NEWBERG, Ore. (KGW) — Two members of the Newberg School District Board of Directors announced their resignations at a board meeting Tuesday evening, both citing a series of controversial board decisions made over the past year.
“The board’s actions and decisions this past year has broken my heart, and therefore I’m submitting my resignation from the Newberg school board tonight,” board member Rebecca Piros said during the meeting. “I find I can no longer work with people who I feel do not have the best interests of every student and every staff member at heart.”
Board member Brandy Penner read a lengthy statement, later posted to Facebook, in which she also said she had endured an abusive and disrespectful work environment on the board, and said the board had violated public meeting laws.
“I refuse to persecute children and educators based on their race, gender, sexuality, income, or housing reality,” she said. “As a publicly elected official, mother, and human, I will not break the law or engage in open and hostile discrimination. That does make me a defiant outlier in the face of this board. I am proudly defiant of this board’s illegal and immoral actions.”
Board vacancies are filled through appointments made by a majority vote of the remaining board members, according to district policy. The appointee serves until June of the next election year, which in this case is 2023.
The resignations of Piros and Penner come about four months after the resignation of former member Ines Peña, who alleged that she faced a “toxic work environment” on the board. Current board member Raquel Peregrino de Brito was appointed to replace her.
Speaking to KGW on Wednesday, Penner said she and Piros had been talking about the possibility of resigning for a couple months, but resolved to remain until after graduation at the end of the school year.
Penner said she faced worsening behavior from her colleagues in the past six months, including name-calling, laughing at questions and suggestions from her and Piros and excluding them from meetings.
“I think the hardest part was knowing that those people who choose to treat other humans like that are now the leaders in our district, and that is just so difficult,” she said. “You know, when we’re talking about anti-bullying and anti harassment and how do we make our students feel safe? And if I, as a professional woman, cannot sit at a board meeting in public without being called names by my colleagues, that is — the message we’re sending is that it’s fine to bully, it’s fine to harass, it’s fine to degrade.”
Board chair Dave Brown did not reply to a request for comment.
Although the seven-member board is officially nonpartisan, Piros, Penner and Peña formed a de facto liberal political wing, with Brown, vice chair Brian Shannon and members Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart comprising a conservative majority.
The board enacted a series of controversial decisions over the past year, all through 4-3 votes along ideological lines, starting in August with a ban on teachers displaying Pride and Black Lives Matter displays on campuses. The policy was later amended to ban all political displays.
In November, the board abruptly voted to fire former Newberg superintendent Joe Morelock without cause. The decision came at a meeting where the board was scheduled to vote on whether to overrule a decision by Morelock that a teacher’s window sign did not violate the political display policy.
Penner acknowledged that last night’s resignations will likely result in an even more conservative board roster, but said she hoped that with five of seven seats now on the ballot, the May 2023 election would be an opportunity to change direction.
Brown and Shannon both faced recall votes in January, prompted by complaints about the political sign ban and the firing of Morelock, but they each retained their seats with about 52% of the vote.
When asked if their victories should be read as a community endorsement of the board’s conservative direction, Penner said that voters were “flooded with misinformation and propaganda” during the recall, and that she hoped to share her experiences on the board to make the community more aware of outside political influence in school board elections.
“I’ve been feeling like the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “There are several boards across the state who are one or two members away from this happening, who are being targeted by outside and national PACs in order to take our public education and turn it into an extreme form of itself in which kids have no ability to thrive.”
The board made another controversial decision on May 10 when it voted to hire Stephen Phillips as the district’s new permanent superintendent. The vote was 5-2, with Piros and Penner dissenting.
Phillips most recently served as superintendent of the Jewell School District in Seaside, but was placed on paid leave in early March pending an investigation, according to a report in the The Daily Astorian. The subject of the investigation was not disclosed.
He previously served a deputy superintendent at the Beaverton School District, a position from which he resigned amid public outcry in 2018 after he shared a racist tweet that said undocumented immigrants should be banned from the United States and that they were more dangerous to American safety than assault rifles.
Penner later wrote on her Facebook page that she voted “no” because she had concluded that Phillips was “not equipped nor qualified to be the superintendent.” He left behind “a school district team in shambles,” she said, and during the interview process he did not “grasp a superintendent’s most basic knowledge and skills.”
Phillips was hired on a contract that begins July 1, but the board separately negotiated an additional contract to cover the period from May 24 to June 30 in order to allow him to start sooner. In another Facebook post on May 23, Penner argued that the short-term contract would overpay Phillips.
The board voted 5-2 to approve the contract at its May 24 meeting. Later in the meeting, Peregrino de Brito brought up the Facebook posts, alleging that Penner had violated the board’s rules of conduct for members by disparaging Phillips.
Powell echoed her comments, although did not mention Penner by name, and Brown called for the board members to show more grace in general during their discussions.
Penner told KGW that she stood by the concerns mentioned in her Facebook posts and that she didn’t respond during that meeting because she felt that it was unprofessional to have brought up the issue at the meeting rather than first in private.