PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Newberg has been in the news a lot lately.
For months, the Newberg School District has been making headlines, while its school board mulls a controversial decision to ban “political” symbols from school grounds, including Pride and Black Lives Matter imagery.
To trace the controversy back to its roots, we need to look back to the May 2021 election, where voters elected two new members to the board. Those new board members — Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart — were backed by the conservative political action committee Save Our Schools. That election shifted the board to a conservative majority, alongside board chairman Dave Brown and vice-chairman Brian Shannon already held spots on the board.
Controversy sparked almost immediately after the new board members were sworn into office. One of the board’s first acts was to take up a string of controversial topics, including banning Black Lives Matter signage and LGBTQ Pride flags from school buildings, overhauling the district’s stance on anti-racism passed by the previous board in 2020 and overturning the All Students Belong policy passed in December. That policy bans swastikas and Confederate flags from campus.
While the school board is technically nonpartisan, politically-fueled bickering has become a common theme at school board meetings. Board member Brandy Penner accused board members of an “attempted political takeover,” while others accused Penner of abusing her power when she served as board chairwoman, saying she only took up issues she agreed with politically.
But the fight over whether to allow BLM and Pride-related imagery in schools soon spilled out of the school board to the general public.
Critics vocal against board’s decision
The Newberg City Council admonished the school board, saying its decision made Newberg a less welcoming place to live. The board’s action, the city wrote was “not reflective of the character of our community.” Some Newberg businesses began organizing against the ban, and local residents hung Pride displays to show their opposition.
The decision has divided residents for weeks and sparked rallies both in favor and opposed to the ban. More than one Newberg High School sporting event has included criticisms of the board’s plan. Students from Beaverton School District kneeled during the national anthem in September and Tigard students held Black Lives Matter flags in solidarity with Black Newberg students.
The board formally banned BLM and Pride imagery from campus in August, and the American Civil Liberties Union threatened legal action against the district if the ban wasn’t rescinded.
The decision has drawn criticism outside of Newberg as well. In July, state legislators in Salem condemned the decision, including House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, and the Legislative Black, Indigenous, People of Color Caucus, which said the Every Student Belongs policy is meant to help keep students from experiencing discrimination.
“These symbols traumatize students and prevent student access and success,” the BIPOC caucus said in a statement.
District at odds with board majority
The controversy over the changes has caused consternation between district staff and the board as well.
The school board refused to rescind its policy in August, but did hold listening sessions with students and community members, which drew plenty of supporters and opponents. Several students testified that Pride and BLM-related imagery in schools makes them feel safer in schools. The controversy has also been felt in Newberg’s classrooms, where students are returning to their first year of full-time in-person learning since the COVID-19 pandemic began two school years ago.
District Superintendent Joe Morelock has said publicly that even if the school board moves forward with its ban, the district may be unable to follow through on it.
He added that district attorneys have warned him that the bans may be illegal under Oregon law, and the district can’t enforce illegal orders passed by the board.
In September, a recall effort was launched against board member Brian Shannon, who first proposed the controversial positions.
Other complicating factors
Complicating matters, the school board and the district have faced a host of other controversies related to the board’s decision. The school board is under scrutiny after it hired an attorney without first notifying the public of its plans to do so. Attorney Tyler Smith was hired by the board’s conservative members to provide legal advice and has written the official policy language for the ban on political symbols.
Two other race-related controversies in Newberg’s schools have also drawn criticism, the first involved a Newberg High School student involved in a ‘slave trade’ social media group, where students posted photos of Black classmates and joked about auctioning them off as slaves.
Days after the incident became public, a special ed assistant at Mabel Rush Elementary School in Newberg arrived at school in blackface to protest the district’s requirement that staff be vaccinated against COVID-19. She was fired from her position a week later.
The staff member, Lauren Pefferele, went on the Lars Larson radio show and said she had intended to dress like Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks because she felt discriminated against because she refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine.