Voters have sent in their ballots in a recall vote against two Newberg School Board members. As of 8 p.m. Tuesday, voters are rejecting recall efforts against board chair Dave Brown and vice chair Brian Shannon.

In initial results, there were 6,690 Yamhill County votes to recall Shannon, with 7,254 “no” votes. County totals showed 6,666 votes to recall Brown, with 7,200 “no” votes. With fewer than 400 ballots in Washington and Clackamas county counted so far, those results show about a 60% “no” vote in Washington County and a close to 50-50 split in Clackamas County.

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The two board members have led a 4-3 board majority that has enacted a ban of “controversial” or political symbols and fired its superintendent without cause, all in just a few months.

The board’s actions have drawn criticism, lawsuits, and national attention. They’ve also led to Yamhill County’s first recall election in 12 years.

Turnout for Tuesday’s recall has exceeded previous school board elections. By Tuesday evening, turnout in Yamhill County, where the large majority of school district voters reside, was running above 50%, with 53.4% of ballots cast and 52.5% accepted.

The petitioners for the recall campaigns said in a statement Tuesday evening that there are still votes to be counted.

“As of this hour, with so many ballots coming in with a January 18th postmark, it would be premature to comment on the outcome of this election,” said petitioner Kristen Stoller. “We trust our democracy. We trust our career county elections officials. We trust that in the State of Oregon, the will of the voters will be fairly executed, whatever that may be.”

In May 2021, when several board members were on the ballot, turnout was 23.91%. Two years prior to that, when Brown and Shannon were elected, turnout in Yamhill County was just 18.95%.

But despite the high number of votes cast before Tuesday evening, there may be more to come over the next few days. Under an Oregon law that went into effect on Jan. 1, ballots can be counted as long as they are postmarked on Election Day. Final election results also depend on whether voters contest any signature issues, which they can do for up to 21 days after the election. This means final results of the election will be known no sooner than Feb. 9.

If the recall were successful, the remaining board members would appoint either one or two new members to fill the seats until 2023, the next election year.

Local divisions reflect national tensions around education

The board’s actions over the last several months illustrate the divisiveness between the board members and the broader Newberg community. The tensions reflect a national conversation about race, gender, and how history is taught in this country.

Brown and Shannon, along with the two other conservative board members, have argued that by banning “controversial” symbols, they are trying to focus on the “basics” of education.

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“Political indoctrination has no place in our schools,” Shannon said in his response to the recall effort, which Yamhill County voters could see in their election materials.

“The people who are driving a progressive dangerous agenda are the ones hurting our school district,” wrote Brown in his recall response.

But the other three board members, as well as school district staff, see Black Lives Matter and pride flags as symbols that express support for students from marginalized communities.

In petitioners who demanded Shannon’s recall vote said he has brought “drama and division” to the Newberg community, while also pushing the ban on political symbols and other matters the board is facing legal action for.

The petitioners behind the effort to recall Brown said he has failed on his promise to “do a better job and spend less.”

“Dave Brown has endangered the stability of Newberg and its school district, while showing a total lack of competence, preparedness and, worse, a lack of respect for students, parents, staff, and his own constituents,” the petitioners wrote.

Since the board majority fired Superintendent Joe Morelock, the district has also faced financial costs and staffing impacts.

Under Morelock’s contract, the district is responsible for paying the Superintendent’s salary, $175,000, as well as fringe benefits. The district will likely have to pay a superintendent search firm as well as any hired candidate.

The district has also lost employees in the months since Morelock’s firing, including Assistant Superintendent Derek Brown and board secretary Jenn Nelson, according to the part-time Interim Superintendent Dave Novotney, who calls the three positions the executive administration team.

Novotney, who is the current Willamette Education Service District superintendent, has signed on to lead the Newberg district for 90 days.

At the Newberg district’s first board meeting of the year, on Jan. 11, Novotney said he’s able to backfill 16 hours a week, but that’s very little compared to what a full executive administration team can do.

“Traditionally, you’d have 120 hours a week at the minimum working on behalf of the district,” Novotney said. “We’re backfilling with about 13% or so of the FTE [full time equivalent].”

The board may not know the final results of the recall when they meet again Jan. 25. But Novotney asked the board and the district to turn its focus back on teaching and learning, and back on students and staff.

“We have a lot of work to do, and in my view, we have to find a positive way to move forward no matter the outcome,” Novotney said.

This is a developing story. Watch for updates.

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As the Newberg school board starts a search for a new superintendent, there’s a lot it’s up against. The school board chair and vice chair are facing recall efforts. Multiple lawsuits have been filed both by the school board and against the school board. And the school district has been in the news nationally for months because of a ban on “political” symbols approved by the board’s conservative majority.