What’s in a name? Vale woman takes up crusade for Christmas

For the last couple of years, a Vale parent has been referred to as the “Christmas Crusader” for battling what she believes is a war on the word Christmas in public schools in the name of diversity, equity and inclusion.

April Johnson, a Vale resident and former substitute teacher, said her most recent clash with the Vale School District was sparked by the school board’s decision in March to approve a district calendar that doesn’t use the word Christmas to denote the holiday break at schools.

This follows a previous dispute in late 2022– her first tussle with the district – when she accused school officials of violating district policy by omitting the word “Christmas” from the title of an elementary school performance and not including religious songs. The school board sided with district administrators.

Johnson, the wife of Malheur County Sheriff Travis Johnson, isn’t giving up.

She is pressing school officials to release records tracking the decision by the board to support dropping “Christmas” from school calendars.

In a Thursday, June 13 email, Alisha McBride, Vale’s superintendent, said the district and the board informally agreed with the local teachers union in 2021 to remove the word from the calendar to be more “inclusive.”

Johnson said district leaders never said anything about such an informal agreement in the past. She is now attempting to pry loose three years of documents to learn more about district leaders’ deal with the teachers union. Using the state public records law, she has asked for meeting minutes, emails, messages and memos with the words “inclusive language.”

District officials responded April 29 that her request covered nearly 17,000 emails.

Elizabeth Polay, a Salem attorney retained by the school district, wrote Johnson that the cost to turn over the records would be almost $7,000. That included employee time to get the documents together and more than $2,000 in legal fees to review every document for sensitive student information.

The district turned down Johnson’s subsequent request to waive the fee, which public agencies can do when disclosing records serves the public interest.

Malheur County District Attorney David Goldthorpe ordered the Vale School District to release the records for no more than $1,000.

Goldthorpe wrote in a Friday, June 28 letter to Johnson and the Vale School District that while the district was within its rights to charge Johnson a fee to produce the records, assessing a nearly $7,000 charge was “shocking.”

McBride said a keyword search identified nearly 17,000 emails that could be relevant to Johnson’s request. She said district officials don’t know if those emails contain sensitive information such as student names or other personal information that would be exempt from public disclosure.

That’s why outside legal help has been retained.

“The district will need to ensure that any documents produced are, first, within the scope of the requests, and second, redacted or excluded to ensure compliance with all laws,” she said. 

Johnson said in an email on Thursday, June 20, that she was shocked when she saw the huge email count.

“For something that the superintendent doesn’t want to talk about with me,” Johnson said, “it sure seems like it’s a valid and common topic amongst district personnel.”  

Polay wrote in a May email to Johnson regarding Johnson’s fee waiver request that Johnson broadened the scope of her request even more by adding search terms about the district nixing the word Christmas from an elementary school performance.

“Based on the very broad scope of your records request, which has been broadened further, not reduced,” Polay wrote, the district believes these fees are reasonable.”

Johnson disagreed.

Now, Johnson has taken to the internet, circulating a petition to gain community support for her challenge to the fees.

Johnson, a Christian, said even if the district had been up front about its agreement to remove the word Christmas from its schools, she would still feel the same about the purge.

For Johnson, the battle is about the culture within public schools.

“The issue here is not only religious freedom but cultural freedom,” Johnson said. “They are trying to take away and socially transition and culturally transition us into something we’re not because they don’t like what America is.” 

The state public education system, Johnson said, does not like that America is a Christian country.  

McBride said the district’s informal 2021 pact with the local teachers union dovetails with Vale’s non-discrimination policies for staff and students. Andy Hally, the Vale teachers union representative, did not immediately respond to Enterprise’s request for an interview.

Last October, Johnson submitted a written request to the district to use the phrase Christmas. She said she got no response.

Johnson said she first heard of the deal with teachers in March.

She said that at the March board meeting, Ryan Bates, vice chair of the Vale School Board, said he was not part of the agreement to strip the word Christmas out of the district calendar. According to the March board meeting minutes, Bates proposed adding labels to the calendar breaks, such as “Thanksgiving,” Christmas,” and “Spring” instead of labeling those periods simply as “break.” He said he wanted the naming to be as “inclusive as possible.”

Bates said it seemed “reasonable” to add a name back to one or more breaks so that people could choose how to interpret the school calendar for themselves.

He got no support from other board members, which instead approved using the word “break.”

McBride told the board then that nearly 90% of the staff voted to remove the labels from the calendar, according to board minutes.

Johnson said nixing the word Christmas from public schools is “anti-Christian American, anti-free speech, and First Amendment.”

Johnson, 45, who considers herself a Christian, said Christians are used to discrimination. She sees the district’s decision to remove the word Christmas as an “That’s why nobody throws a fit and has big riots or does anything. We’ll just take it when people persecute us,” she said.

She said the Vale decision reflects government officials having an opinion about a particular religion. She believes the agreement between the teachers union and the district violates the First Amendment.

She said district leaders are swayed by “political wokeness,” a term that describes staying alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, and are abandoning “reality” by not using the word Christmas.

Johnson said she loves that Vale is largely religious but not of the same faith. The Johnsons have two kids who graduated from the district and two others in local schools. One will be in sixth grade and the other a high school junior.

She and her husband are still determining whether their kids will attend Vale schools in the fall.

Johnson said she no longer works as a substitute teacher partly because of the vaccine requirements for school employees during the pandemic. By the time the state lifted the requirements, she had taken another job as a paralegal at Butler, Looney and Martinsen, a Vale firm.

Sometimes, Johnson said, she thinks to herself, ‘Who cares if they omit the word Christmas from the calendar? ‘ It’s just a word on a piece of paper.”

“If we don’t protect our freedoms in America,” she said, “America will not survive.”

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