calling has sent candidates into a frenzy, causing some of the focus to shift from the schools and students to keeping reputations afloat.
"The school board race, they're not tied to political parties, but political issues sometimes come in," said Alex Pulaski, communications director for the Oregon School Boards Association. "It's fair to say that over the past couple years, based on what's happening nationally, we are seeing more of that. People are bringing up issues maybe we haven't seen so much over the past decade."
The WL-WV Position 4 race turned particularly controversial after board candidate Christy Thompson received a $15,000 donation to her campaign from Janet Bisenius, a Sherwood-area business owner with well-publicized support of controversial conservative causes.
"When I entered this race, it was not with a political agenda," Thompson said. "This is not a political stepping stone."
With the addition of the donation, Thompson's funds exceeded those of her opponent, Jordan Ferris, by about 250%.
"Based solely upon observations — what I read and what I see in the state — there's a significant amount of friction out there, and I think what's fair to say is over the past decade in the big races ... you're seeing more money enter the races," said Pulaski, adding that Portland Public School Board candidates raised more than $100,000 in the last election cycle. "That's really unprecedented."
He said $15,000 is remarkably high for a single candidate from a single contributor, however.
Several community members agreed and raised concern after learning that Thompson received such a large donation from an "out-of-district" donor, when in fact, the Bisenius family lives within the WL-WV School District.
According to the school district's boundary map, the Bisenius family lives right inside the Wilsonville schools zone, though their mailing address is Sherwood. In addition, the Bisenius' children went to school in the district and they currently have a grandchild attending school there.
Thompson's husband also worked with Jim Bisenius, Janet's husband, for about 20 years. Thompson said Janet decided to give a donation that matched the approximate total amount of funds Thompson had already raised for her campaign.
"If you look on who's given me money, I've only taken money from individuals. I don't have any money from any special interest groups," Thompson said, adding that she used the money to purchase hundreds of signs, literature and advertising. "I'm not going out and eating on this or anything."
While Thompson has been endorsed from conservative Republican politician John Davis, Ferris has been backed by Democrats including Rep. Rachel Prusak, Sen. Rob Wagner and NARAL — a pro-choice nonprofit organization.
Ferris also has received contributions by NARAL, Oregon Nurses Political Action Committee and other liberal-leaning organizations and politicians.
"At the heart of everything is our district and the students (and) that has driven every decision I have made. I'm very proud of the endorsements I have received and every one of them can pivot back to one of the pillars of my campaign," Ferris said, adding that she has many Democratic supporters because they are individuals with whom she shares values. "I think they (school board races) are inherently political. We are filing candidacy and running races."
Ferris said she thinks school board races follow a political process and that more attention is being drawn to these local races nowadays.
"People want to be involved more at a ground level. I think that the way politics have been going for the last decade have energized people into wanting to be able to be at the table to make decisions for their communities," Ferris said.
She added that one of the best races to dip your toes into the political spectrum are local boards, including the school board, and people are paying more attention now because they are seeing what can be accomplished at a local level.
But what has really fueled the fire are Facebook posts and emails circulating from supporters of Ferris and incumbent Chelsea King Martin.
One Facebook post pegged Thompson as "pro-gun, anti-vax, anti-public schools."
"I don't own a gun personally. ... I would tell anybody I support the Constitution, but I've never made a comment ever about a gun," Thompson said. "All of my children were vaccinated when my doctor told me to vaccinate them. I didn't delay any of them. Anti-public school? I went to a public school. I taught at a public school."
Similarly, an email addressed to "precinct committee persons, neighborhood leaders and Democratic friends" backed board candidates Chelsea King Martin for Position 2 and Ferris.
"The opponents running in Position 2 & 4 are pushing a very conservative agenda. Their campaigns are well-funded for a local race such as this, and funding is pouring in from conservative individuals who live outside the district," the email read. "Elements of their platforms are anti-progressive and in some instances anti-science."
Gail Greenman, running against King Martin for Position 2, caught wind of this email and said she belongs to the Democratic party and that the email was filled with lies.
"I'm the least funded candidate in this entire race," Greenman said. "I have been called a bigot on Facebook (and) this is affecting my family. ... I could have never anticipated I'd have to sit my children down and explain to them the painful things they might hear about their mom. The bullying and name calling adults have done — you want to talk about not setting an example for kids is beyond my ability to understand.
"I will maintain my dignity and my courtesy that I have expressed throughout this entire process. I would never treat my opponent or any candidate the way I've been treated."
Both Ferris and Peter Nordbye, chairman of the Clackamas County Democratic Party, declined to comment on the email.
"I guess there's a notion the party shouldn't get involved, but schools have been political for as long as I've been around," Nordbye said. "Every school board I worked on there was political involvement. People ran as Republican; people ran as Democrats and Independents."
Both Thompson and Ferris have expressed that they have no control over their supporters.
"I think that those types of supporters — that sort of rhetoric — is happening on both sides. That's not limited to my candidacy," Ferris said. "It's been painful and it's been hard, but I respect people have their individual opinions. I'm glad that on both sides on the ballot that we both have such fervent supporters."
King Martin, who ran uncontested back in 2015, has never experienced this behavior during a school board race before.
"It's a nonpartisan race now just like it was a nonpartisan race then," she said. "Nowhere am I talking about my political party."
However, King Martin does allow that any time people run for office, they bring forward their values as a candidate.
She said she and the three other candidates are all moms in the district and want to volunteer and serve on behalf of the students for free.
"This is my community. The people around me who are choosing whether or not to vote for me, we're carpooling one another's kids around," King Martin said, adding that the way community members talk about issues affects the candidates on a human
level, and whether or not it affects the outcome of the school board race, she doesn't know.
Greenman thinks the negativity circulating around the campaign will impact the race as she feels it has scarred her reputation.
"It has affected families; it's affected my own family," she said. "All I ever wanted to do was serve my community and to have the impact on my children that it's had, it's just something I could never have anticipated. If there's a silver lining to this whole situation (it's that) my kids got a real first-world example to the dangers of what we are dealing with in terms of social media. You aren't just talking to a computer, you are talking to real people and are having a real impact on their lives."
This story has been changed to correct the political groups that contributed to Jordan Ferris' campaign.