PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — School boards across the country have been in the spotlight, taking on controversial topics around race, identity and politics.
In several recent cases, those boards have gone so far as firing superintendents who did not agree with the boards.
On Thursday, two of those local superintendents spoke about their firings after new school board members were elected and the future of education at the City Club of Portland’s State of Education.
“School boards have seemingly become ground zero for some of the most incendiary debates in public education, not just in Oregon, but across our country,” said Toya Fick, executive director of Stand for Children and moderator of the discussion.
Recently, school boards have become political lightning rods in a number of communities, including in Oregon.
Last year, the Newberg School Board voted to ban political symbols like Black Lives Matter signs or pride flags.
That fired superintendent, Dr. Joe Morelock, spoke at the Portland City Club about the state of school boards in Oregon.
He was joined by Melissa Goff, a former superintendent at Greater Albany Public Schools.
Both were fired after new conservative members were elected to their local school boards.
The State of Education discussion touched on a number of topics. One of them concerned interest groups swaying school board elections.
“School board races are attracting a record amount of money,” said Fick.
“What is now happening, however, is you are seeing the two major political parties digging in around candidates for school board. That never happened before,” Goff said.
School districts’ efforts to promote equity were another point of conversation.
“The focus around equity made some people upset right there. Well, how come, how come those kids are getting more than my kid?” Morelock said.
Fick brought up Critical Race Theory (CRT), a graduate-level concept that examines systemic racism and talks about race being a social construct. Fick mentioned parents and community members who had expressed concerns at school boards asking whether CRT was being taught. Some are uncomfortable with the idea of race-related topics being addressed in classrooms.
“People will say, ‘Well, you’re just shaming us for being white.’ Like, no, no, we’re just explaining that it’s a long and challenging history,” said Morelock.
He said that in order to not repeat history, it’s imperative that students be taught about the history of Indigenous people, including the boarding schools that housed many of them in Oregon. Morelock also mentioned Japanese internment camps that were set up in Oregon during WWII.
“The cry of, ‘don’t make my child uncomfortable,’ is to be, somewhat offensive. Because not having spoken about this in schools at all, how did the children of color, the Native Americans, the immigrant students feel? They have felt uncomfortable for that entire time. No one has expressed concern about that,” said Goff.
Both Morelock and Goff say that instead of focusing on whether race-related topics are being taught in classrooms, they said school boards need to put more energy toward addressing issues affecting students such as reading and math skills that kids are struggling to acquire, the social and emotional impact the pandemic has had on them, or how to incentivize educators to stay in the profession.
They hope there will be more oversight of decisions made at the school board level. In fact, there are bills in the Oregon legislature seeking to do just that.
One of those bills, SB 1521, just passed the Senate on Thursday. It would protect superintendents from getting fired without cause and when they are complying with federal and state law.
Another bill in the House, HB 4140, would give the Oregon Government Ethics Commission more ability to hold school boards accountable during public meetings.