An Oregon school district has banned Black Lives Matter and pride flags, clothing and signs from its schools, marking what locals say is a concerning development in what’s becoming a national struggle in the politicization of school boards across the country.
The ban, passed by the Newberg School Board late Tuesday, applies to anything political, though the board has yet to define the term. For now, “political” means LGBTQ+ and BLM, which earned explicit mention during Tuesday’s contentious four-hour meeting.
Board members authorized the measure on a 4-3 vote, after just 31 of the 90 people who signed up to give public comment were allowed to do so.
Two of the “yes” votes came from newly appointed members ― members their opponents accuse of having been elected thanks to outside Republican support. That’s particularly concerning given the body’s nonpartisan nature.
“The school board race was absolutely impacted by outside Republican forces,” Tai Harden-Moore, who unsuccessfully ran against board member Renee Powell, told HuffPost in an email. Powell voted for the ban Tuesday.
“Their attacks were coordinated and always had the same talking points — anti-[critical race theory], anti-BLM, anti-equity, etc,” she added. “They made unfounded attacks on me that I was unpatriotic, based on nothing more than I am a Black woman so therefore must not be, cannot be a patriot, which is ridiculous.”
Harden-Moore has a personal stake in the fight to keep the symbols in Newberg’s schools. A white student called her son a racial slur when he was in seventh grade. He ended up transferring elsewhere after she says school authorities failed to respond appropriately. Her daughter remains in the school system.
“Believe me, I wish we didn’t need BLM or pride flags,” she said. “I wish people respected people and their differences, but my wish is not our current reality and the fact of the matter is having these signs in schools lets my children and other children know who is a safe person to talk to and share with.”
“Having these signs in schools allow my children to feel a sense of belonging, safety and security that all students deserve to feel,” she added.
Having these signs in schools allow my children to feel a sense of belonging, safety and security that all students deserve to feel. Tai Harden-Moore, former candidate for Newberg School Board
Ron Mock, a former school board member who lost his seat to challenger Trevor DeHart, also believes the nonpartisan group is being targeted by the Republican Party.
Instead of focusing on the tedious ― yet crucial ― tasks of school board governance, Mock fears the GOP is using it to amplify counterproductive partisan outrage and farm future political candidates.
An investigation by Pamplin Media Group in April substantiates that belief. DeHart, Powell and a third unsuccessful candidate named John Read were all backed by a political action committee (PAC) called “Community Oriented Public Servants” (COPS).
The treasurer of that group, Carol Russell, is listed in the same capacity for 432 current and discontinued PACs around the state, Oregon Secretary of State filings show, mostly for Republican candidates and causes. Russell lives in southwest Oregon more than four hours from Newberg, filings show, calling into question her interest in the city’s school board policies.
Russell didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
“The local Republicans are running openly organized slates in both of our nonpartisan local elections,” Mock told Pamplin Media. “This gives them an organizational and logistical advantage. ... The Oregon GOP [is] looking for easy places to start finding potential statewide candidates.”
So far this year, activists and parents have tried to recall 143 school board members, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan political tracking website. That’s up from just five in 2006, the earliest year Ballotpedia has available.
In Pennsylvania, a Republican donor has pledged to spend $500,000 on school board races alone, looking to prop up candidates who keep schools open regardless of how prevalent COVID might be in the district.
A school board meeting in Virginia this June concerning the treatment of transgender students became so chaotic that one person was arrested and a second cited for trespassing.
Similar scenes have played out in Texas, South Dakota and Montana, where mask-wearing and critical race theory have become hot-button issues. And in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has vowed to “get the Florida political apparatus involved” in school board races.
Back in Newberg, enforcement of the ban is on hold pending a legal review ordered by superintendent Joe Morelock.
And Mock, the former board member, is just worried about how this is all affecting the kids.
“I don’t want our nonpartisan local governments to be riven by the same toxic polarization we see nationally,” Mock told Pamplin. “For schools, this would leave them buffeted by the winds of national issues that have little to do with the quality of our schools.”
“The work is hard enough when the issues are entirely local,” he said. “If school board elections are driven by national partisan concerns, the idea of local control of our schools takes a serious blow. Parental appeals for this or that may fall on deaf ears if the board member sees herself as part of a national team with other priorities.”