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Politics, social media combine to roil school board races

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On April 14, the Linn County Republican Party sent an email to supporters.

“Local elections are coming up soon and we need your help!” it said. “We are positioned to seat solid Republicans on our school boards, fire districts, water districts and more. We need your help to make this happen.”

The email went on to list things supporters could do to help seat Republicans on the nonpartisan governing bodies: put up campaign signs, canvass voters and “dogpile.”

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The term, rooted in social media lingo and defined as multiple people criticizing an individual on a post or in comments online, is sometimes linked to cyberbullying.

The email distributed by the Linn County Republicans described the practice as a "tactic where a group of our folks 'gang up' on Dems who are bashing us on social media."

Politicization of local school boards is on the rise, according to Krista Parent of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, an organization that develops and supports educational leaders.

“It was bad before, but it’s really bad now,” she said.

The increase in partisanship when it comes to these nonpartisan boards has been seen across the state, often gaining momentum on social media before leading to infighting, controversy over social issues and, sometimes, a turnover in district leadership.

“We have a number of good, experienced superintendents that are caught in the crossfire of the opposite sides of this politicization of these school boards,” Parent said.

And increasingly, boards from Salem to Albany find themselves falling into controversies rooted in political and social issues and often divide among themselves.

Training members

To become a school board member in the state of Oregon, a person must be 18 or older, a registered voter and a resident of the district for at least one year immediately prior to the election.

Whether or not members receive training — and how much — in education policy, state and federal laws governing education, curriculum, budgeting or parliamentary procedure is up to each school district. And depending on the board, district leadership and budget constraints, that training can vary from election cycle to election cycle.

Parent said her organization is attempting to change that through legislation.

Senate Bill 334, she said, would require board members and superintendents to go through training in several areas, including governmental ethics, equity, inclusion and public records law.

Political tactics

The Linn County Republicans noted in the email sent to supporters that dogpiling was "very effective at shutting down rhetoric."

Mid-Valley Media reached out to the Linn County Republicans to ask about the email, the use of the term dogpiling and the intent of that vocabulary in regard to a school board race in a district that has noted cyberbullying to be damaging to students.

While no interview was granted, the group did post a statement on its website falsely stating that Mid-Valley Media had made "a false and shocking accusation that the Republican Party would encourage cyberbullying."

The statement went on to say that Democrats in Portland and the local area had "a tacit policy of mob rule."

It's a claim disputed by Linn County Democrats, who denounced dogpiling in response to questions from Mid-Valley Media but who also have endorsed their own slate of candidates for the GAPS school board.

In the statement released on the Linn County Republicans' website, there is no mention of dogpiling.

"The Republican Party is engaged in outreach to the community through social media in an effort to raise awareness about this May 18 special election," the statement read. "We will continue to encourage our supporters to engage in public discourse on social media, identify agitators who are not Linn County voters who seek to sow division, and to bring them out of the shadows into the light."

While the statement did not address the group's encouragement of dogpiling, it did say that Linn County Republicans do not condone cyberbullying or bullying of any kind.

An increase in charged language surrounding school board races isn’t new, said Kelsy Kretschmer, an assistant professor at Oregon State University who studies social movements.

“School boards are interesting because usually they are places where you have to cajole and work to get people to agree to be on school boards, because it’s not a glamorous position,” she said. “But then we see peak activity where they become real sites of conflict and contention.”

And while politics in school boards have ebbed and flowed, Kretschmer said, social media has put a point on the peaks of contention.

“I think the rise of social media brings school board politics in sharper focus for more people,” she said. “If you don’t know anyone on the school board or the PTO isn’t a thing you would care about, because of social media there’s a wider pool of people who care now and there are more people brought into the fight.”

Police and schools

On March 29, Albany police greeted students returning to in-person learning for the first time in more than a year.

By April 8, the Albany Police Department and Greater Albany Public Schools were trading statements online about why officers were asked to leave school property.

GAPS Superintendent Melissa Goff cited the fact that some children were upset by the presence of uniformed and armed officers and so the district asked that the program be paused until the district and department could come together and alter it to create a positive experience for all students. The statement did not point to a specific group of students who voiced their discomfort.

The police department cited the longstanding tradition of welcoming students back to school and apologized if families of color felt uncomfortable, disputed Goff’s assertion that the decision for police to leave was made jointly but also called for a continued partnership.

Police Chief Marcia Harnden also called for social media rhetoric surrounding the incident to stop. It did not.

Local Facebook groups exploded with commentary and calls for Goff to lose her position. Several school board candidates released statements, and the police union issued a press release that called out Goff specifically, claiming she had “villainized” local police.

The calls for superintendents to lose their jobs over issues seen as political is not new in Oregon, Parent said.

In the last few years, at least three school superintendents lost their jobs, not because of poor performance or policy violations but because of a turnover of the school board or political issues, Parent said.

“That’s the key part: it’s not based on them making even moderate mistakes, it’s just that the boards don’t like them, don’t like their political affiliation in a lot of cases. It’s rough,” Parent said. “We have 27 districts for the '21-22 school year that are going to have a new superintendent. It’s another huge turnover year, and some of those are because they’re being terminated, run out or not offered a new contract or because some superintendents are saying ‘I’m not doing this anymore’ in terms of dealing with the politics that don’t serve the kids.”

Earlier this month in Woodburn, Superintendent Oscar Moreno Gilson signaled his intent to sue the school district after being placed on administrative leave. Moreno Gilson said in the notice that he began work in Woodburn by restructuring leadership and making changes that were based on rules from the Oregon Department of Education that prohibit hate symbols and promote anti-bias policies.

A district employee complained about the changes, and Moreno Gilson was placed on leave by a vote of the school board. Moreno Gilson’s notice stated he planned to sue the district for breach of contract, retaliation and emotional distress. Moreno Gilson was terminated by a 4-1 vote of the school board on April 19.

"He's not the only one this is happening to," Parent said. "We've had to start writing contracts to protect superintendents against these sorts of terminations where they've done nothing against policy."

Alex Pulaski, director of communications for the Oregon School Boards Association, said there is no concrete data documenting the growing divide, but he's seen it happening.

“Anecdotally, it would appear to me that we’re seeing more conflict and deeper conflicts, and I suspect that is a product of what we’ve seen across the country these last four years,” said Pulaski. “People are deeply motivated and, in some cases, deeply divided on really core issues.”

Pulaski said the political polarization of the last four years has led to more people being interested in running for their local school boards — a trend he thinks is positive.

“Another side of that is you just see really deep divides coming up and at different school boards,” he said, citing recent conflicts in the Salem-Keizer School District. “It’s not unique there,” Pulaski added. “As we look over time, I would say it’s not a new thing that conflicts arise between school boards and chief administrators or school boards and their communities.”

Mirroring the nation

Team politics, Kretschmer said, are seen at the national level and have contributed to the current peak of politicization of local boards and bodies.

“Everything is more polarized now, and it makes everything feel more high-stakes,” she said.

“What would have been small-potato positions feel more important," she added. "Now it feels like all or nothing.”

That all-or-nothing tone at the local level has included people taking sides over school reopenings, sex education and diversity.

Diversity and equity are the current hot topics in local school boards, and GAPS' Goff touched on those issues during the April 19 school board meeting in addressing the circumstances that led to Albany police officers leaving school property.

After hearing from dozens of residents about the importance of including marginalized voices in district decisions, Goff pointed to those public comments as a positive change and asked that current and future school boards not move away from including those voices.

But on May 18, three of the five school board seats in Albany will turn over, and that could dramatically alter the school board’s stance on several social and educational issues.

And while curriculum is traditionally shaped by district administration and brought to the school board for approval, boards can still impact public perception and the community as a whole.

“After Brown v. the Board of Education, school boards that were filled with white, conservative, pro-segregation members really drew a lot of attention to those communities as places that were hostile to Black and brown people, and even symbolically, that can be damaging to a community,” said Kretschmer of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that rules segregated schools were unconstitutional.

“Even if curriculum is largely set by the state or district administration, what the school board puts out, the message they put out, it will still get picked up by the press and social media. And that matters because regular community members aren’t always familiar with the ins and outs of education policy, and so what they hear about on social media becomes the truth of the situation. The actual policies may not shift much, but the messages being sent by the district matter and can swing depending on the makeup of the board.”

Local politics

According to Pulaski, things that have sparked contention on school boards around the state include issues surrounding transgender students and birth control.

“These are ultimately political questions,” Pulaski said.

The most politically charged question of 2020 for schools was when and how to reopen after the state ordered classrooms closed to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Education issued three policy-shifting decisions that sent school districts scrambling to comply over who would be allowed to attend in-person learning.

Over the course of the year, those decisions were based on county case counts, the size of a community and state mandates, then were left completely to school districts, which still had to contend with insurance obligations.

The question of reopening has provided fodder for fierce online debate and has become a central issue for school board campaigns. But by the time the May 18 election is over, all schools in GAPS and Corvallis will be open to students. The decision to open schools is made by district administration and those plans are then approved by the school board, but locally, the issue rarely was scheduled for a vote. Instead, boards were walked through district plans on an informational basis.

The impact

Some departing GAPS board members say they're concerned about the tenor of the election.

Justin Roach, an educator for more than 20 years, made the decision not to run to maintain his appointed seat in February due to personal reasons.

"While I don't regret my decision, I'm very disappointed that the current political climate could keep kind, thoughtful people from serving their community," he said.

Board member Jennifer Ward cited personal reasons for vacating her seat but noted that politics surrounding school boards had grown.

"It's worrisome," she said. "These positions are nonpartisan. It is so important that those who serve on boards are committed to serving the entire district and every child we try to educate."

Whether partisanship will continue to seep into local, nonpartisan races will be a key factor in future elections.

"I don't think we're ever going to get away from conflict on school boards because you have five to seven viewpoints on the board," Pulaski said, noting the Oregon School Boards Association has begun focusing on building relationships between school boards and superintendents. “I think what we all agree upon, even when we're disagreeing, is what's best for the students?"


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