Over the last several years, the Oregon Department of Education has taken special consideration to make sure schools are inclusive and supportive of LGBTQ+ students. The department published a statewide LGBTQ+ student success plan in 2020, and earlier this year released guidance for school districts on supporting gender expansive students.
Oregon is moving in the opposite direction of other states like Florida and Texas, where trans students are leaving due to concerns over safety and freedom to be themselves.
But Oregon’s guidance isn’t mandatory. And in some local school districts, conversations or decisions made in boardrooms have contradicted the statewide intention.
“There are some very coordinated national efforts that are making their ways into Oregon,” said Gaby Gardiner, engagement organizer for Basic Rights Oregon, a LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that typically focuses on state policy.
Oregon school board elections this year have drawn competition between candidates, attention from statewide groups, and money from political action committees as school boards have increasingly become a space where state policies and support for some of the state’s most marginalized students come into question.
But Basic Rights Oregon has been getting calls from families across the state related to LGBTQ+ issues at the local level — from Canby and Grants Pass to West Linn-Wilsonville, North Clackamas and Salem-Keizer. Families have expressed concern about libraries banning certain books, or a lack of support among school boards for trans students.
“It really is a statewide issue,” said Basic Rights Oregon communications manager Blair Stenvick.
So this year — for the first time — it’s getting involved in school board races. The group is active in four districts, offering help with canvassing, text messaging campaigns, and other efforts to rally voters and build support for candidates with platforms that are inclusive of all students.
Basic Rights Oregon steps in
It started with Newberg and Grants Pass, Gardiner said.
In Newberg, a conversation that began in 2021 with banning Black Lives Matter and pride flags has resulted in multiple lawsuits, school board member resignations and recall elections, a fired superintendent, national media attention, and a divided community still working on moving forward.
Also in 2021, two Grants Pass teachers started a campaign against policies affirming students’ gender identity. That led to student protests. The Grants Pass teachers were fired then rehired, and similar to Newberg, legal action followed.
“Those were the two instances where there was a big community backlash in the decisions that were made and a coalition of folks who wanted to hold the districts accountable and reverse those policies and/or have those educators be held accountable for those decisions on school time,” Gardiner said.
Basic Rights Oregon was a part of those coalitions. Fast forward to 2023: The organization is piloting “statewide engagement campaigns” in Grants Pass and Newberg, as well as North Clackamas and Bend-La Pine.
“We’re kind of using this election to see how it works,” Stenvick said. “See the feasibility of it — I think we’d love to take it wider.”
In Newberg and North Clackamas, Basic Rights Oregon is supporting a slate of candidates through support from more local organizers. In Grants Pass and Bend, it’s individual candidates.
“Grants Pass and Newberg made sense because we had already built a coalition from 2021 to be involved with, and North Clackamas, Bend […] were some areas where we noticed a concern around conservative takeovers on the school board level,” Gardiner said.
In their messages to voters, Gardiner and Stenvick highlight why they’re supporting candidates who are inclusive. But they’re also calling out candidates who receive money from specific groups or are “problematic in terms of the barriers they would create for trans and gender expansive students,” Gardiner said.
In off-year elections like this one, voter participation tends to be low and can be difficult to build support. Stenvick and Gardiner said they’ve had conversations with voters who don’t know there’s an election going on, or have inaccurate information. On top of issuing support for candidates that believe schools should be a welcoming place, Gardiner said Basic Rights Oregon is also explaining what a school board actually does.
“They are the administrative body for the entire school district, and help make decisions and implement the policies that that school district operates on, that they hold the fiscal responsibility of the district — I think are things that voters didn’t necessarily realize until we had that conversation with them,” Gardiner said.
For candidates, supporting LGBTQ+ students just one part of platform
Election day in Oregon is on Tuesday, May 16. While there are fewer races on the ballot this spring than last November, candidates for school board races across the state are out doing last-minute canvassing in hopes of getting out the vote.
That includes James Wolfer, who is running for a seat in Newberg. Wolfer is a school resource officer in Sherwood who grew up in Newberg. He and his siblings all went to Newberg schools.
Wolfer lives in Newberg with his wife and their 3-year-old, plus another baby on the way. He said he’s been “frustrated” with how things have been going with the school district.
“We had moved back here for the dream of raising our kids here, having my kids go to the same schools that I did and graduating from the same high school I did and I thought that was put in jeopardy,” he said.
He noted that his siblings are all a part of the LGBTQ community and live “as far away from Newberg as they can.” He’s part of a five-candidate slate against three incumbents and two other new candidates. All the candidates on the slate with Wolfer are supported by Basic Rights Oregon.
Wolfer is up against current school board chair Dave Brown, who was part of the conservative board majority who pushed through the ban on “controversial symbols.” That board policy was later overturned after a circuit court judge found it unconstitutional. Brown survived a recall attempt in January 2022.
Wolfer said he’s running to try to make sure the district is in a “good, healthy position” by the time his kids get there and to keep students safe.
“We can argue all day what the intention of the current board was,” Wolfer said. “But I think we could all see what the effects have been on, especially marginalized communities.”
He notes the district’s declining enrollment and the financial costs that come with fighting lawsuits. He’s also heard from listening sessions with specific groups — including Latino families and families of students with disabilities — that district policies have had an effect on students.
Brown did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. In the Yamhill County voters pamphlet, he highlights his experience as a coach in the community and says he wants to continue his focus on “fiscal responsibility, rigorous academic standards, community engagement, and making sure our classrooms are learning environments, not indoctrination centers.”
Brown also notes “increased enrollment” and “financial stability” as evidence of a “remarkable turnaround” in the district. Over the last five years, state data shows that enrollment in Newberg has not increased, but declined. In 2018, the district enrolled 4,964 students. By state data shared for this school year, that number is down to 4,201. The cost of legal services for the school board has skyrocketed in recent years — from $2,000 in 2020-2021 to $232,219, according to the district’s budget.
In North Clackamas, three of the four school board races are wide open. The only incumbent running is Jena Benologa, who has been on the board since 2019.
She’s part of another slate of candidates running with the support of Basic Rights Oregon.
Benologa said if reelected, she wants to continue working to ensure North Clackamas students are successful when it comes to literacy, and being on track to graduate from high school.
In an interview with OPB, she noted the importance of the district’s Sabin-Schellenberg career technical education program, and possibly expanding it.
“Our community has overwhelmingly supported that program,” Benologa said. “Even when there were budget cuts, it was very important to our community and to the board and to our district that these programs at Sabin-Schellenberg stay intact.”
But she also wants to make sure North Clackamas schools have a diverse staff, and that students are supported.
One issue that has come up in the North Clackamas school board races is transparency, especially when it comes to board meetings, which are currently accessible only online.
Board meetings moved online following a meeting in October, during which public comments became disruptive as parents criticized district policies and books related to the LBTQ+ community.
“We would be happy to be in-person, but it does need to feel safe,” Benologa said. She also noted that disruptions can interrupt the work the board has to do — like financial votes.
Benologa’s opponent is Courtneigh Swerzbin, a local business owner. In written responses to OPB’s questions, Swerzbin said she’s focused on holding the school board — and district — “accountable to families and the community,” adding that she will “promote a welcoming, open, and loving environment for all students, regardless of their race or background” if elected.
With regard to board meetings, she said the board has been “muzzling” speakers critical of the district.
“The community elects us to do this job, and if elected, I intend to fight for open meetings and greater accountability for the school board,” Swerzbin wrote.
The slate of candidates Benologa is running with in North Clackamas includes April Dobson, whose main focus is on funding for public schools, including North Clackamas. School districts in Oregon get most of their money through state funding controlled by the Legislature.
“The state of Oregon has been shamefully underfunding public education for decades,” Dobson said in an interview with OPB.
Dobson is also interested in encouraging more student participation and student voice in the district and at the board level.
One issue that has come up in board races across Oregon and nationally is the state of “parents rights” in schools.
While there is no universal definition of “parents rights,” the term has been used in some circles to focus narrowly on what parents don’t like about public schools, or what they don’t agree with politically.
Candidates OPB spoke to expressed the importance of parental involvement in a student’s education.
Both Stenvick with Basic Rights Oregon and Dobson, one of the Basic Rights Oregon-backed North Clackamas candidates, say the phrase “parental rights” is a dog whistle.
“I get the sense that what they’re really talking about is control,” Dobson said. “It’s not about their right to make decisions for their child, because they already have that right. It appears to me to be more about their right to make decisions for other people’s children — and I’m not OK with that.”
Dobson notes that in North Clackamas and statewide, parents can opt-out of sexual education lessons or state testing for their children. “You want to know what’s in the curriculum? Call the district. They’ll print it out for you and hand it over,” she said.
Not every parent feels that way.
Swerzbin said the district “gives too little information and influence to parents.”
Wolfer in Newberg said there are already protections in place to protect parents rights — and it’s important to have parental involvement. But a school board has a very specific job he said — and it’s not a political one.
“It’s a little bit of fear mongering,” Wolfer said of the “parents rights” phrase. “And then the things that are changing… are not things that are happening at the school board level.”
Who’s spending on school board races?
A 2022 story from Marketplace said school board candidates “usually spend $1,000 or less.” In Oregon races, some school board candidate committees are spending much more, often with the backing of statewide organizations — according to 2023 campaign finance spending numbers in Orestar through May 12.
According to state records, the candidate committee for Wolfer has spent $6,400 in 2023. Records show his opponent, Dave Brown, has not raised or spent any money this year, though “Parents for Dave Brown” raised thousands in 2021 and 2022.
Swerzbin in North Clackamas has spent $10,823 this year, compared to Benologa, who has spent $3,873.
There are also several political action committees raising thousands of dollars and supporting school board candidates.
Wolfer and the candidates he’s running with are being supported by the Oregon CARES political action committee. The committee has raised $29,607. The PAC, which says it is “committed to elevating and electing responsible and equitable community leaders,” has received contributions from the Oregon Education Association, winery owners and a Beaverton school board member.
The Community Oriented Public Servants PAC, which is supporting Newberg chair Brown and candidates he’s aligned with, have raised $7,360. The COPS PAC is “committed to providing safety and security” and has received support from the Yamhill County Republican Party, as well as committees for local Republicans.
Basic Rights Oregon Equality PAC has spent $5,221 to help candidates in Bend, Bethel, Beaverton and the Multnomah Education Service District.
This is in addition to more typical funders of school board campaigns, such as the Oregon Education Association. Some of the biggest fundraisers supporting candidates in school board races this season aren’t just supporting school board members.
The Oregon Right to Life Action PAC is an organization opposed to abortion. They spent $21,043 in 2023, to help anti-abortion candidates. In a message to supporters last month, they said school board elections are critical, mentioning district sex education requirements, school-based health centers and parent notification policies.
Communities of Color for a Just Oregon, a PAC supporting candidates of color, has raised $30,075.