The Newberg school board voted Tuesday night to approve a policy that bans district employees from displaying any sort of political or controversial symbols or images.

The board had voted to specifically ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags at a meeting last month, but it rescinded that motion during Tuesday’s meeting. The board majority instead opted for an official policy; that’s broad enough to include bans on specific symbols and signs, such as support for Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ pride.

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“We need to get moving back towards education,” said Board Chair Dave Brown, who joined the majority in a 4-3 vote in favor of the policy. “We’ve been derailed for quite a while.”

A group of nine people at a video meeting in individual screen boxes.

The Newberg school board meets Sept. 28, 2021, to discuss a policy which would ban district employees from displaying any sort of political or controversial imagery.

Zoom / OPB

Pushback over the policy and related bans had heightened in the past few weeks including a tort claim from the Newberg Education Association — Newberg’s teachers union — a statement from the Oregon House Democratic Caucus and a tweet from the ACLU.

Racist incidents have also flared at the school district recently, including a staff member who was terminated for showing up at Mabel Rush Elementary in Blackface. In another incident, the Newberg Graphic reported that a Newberg High School student was involved in a “slave trade” group message on Snapchat.

Director Rebecca Piros put forth an alternative to the broad ban on political speech. Her motion called for the board to create a committee of teachers and school board members that would meet for six weeks to discuss the underlying problems that are spurring the policy. That motion failed.

“I think we’ve spent way more oxygen on this issue than we should have already,” Vice Chair Brian Shannon said. “I don’t want to spend five, six more minutes on this issue, let alone six more weeks.”

Shannon added: “This policy is so innocuous. It just says that teachers can’t display political symbols at work while they’re on school time. That should not be controversial.”

Director Brandy Penner, along with Piros and Director Ines Peña, were in a minority voting against the policy. Penner called Shannon’s statements a “ridiculous attempt at pretending this is nothing.”

“Maybe it is nothing to you as a white, privileged male,” Penner said. “But, it’s a really big deal to a lot of our community, and a lot of our staff, and a lot of our students.”

Tuesday’s board meeting did not include an opportunity for public comment, though the school board listened to testimony last week.

Prohibiting support for underrepresented groups in the forms of signs or posters is contrary to recent state efforts looking to increase support for students.

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Newberg’s policy does not prohibit the American flag or Oregon’s state flag.

Newberg Superintendent Joe Morelock said the policy could be tricky to implement.

The policy will work with the school district’s existing complaint procedure. Depending on the type of complaint — it could go through specific personnel and potentially up to the superintendent and the board.

“I think the difficulty is that we’re going to have different people in different buildings, different leaders who will be taking these complaints, and I think one of the biggest challenges is for us to have consistency across all the buildings about what’s OK and what’s not OK,” Morelock said.

“I think that one of the hardest things for us will be defining what a controversial subject is for some and not others. It’ll be very, very interesting to see what people come up with when they decide they’re going to make a complaint.”

Morelock said he could see this policy resulting in people complaining about specific people, whether it’s staff members lodging complaints against colleagues or students complaining about staff.

“This is going to be essentially reduced to complaint procedure after complaint procedure,” he said. “I think that’s going to be one of our biggest challenges.”

Penner, one of the board members to vote against the policy, questioned its legality — and its reasoning.

“We know that legally this policy is a wreck when it comes to any kind of actual putting it into practice,” she said. “It’s not even a professional document, let alone a policy that is supposed to govern an employer of 500 people.”

Penner said early on in the meeting that the majority of the board had already made its choice, referencing the four members who had voted at the August board meeting in favor of a ban on Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ pride flags.

“It’s going to continue to intensify this divide in our community, and that’s the point,” she said. “Clearly after the last vote, you four are not at all interested in bringing this community together.”

The Newberg Education Association, the teachers union which recently filed a tort claim, also criticized the policy approved by the board majority, Tuesday night.

“It’s clear their personal politics are stronger than any real desire to come together as a school community,” the NEA said in a statement. “We will continue on our legal path to keep these board members in check.”

The union said it has endorsed an effort to recall the board’s vice chair, Brian Shannon.

“We cannot let this group of four impose their own political agenda, erode our rights, and strip our support of our students,” the NEA said. “Our educators are united in their goal to create classrooms where students can walk in and feel like they belong. We are more committed than ever to this goal.”

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