An Aug. 26 school board meeting in Oregon’s North Bend School District drew large crowds to discuss a resolution opposing the indoor mask mandate and a resolution banning the teaching of critical race theory. (North Bend School District YouTube)

The North Bend School Board didn’t have anything controversial on its agenda last week, but an FBI warning prompted the directors to abandon their open session and go virtual.

They were alerted that 200 to 300 demonstrators planned to flood the meeting. Local police said they didn’t have the capacity to step in if things got unruly in a crowd that large. 

They told the district to have a plan. It was possible demonstrators would come armed and unmasked. Police officials suggested canceling the meeting.

Instead, the board took its meeting virtual.

Such concerns in the school community have become more common across Oregon in the last year. New board members bring new priorities in a time of political activism that usually doesn’t embroil those running schools. There has been a backlash in some instances and even threats against school leaders. 

Just days before the North Bend School Board was forced to shift online, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI to work with law enforcement around the country to investigate threats against school boards and school leaders. 

In Oregon, a handful of school superintendents have been ousted by their boards for complying with mask mandates and vaccine mandates from the governor. 

School board members have been threatened by individuals and groups similarly opposed to mandates, and opposed to the teaching of what they believe is critical race theory. 

Superintendents and boards have turned to local police to help when they feel their physical safety is on the line. Now, they are calling on Gov. Kate Brown, their professional associations and even the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association for help.

Spencer Gordon, who has been on the North Bend School Board for two years, was surprised by the recent warning. Two other recent meetings brought crowds as large as 100, but this would have been a new level of attendance. 

“Before, we couldn’t get 200 people to show up to a meeting if we tried,” he said. 

The first meeting that drew a crowd was in August, shortly after Gordon, acting as interim board chair, swore in three newly elected board members. The seven-member board oversees the district’s five schools, responsible for the education of about 4,200 students in Coos County on the state’s southwest coast.

One of the new board members was Jim Jordan, who quickly became board chair. At that August meeting and one month into his school board role, Jordan introduced two controversial resolutions.

One was a resolution he wrote to oppose the state’s indoor mask mandate.

“I believe that the parents should be making that decision for their children,” Jordan said. 

The other was a resolution to ban the teaching of critical race theory. That is, the teaching of an academic framework that looks at the role race and racism play in U.S. history, law and institutions. 

That was drafted by another new school board member, Julie Thies. Jordan and Thies were supported by the Oregon Right to Life PAC, an anti-abortion group that backed school board candidates in 38 districts across the state in 2021 school board elections. 

Thies declined to comment, saying “I don’t trust media right now.”

Gordon didn’t expect such controversies when he stepped into the volunteer role.

“I didn’t feel when I first joined that I had to fight for things,” Gordon said. “Now we are all fighting for these things we think are right, but we’re always fighting,” he said about the broader landscape of issues facing boards.

Sami Al-Abdrabbuh chairs the Corvallis School Board and is president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus. He said members of his caucus have had it particularly bad this year as targets of intimidation and even violence. Just this week, the school board chair in the Bend-La Pine School District spoke out about the members of color on her board who have become targets of online harassment and intimidation. Al-Abdrabbuh knows school board members who have been shrugged off by police. 

“I wanna be honest and frank, and I shared these concerns with Governor Brown, some board members have raised concerns with local law enforcement, and they said, ‘You’re on your own.’ One caucus member in a different community told me that she is fearing for her life.”

At last week’s school board meeting in North Bend, agenda items were related to donations for school supplies, new hires and the district’s contract with an online charter school. 

Gordon and the superintendent said they were under the impression that the potential demonstrators also opposed the mask mandate and supported the proposed ban on teaching critical race theory. They were not sure what, exactly, the demonstrators wanted to achieve.

The resolution stalled in August because two members of the board, including Gordon, wanted to defer the matter to a later work session. Gordon suggested pumping the brakes, and explained to new board members how the board usually talked through impacts of such significant proposals before advancing them to a vote.

“Until I saw it [critical race theory] on the agenda, I hadn’t known much about it,” Gordon said. “I did some research, and then I wanted to look at both sides,” he said.

Gordon worried that the resolution regarding critical race theory was too vague. 

“There were things I agreed with and others I didn’t,” he said about the resolution. “I think when it comes to banning any aspect of education we should be very cautious.”

The ban could affect how teachers prepare lessons about racism in U.S. history, he said. 

“A lot of teachers said they worried they could be fired or reprimanded for doing something they didn’t even know was banned,” he said. 

The board didn’t decide at that August meeting on the resolutions regarding critical race theory and masks. They heard more public comment in September, then brought the proposals to a work session later that month. 

The board’s opposition to the mask mandate, if it passes, will be a statement but won’t be school district policy. The board won’t ask Superintendent Kevin Bogatin to defy state law, and he said he wouldn’t if they did.

“Teachers, administrators, we’re not interested in doing anything that comprises our licenses,” he said.  

Holding the line

Earlier this summer, 150 miles north of North Bend, the Albany School Board released Superintendent Melissa Goff from her contract for imposing mask mandates and for her equity work, she said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle.

Five hundred miles to the east, the superintendent of the Adrian School District was terminated for refusing to violate the governor’s indoor mask mandate. They were just two high profile firings, but they were enough to concern the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. 

Krista Parent, the coalition’s director of executive leadership, who herself was forced into early retirement by the South Lane School Board several years prior, said that lately some administrators are in a challenging place. 

“The board is their boss, and their board directs them to violate the law, and if they knowingly violate the law, they’ll lose their license,” she said. 

Because superintendents sign employment contracts that include a “no cause” termination provision, boards can fire superintendents without disclosing the reason.

Now the coalition is working with several other organizations, including the Oregon School Boards Association, to introduce a superintendents’ contract rights bill in the legislative session in January. The change would restrict school boards from firing superintendents for following the law. 

Jim Green is executive director at Oregon School Boards Association. 

“No one thought you’d be fired for following the law,” he said. “Then again, no one saw this pandemic and everything that followed, coming.” 

Green said candidates sometimes run on specific issues to get onto local school boards. 

“Back in the 90s it was, ‘You’re not gonna close my school,’ when there was a lot of consolidation going on,” he said. “Then there’s a wakeup call, when they realize, ‘Being on a school board is way bigger than that thing I ran on.’” 

He said shouting, passionate discourse has been part of school board meetings for many years too. What he’s seen this year is beyond that. 

“We’ve had superintendents accosted in parking lots, followed home, had notes sent to them saying, ‘now we know where you live, where you work,’” he said. “We’ve crossed the line when we’ve started to threaten folks who are volunteering to work for their community.”

Equally concerning is the hands off approach some Oregon law enforcement have taken with the threats. Green described several letters from sheriffs’ departments to school administrators saying they would not step in if the district needed help enforcing mask mandates or reigning in unruly meetings. 

On Thursday, Green is scheduled to talk with Jason Myers, the executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association about such concerns.

“When you have a situation where the sheriffs are the only law enforcement – in some rural areas they don’t have a police department so the sheriff’s office is the local law enforcement – and they say they’re not going to help, it’s disconcerting,” he said.

Like Al-Abdrabbuh in Corvallis, Green is especially concerned about the targeting of board members of color, and that the stress of this year could push them out. 

“I’ve heard from members who are feeling very unsafe in some of the conversations, debates, actions going on,” he said. “We need them in positions of leadership,” he said of the need for more diverse school board members and school leaders. 

Al-Abdrabbuh said he has worked closely with the chief of police and the sheriff’s department in his community, and has trust in them. But he worries about what he’s heard described by other board members, especially board members of color elsewhere in the state.

“We don’t want to wait until it becomes a problem that you can’t reverse,” he said of growing tensions and the need for law enforcement support. “That someone quits or, god forbid, they or their family are in a life threatening situation.” 

Bogatin, the North Bend superintendent, wants to work with the board in his district. 

“If there was a solid answer to these questions we would have already moved on,” he said.

When it comes to conversations around critical race theory, he said everyone needs to share a common understanding about what’s being taught.

“I feel like I’m fighting things that we’re not doing. I feel like I’m fighting a negative,” he said.

He’s committed to teaching students about equity, about the role of race and racism in society, and to having hard conversations about both. 

“I want people to come to the table, to help me find a way to address these issues,” Bogatin said

He’s most concerned about how such matters distract his focus.

“I’ve already been criticized for not being seen enough in schools and in classrooms,” he said. “I’d love to be focused on other issues. I have 10th graders this year who are just now figuring out what high school is like. A significant bond is coming up, there’s a lot of unfinished work that I’d like to continue on. We’ll get through this, hopefully.”

Al-Abdrabbuh in Corvallis has heard more talk of quitting among school board members he talks with, and both he and Gordon in North Bend have thought of it themselves. 

One board member told Al-Abdrabbuh they weren’t sure it was worth staying, concerned about their mental health and that of their family. 

In Corvallis, the next school board meeting will take place on Thursday, Oct. 14. Al-Abdrabbuh said they’ll discuss the possibility of mandating that high schoolers 16 and older get the vaccine in order to attend class in-person. It’s not a decision he thought he’d be involved in when he was elected in 2017.

“The bottom line of most public offices can be complex and vague,” he said. “The school boards’ is straightforward – do what’s best for the children.” 

He said now that means vaccines, masks and doing everything possible to be sure they can stay in the school buildings and be safe. For now, the plan is for the board to meet in person.

The virtual school board meeting in North Bend last week ended after two hours and with little fanfare. Just two people spoke during the public comment period. One was related to masks and mandates but neither was about critical race theory.

The resolutions on critical race theory and the mask mandate haven’t been scheduled for consideration in future board meetings. And no decision has been made about returning to open public sessions. 

Spencer Gordon said he would continue his board service to ensure a good educational future for his kids and others. But he has considered leaving as well.

“I have four kids, I have a full time job, I have other responsibilities in the community. The thought has crossed my mind many times that I just don’t have time for this,” he said.  

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