Newberg School District rescinds political display ban to settle lawsuit

NEWBERG, Ore. (KGW) — The Newberg School Board has rescinded a controversial policy that banned staff from putting up political signs or displays in schools. The decision comes a few months after a judge sided with a district teacher and the ACLU of Oregon in a lawsuit challenging the policy, ruling it unconstitutional.

The school board’s conservative majority enacted the policy in September 2021 amid public backlash to a prior rule that specifically banned LGBTQ Pride and Black Lives Matter displays. The board said the new policy was content-neutral, but critics decried it as little more than an extension of the prior ban.

The seven-member board reversed course and unanimously voted to rescind the policy, known as policy GBG, at its Jan. 10 meeting with little discussion beforehand, and the board members did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday about the reason for the decision.

Addressing the board ahead of the vote, Newberg schools HR director Scott Linenberger said the policy “went before the court system here and the state, and so we had the opportunity whether we wanted to amend policy GBG as a board or whether we wanted to rescind it, and so the recommendation before you is that we rescind the policy outright.”

The Newberg Education Association — the union that represents Newberg School District staff — wrote in a Facebook post that the board’s reversal was among the terms of a settlement agreement in a separate lawsuit brought by the union and four Newberg staffers including union president Jennifer Schneider.

“As a teacher and union leader, I am relieved to have the policy rescinded… It’s taken a lot of valuable time and energy away from our families and personal lives,” Schneider said in a statement Wednesday. “We lost many educators from Newberg due to the controversy this created and that is a hard situation from which to rebound.”

Legal challenges

The board enacted the original ban on Pride and BLM displays in August 2021, only to hit the brakes a few weeks later amid national public backlash and a threat of a lawsuit from the ACLU of Oregon. The follow-up ban on “political, quasi-political or controversial” symbols came in late September.

Both votes pitted the board’s four-member conservative majority — Trevor DeHart, Renee Powell, chair David Brown and vice-chair Brian Shannon — against a liberal minority consisting of former members Rebecca Piros, Brandy Penner and Ines Peña.

The union and four staffers filed their lawsuit in November 2021, and the ACLU of Oregon and another teacher, Chelsea Shotts, filed their separate lawsuit in December. Both lawsuits were filed in Yamhill County Circuit Court and named the district and the four conservative members as defendants. The union lawsuit was moved to federal court, while the Shotts lawsuit remained in Yamhill court.

The court sided with Shotts in September 2022 and prohibited the board from enforcing the policy. In a federal court filing in November, both sides in the other lawsuit acknowledged the Shotts verdict and said they were working to finalize an agreement in their own case, although the court documents do not specify the terms of the settlement.

Board upheaval

Tension between the board’s conservative and liberal wings only increased in the months following the political sign ban debate, particularly when the conservatives abruptly voted in November 2021 to fire former Newberg Superintendent Joe Morelock without cause.

The political sign ban and the firing of Morelock prompted recall campaigns against Shannon and Brown, both of whom narrowly retained their seats in a January 2022 special election.

The board subsequently hired current superintendent Stephen Phillips in May, again over the objections of the minority members, who raised concerns about his track record in the Jewell and Beaverton school districts.

All three liberal members resigned from the board last year, in each case expressing frustration with the board’s policy direction and alleging that they had been pushed out by a disrespectful or toxic work environment. The remaining board members appointed Raquel Peregrino de Brito, Ron Rilee and Shelley Kolb as replacements.

Multiple board members made pleas at the Jan. 10 meeting for the district to focus on education rather than politics, but there were signs of ongoing political controversy at the same meeting, this time sparked by a recent staff training session that reportedly featured Oregon Department of Education guidance about transgender students that drew objections from conservative board members and parents.

“Unfortunately ODE is simply rotten through with idealogues, radical idealogues who are absolutely intent on pushing this sort of garbage down our kids throats. And so parents have to stay vigilant, and the school board has to be a bulwark against that,” Shannon said at one point, and he later asked Brown to add a “parental bill of rights” to the board’s next agenda meeting.

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