The day before school started in Newberg, a parent was told the school bus would drop off her daughter at one of the district’s middle schools. But her daughter, who has disabilities, is in high school.
“That was clearly not going to work,” said the parent of the student, who asked OPB not to use her name out of fear of retaliation. Her daughter rides a specialized bus and had no issues with transportation last school year.
“She’s not going to know if she’s at the wrong stop,” the parent said. “We need to be able to rely on safe transport for her. She doesn’t know my phone number. She doesn’t know where she lives ... her address. She can’t answer those kinds of questions.”
For days before school started, the parent recalled going back and forth with the district, looking for her daughter’s name via an app from the bus company.
Her daughter did not show up on the app. The daughter’s transportation problem reached the superintendent’s office, and he offered to drive her to school. But the Newberg parent and her husband have been stepping away from work daily to drive their daughter.
“Unlike other years, where we’ve been able to put our trust in the bus system, we just now don’t have that,” the parent said.
This family wasn’t the only one learning that the Newberg school system was failing to deliver on basics, like daily bus service. Parents posted on social media, describing buses so crowded with students they were sitting on the floor. Others complained of delayed pickup times that left students waiting for buses long after school ended.
As another year starts with many schools finding a new sense of normalcy after more than two years of pandemic disruptions, for Newberg students and staff, school remains plagued with problems. The school board’s actions over the last year have had ripple effects on school operations, with a community still divided and a new superintendent set on unifying them.
Basics, like bus service, that were challenges across the state last year, have mostly been resolved in much of Oregon. But it’s an example of how problems remain in Newberg.
“In the first couple of weeks I have had to drive not just my kids to school but the neighbor kids as well because either the bus just didn’t ever show up or when it did it was so crowded that the riding conditions were unsafe,” said Matthew Stidman, a parent of two Newberg students.
“It’s been a real rough start to the year,” said Newberg Superintendent Stephen Phillips during a board meeting earlier this month.
“It’s the most chaotic scramble I have ever seen for [the] start of the year,” Stidman said.
About a year ago, the school board majority in Newberg approved a policy to prohibit staff from displaying “controversial, political, or quasi-political” signs in schools, the first of many actions that put the small school district in the local and national spotlight. In the months that followed, the board majority fired the superintendent, board leaders faced recall elections and three board members in the minority resigned alleging harassment. The school board is still facing multiple lawsuits, including one from the Newberg Education Association and another from a student.
Another lawsuit, filed on behalf of a teacher by the ACLU, may be nearing a conclusion. Last week, a Yamhill County Circuit Court judge ruled that the ban on symbols is an unconstitutional violation of staff freedom of speech.
The events of the last year have divided the community. It’s this environment in which Superintendent Stephen Phillips started his job at the end of last school year.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of political unrest here in Newberg and I’m convinced it doesn’t matter how left you are, how right you are,” Phillips said. “There’s more things we have in common with each other than we have different … one of those things is kids — we all want what’s best for kids.”
Phillips said he has an open-door policy, and he’s been talking to parents about the issues they’re dealing with so far this school year.
They’ve had a lot to talk about.
The impact: staffing, bus issues, and a lack of trust
At a time when staffing shortages are a problem around Oregon and across the country, Newberg has seen its employee ranks decimated. Administrative staff, from an assistant superintendent to the director of human resources, have quit. Out of 10 school leaders across the district, six left. More than 50 teachers have resigned since April, according to school board records, in a district where the local teachers union represents “approximately 280 dedicated educational professionals.”
That’s not including the many classified employees who have left the district.
“It is known that we’ve had decades of experience leave our district, decades of experience of teachers, staff, custodians, that have been within the buildings that have left,” said Carly Barnett, parent of two kindergarteners, during public comment at a board meeting.
“Why would you stay if you’re being constantly harassed by one side or the other? If you’re a teacher, depending on where you fall, somebody is going to like you, and somebody is not going to like you.”
Barnett’s wife, Katherine, used to work for the district but resigned last spring. She was involved in a lawsuit filed by school board members Dave Brown, Brian Shannon, Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell. The four board members sought an order against Barnett and three others after they posted information about the board members on Facebook. According to the complaint, Barnett posted a screenshot of an email about Powell’s art being removed from a local winery. The claim against Barnett was later dismissed.
In announcing her resignation during public comment at an April board meeting, Katherine Barnett said she felt like she continued to be a “target,” even after she was dismissed from the lawsuit.
“I have anxiety attacks whenever there is a board meeting because I don’t know what you have up your sleeve,” Barnett shared. “I had everything I wanted with my position here, but being served that lawsuit at my job showed me that nothing is sacred, so I choose me and I choose to show the communities I’m leaving behind what true self-care looks like.”
Barnett is now working in another district.
School board leaders declined to be interviewed for this story.
This school year, the union representing Newberg teachers is still bargaining with the district to replace a contract that expired in June. Parents like Tai Harden-Moore questioned how the district can continue to hire quality teachers.
“Why would you stay if you’re being constantly harassed by one side or the other?” Harden-Moore said. “If you’re a teacher, depending on where you fall, somebody is going to like you, and somebody is not going to like you.”
And the losses continue.
Earlier in September, the district announced its director of special programs was leaving the district. That position has since been filled by an internal hire.
At least four of the district’s five school psychologists have submitted letters of resignation.
At the same time, the district has hired some new staff.
Last spring, the board approved a contract with Student Transportation of America, the first new provider in several years. During a board meeting in September, STA officials apologized to the district and acknowledged challenges in getting up and running in the new district. The company had to reroute the whole district, and STA’s app was glitchy.
Board member Trevor DeHart called for an investigation, something Superintendent Phillips supports.
Phillips said the extent of the problem wasn’t known before the school year started.
“Maybe it was the former administration who signed the contract or me as the new guy that inherited the contract — no one thought it was gonna be as bad as it was,” Phillips said.
Earlier this month, Phillips sent a breach of contract letter to STA, saying the district is considering ending its contract with the company before the term expires.
Phillips said he’s heard of similar challenges in other districts, but admits the problems with transportation and staffing are worse in Newberg.
“Scores of Newberg students have missed instruction and public relations have deteriorated, as families have lost confidence that the district will fulfill a basic expectation of transportation students as required by state law,” Phillips wrote in the letter to STA.
Among its staffing losses, the district no longer has anyone on staff to lead communications. The district has tried to improve that by contracting with Bridge & Bolster LLC, a new company focused on social media. The group has started a Facebook group and started posting weekly YouTube videos featuring the superintendent and employees who work around the district.
Despite these efforts, some parents say inadequate communication is feeding a lack of trust among some in the school community.
New superintendent: “Positive over negative, kids over politics”
School boards are supposed to be nonpartisan. But nationally and locally, politics has influenced school boards.
“It’s so sad, I thought this town was unified in wanting to provide a good public education for everyone, and it just feels like we got taken over by people who know nothing about running a public school system, and instead are …it feels very political to me,” said Elaine Koskela, a former Newberg staff member who has filed a complaint against the board chair.
The political leanings and actions of board members have left parents like Cherice Bock concerned that relationships between the district and the broader community are broken beyond repair
“It’s not an open space for people to be able to contribute their perspective and find common ground,” Bock said.
Newberg superintendent Phillips is not new to controversy. He was forced to resign from a job in Beaverton due to remarks on social media and most recently served as superintendent of the Jewell School District before he was put on leave in March.
In his role in Newberg, Phillips said he wants to focus on positive things and keep political issues away from students.
“Positive over negative, kids over politics,” he said.
But not everyone in Newberg agrees on what constitutes “politics.”
Phillips said he doesn’t think the board has focused on politics.
“They want what’s best for Newberg kids, and they feel that their job is to educate Newberg kids, not indoctrinate or politicize them,” Phillips said.
The board majority sees pride flags or Black Lives Matter signs as political. Students and staff who spoke at board meetings last year said such symbols expressed support for students from marginalized groups.
So far this school year, one student has spoken publicly, at a meeting in early September. She mentioned signs being “taken down” and spoke directly to the board.
“I feel that you don’t believe in diversity, and I am a diverse person … I thought that schools were safe … it’s not just making the parents upset, it’s also hurting me and it makes my sister upset, she has to cry in her bed,” said fifth grader Angelina Tokstad.
At a board meeting on Sept. 27, Phillips announced that the district received $25,000 from The Ford Family Foundation to create unity in the district.
“The District has expressed a commitment to listening to its students and families in charting a unified path,” Foundation officials told OPB in an email.
One Newberg parent said unity is not possible unless people — from the board members to the broader community — apologize to each other.
“I don’t know how we can heal and unify unless people apologize, people are accountable to harm that is done to specific groups of students and families and staff to kind of acknowledge just how we’re not just in this bad place because we just happened to find ourselves here,” said a Newberg parent who has asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation.
Harden-Moore, a Newberg parent who unsuccessfully ran for the school board in 2021, said the Newberg community needs to come together for its students and overcome political divides.
“I would like to see us all, both sides, whatever side you fall on, start to focus back on the students and what the students need to be successful here in Newberg and beyond Newberg,” she said.
Parents said they know of families that have left the district because of the board. Phillips said enrollment has been “pretty much flat.” One parent, who also asked OPB not to use their name out of fear of retaliation, spoke about their move to another district.
“I just want my kids to grow up somewhere safe, where there isn’t all this stuff going on,” the parent said.
The parent said they left the district for many reasons. But their two kids didn’t want to leave.
“They were very tight-knit with their friends,” the parent said. “They love their schools, they loved their teachers.”
As the year goes on in Newberg, there are signs that changes are coming to improve some school operations — but concerns linger about others.
The year ahead: a new bus contract and burnout concerns
By late September, three weeks into the school year, the bus situation hadn’t improved.
At the Sept. 27 board meeting, Superintendent Phillips shared a stopgap solution: bringing in the district’s old bus contractor, First Student, with four drivers running a total of eight routes.
“If I need to beg, I will beg,” Phillips said, asking the board to support the contract.
“We need this, our families need this. It’s not going to solve all of our problems, but it’s going to help.”
The new contract passed unanimously and will begin next month.
Phillips said at the meeting the cost for the new contract wouldn’t be more than what’s already budgeted. He said STA is only running about half of the routes they said they would, which means the district is paying them less.
In schools, Newberg parents agree that teachers have been strong and supportive this year, showing up for students.
“I think students are kind of just trying to weather it out and support each other and that’s been good to see,” said parent Cherice Bock.
It’s still early in the year. But some parents are concerned about the lingering impact of staff shortages, including how gaps in special education will affect support for students who receive those services.
Phillips worries about how long staff can keep going if shortages continue.
“I think our kids in Newberg are still being served, I think there’s still learning. I think there’s still lots of student growth and great things going on,” Phillips said.
“What my concern is, people can only keep up the level of doing their work and helping with someone else’s work, they can only keep that up for so long and then there’s burnout — and that’s what I worry about.”