Education

Newberg district rescinds policy on ‘controversial’ symbols following lawsuit settlement

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Jan. 18, 2023 12:21 a.m.

Union representing teachers says ruling protects marginalized students

The union representing teachers in the Newberg School District has reached a settlement in a lawsuit over a school board policy banning “controversial” symbols.

The Newberg Education Association called the settlement a “bittersweet victory” in a Facebook post shared last month, four days before the final order was signed in U.S. District Court.

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The policy governing what kinds of images or signs school employees could display on campus was passed by the school board’s conservative majority in September 2021. Initial board conversations about the policy discussed banning Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride flags.

Another lawsuit filed by the ACLU and a staff member in the district was resolved in September 2022. In that case, a Yamhill County Circuit Court judge ruled that the school board’s policy was unconstitutional.

The school board voted to rescind the policy at its Jan. 10 meeting, effective immediately.

According to the union, the terms of the settlement, first reported by the Newberg Graphic, included directives to the school board that they wouldn’t appeal the decision in the ACLU case and that they would amend or rescind the policy on controversial symbols.

“The policy will not be amended or changed, it is gone,” Newberg superintendent Stephen Phillips said in an email to OPB.

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The union said the school board will reimburse the group and the Oregon Education Association “for a significant portion of the legal fees incurred.” It is not clear whether the school district or individual board members will pay the legal fees.

FILE: Families, staff and community members marched in support of the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter ahead of a Newberg school board meeting in August 2021.

FILE: Families, staff and community members marched in support of the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter ahead of a Newberg school board meeting in August 2021.

Courtesy of Joel Bock

In its Facebook post, union officials said district leaders “could have saved hours of legal preparation and public funds” if the board rescinded the policy back in 2021.

The board’s vote marks the end of a tumultuous period in the Willamette Valley district. Led by a conservative-majority board, the school board’s actions led to legislation protecting superintendents from being fired without cause, protests and discord within the school community, and resignations of staff members.

In the Newberg Education Association’s post announcing the settlement, union officials said they “hold hope” that the relationship between the board and the union can improve, but said they will continue to hold board officials “accountable for their actions.”

“The ruling validates our claims and assertions. It supports all the steps we have taken to fight the policy change,” the union said in the post. “It protects the marginalized populations in our student and staff bodies. We can continue to create safe spaces in our schools and offer support to students who identify as LGBTQIA+ and students of color without fear of retaliation.”

Now in his first year leading the district, Superintendent Phillips said in September that he wanted to create unity in the divided district.

“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 in September.

“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.”

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