Newberg school district faces union tort claim, legislators’ criticism over board actions

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Aug. 27, 2021 1 p.m.

Reaction from state and local leaders followed the board’s Aug. 10 approval of a ban on “political” symbols.

It’s been two weeks since the Newberg School Board approved a ban on Black Lives Matter signs and Pride flags, as well as any broadly “political” signs, clothing, and other items, with a board committee determining what is “political” and what is not. Since that decision, the board’s action has drawn condemnation and legal questions, including from state legislators Thursday.

Soon after the Aug. 10 meeting, the school district shared a statement, reiterating that the district will seek legal advice before implementing the ban.


“We want to clearly state our continuing commitment to all our Newberg and Dundee students and staff, including our students and staff of color and those who identify as LGBTQ,” the statement read.

“We intend to demonstrate to each of you in word and deed that you belong and are welcome in all of our schools.”

The board met Tuesday for two meetings: one in an executive session, a private meeting that only media are able to attend (but cannot report on), and a board retreat. According to a record from the retreat, the board discussed “unity moving forward,” with suggestions like improving communication among board members, and engagement with local community.

The Newberg school board meets via Zoom on Aug. 10, 2021. The board voted to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags districtwide.

The Newberg school board meets via Zoom on Aug. 10, 2021. The board voted to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags districtwide.

Screengrab / OPB

Yet prior to both the retreat and the executive session, the board approved a motion to retain “supplemental legal counsel,” an agenda item not shared with the public — a possible violation of public meeting laws.

Thursday, the Oregon House Democratic Caucus issued a statement condemning Tuesday’s action, saying Newberg is creating a “hostile environment” for students.

“When a school board violates public meeting laws in order to prioritize bigotry over the success of all students, they are opening themselves up to potential legal action, including the loss of funds for their district,” according to the statement.

“We are committed to addressing systemic injustices. We stand with the students, staff, families, and community members who are standing up for a safe space and denouncing destructive board policies.”

The ACLU has spoken out about the decision, and community members have protested and erected a large Pride flag at a property near Newberg High School. A recent crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to put up a Black Lives Matter flag next to it later this week.


Last week, the Newberg City Council voted 6-1 to support an earlier letter from the mayor that highlighted the impact the school board’s decision might have on the broader Newberg community.

“We the undersigned, feel the board’s recent (and planned) actions make Newberg less welcoming which is a detriment to, and not reflective of, the character of our community,” wrote the councilors.

“We hope you might reconsider your directions.”

Even before the Aug. 10 vote, the Oregon Legislature’s BIPOC caucus called out the district for its actions.

Now the Newberg Education Association is taking action too. The union representing around 280 Newberg educators filed a tort claims notice against the school board Monday evening “to ensure these core values of public education continue to be met and not disrupted by a school board with an agenda furthered by outside interests,” according to a Facebook post from the union Tuesday.

Union vice president Drew Gallagher, who also teaches history at Newberg High School, said the board’s decision gets in the way of teachers’ efforts to support students.

“We’re probably the most qualified to make decisions as to how to create environments where those students feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they feel like their beliefs are meaningful, and we believe that we know how best to scaffold and support their education,” Gallagher said.

A tort claims notice is not a lawsuit, but the first step in the process of filing a lawsuit.

In addition to limiting the freedom of educators, the Newberg teachers union said the board’s directives are an overreach, which violate both state laws and “several articles of the Collectively Bargained Agreement”.

“We’re just hoping that it gets rescinded,” Gallagher said.

The board has yet to move ahead on two other planned actions: changing the language of the district’s anti-racism policy and rescinding the district’s “Every Student Belongs” policy. Removing that policy would be in violation of state standards.

Those items will likely be on the agenda for Newberg’s next school board meeting on Sept. 14.

This story will be updated.