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PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — With the May election of two new board members backed by a conservative political action committee, it was expected that significant change was coming to the Newberg School District board of directors. Partisan political posturing had already resulted in strain between various directors over the years, but the conflict between the district’s elected leaders reached a boiling point at a public meeting over Zoom last month.
The meeting began with the swearing in of the two new members backed by the Save Our Schools PAC — Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart — along with incumbent Ines Peña. Soon after, a new chairperson and vice chairperson were elected by the board: Dave Brown as chairman and Brian Shannon as the board’s second-in-command.
Brown’s nomination met heavy resistance from former chair Brandy Penner, who supported director Rebecca Piros for the leadership position. Penner warned against picking Brown prior to a 4-3 vote in his favor. Brown, Shannon, Powell and DeHart were the yea votes.
“I think Dave is a fun guy to grab a beer with, but unfortunately, he is not suited for a leadership position on this board,” Penner said during the nomination process. “In the two years that director Brown has served on this board, he has proven to be contentious, divisive and unwilling to learn even the basics of board rules. He is often underprepared for meetings and has a history of simply turning off his camera when he doesn’t want to vote.
“When he does respond to constituents or staff members, he’s been threatening and incredibly offensive. Asking people how they feel about abortion, insinuating that he knows their political leanings while threateningly stating that he knows where people live — this is not the behavior of a leader. Director Brown has yelled at his fellow board members and threatened to ‘bury us in emails.’ He does not have the professional or personal skills needed in this critical position.”
Director Shannon, who nominated Brown for chairman and was later named his vice-chairperson by the same 4-3 margin, took issue with Penner’s characterization of Brown and remained confrontational throughout much of the board meeting.
“I think he will be an excellent chairperson and fairly and impartially follow the rules under which we claim to operate, which we have not been doing up until this point,” he said. “I think that will be a breath of fresh air.”
Shannon chalked up Penner’s criticism of Brown to what he characterized as a disregard for the rules and an abuse of power, attempting to frame Penner’s inaction on several items he wished to add to the agenda as a violation of board policy.
“This whole display shows why we need someone who is willing to read and follow the rules under which we are supposed to be operating,” Shannon said, directing his comments at Penner. “This entire demonstration has been out of order. I move the question. Do you even know what that means?”
Penner explained to Shannon that the board hadn’t voted to consider the agenda items because he hadn’t brought them up in regular order at the end of the previous board meeting, which is required. Despite Penner’s assertions, Shannon pressed forward with his motions to amend the agenda.
The added items Shannon wished to bring up for discussion included removal of Black Lives Matter signage and LGBTQ Pride flags from school buildings, an overhaul of the language in an anti-racism resolution passed by the board in 2020 which he opposed and overturning the All Students Belong policy passed in December, which he also opposed.
“I attempted to be as transparent as possible … but I want to discuss these things and I’m not going to be stopped because one member is abusing her power over the agenda,” Shannon said.
Shannon’s claim that Penner is ruling the board’s agenda by fiat is false. The majority of the seven-person board must vote to put items on the agenda and until July 13 with the swearings-in of Powell and DeHart, Shannon didn’t have a majority willing to take up his motions.
“Director Shannon emailed me and he emailed (Superintendent Joe Morelock) requesting that these be on there and I let him know that one board person cannot demand to have things on the agenda,” Penner said. “As a board, we decide what we would like to be on the agenda. If he would like to have these things on the agenda, the proper way to go about it is to, at the end of the meeting, say, ‘For future agenda items, I would like these things on there.’ As a board, we decide. One board member can’t just hijack meetings and say, ‘I want all these things on there.'”
However, the quartet of Brown, Shannon, Powell and DeHart allowed Shannon to place the items on the agenda for discussion, a discussion that was pushed to the end of the meeting to make way for regularly-scheduled board business.
Agenda items delayed until August meeting
After nearly three hours of board business and a litany of public comments — primarily on mask requirements in local schools — the board arrived at its discussion of Shannon’s agenda items. Shannon initially attempted to bring the motions up for discussion and a vote without allowing the public to weigh in or other board members to prepare, an action district staff quickly pointed out is illegal. Public meeting laws require agenda items up for discussion or a vote to be listed on the public agenda prior to the meeting, a fact Shannon said he was aware of despite his attempts to bring the items up for a vote.
The items were pushed by chair Brown to the Aug. 10 meeting in order to comply with the law.
“I absolutely did not expect us to act on those things,” Shannon said in a phone conversation on the day following the meeting. “The fact is that the former chair has abused her position for two years only taking up things that she agrees with. The rules of order are there so that everybody can express their point of view fairly, and last night was a perfect example of that authority being abused and the game being rigged in one side’s favor.”
Brown spoke on multiple occasions about unity and bringing together people who disagree with each other, but partisan bickering continued unabated at the July 13 meeting. He struggled with some of the procedural aspects of his new leadership position, including the use of technology and how votes on motions are conducted. He could not be reached for additional comment for this story as of July 15.
As the dust settled on an eventful meeting, Penner said she reached out to Brown the next day and told him that she was rooting for his success as chairman, despite her concerns about his qualifications, preparedness and temperament. Penner said she hopes Brown can actually bring board members together around a common set of issues, something she tried to do as chairwoman but admittedly was unable.
Her rift with Shannon remains wide, however. She pointed to his motions as examples of his disregard for rules he claims to care about.
“As volunteers, we can’t do everything right and sometimes we make mistakes or accidentally step out of our lane,” Penner said. “I don’t think that was the case with Director Shannon. I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and he really seems to have a very specific agenda. The only thing board members and community members and staff can do is continually remind our fellow board members of the law and how it needs to be followed if we are to properly serve our constituents. I hope that learning occurs on his part.”
Much of Shannon’s disdain was directed at Penner throughout the July 13 meeting, something she said had become a trend throughout her tenure as chairwoman.
“It is clear to me and a lot of other people that he has a problem with strong women in leadership positions,” Penner said. “I am a strong woman in a leadership position and I take that very seriously. My work continues regardless of his attacks, or his bombastic nature, or his inability to function on a team, or his arrogance. It has to continue for the sake of our students. As a woman leader, this isn’t my first rodeo dealing with someone like this. I hope sincerely that people watch these meetings and see what’s going on with the people who claim to represent their values.”
Shannon took offense to Penner’s allegations of sexism.
“I find that accusation to be despicable, but not surprising,” he said. “I think former chair Penner is one of those folks who will use their identity as a cudgel against people who disagree with them, and I don’t give that any weight whatsoever.”
‘An attempted political takeover’
School board positions are to be nonpartisan, state law says. They are listed as such on the ballot with the idea that board members — while they may disagree on approaches — will pursue common solutions that benefit the most students possible, rather than score political points or address a personal grievance.
“Sometimes board members put their own personal feelings and views ahead of the common good,” Shannon said on June 14. “I think it’s time to pull together and get behind the chair. I think one of the reasons it turned out so contentious is that we haven’t been strictly following the rules of order that we’re supposed to be proceeding under. The outrageous display we saw last night is what happens when you don’t have proper order in a meeting. I think what we saw last night is that the group that has been the dominant force on the board is no longer the dominant force and they were grasping at straws. They were terrified of the prospect of losing their position of power on that board.”
Penner characterized Shannon’s criticism of political partisanship as dripping with hypocrisy. She said his newfound power, with a new majority now in agreement with him, is evidence of something more sinister at work.
“I think it’s an attempted political takeover,” Penner said. “I think they’re attempting to politicize any issue that they don’t like. I have never once brought my political views into the classroom or to my service as a nonpartisan board member. It is glaring hypocrisy when I hear people saying that. And the idea that we are politicizing the experience for our students by affirming that they matter is nonsensical.”
The eye of the political hurricane is now centered on the three issues Shannon brought forth on July 13, to be addressed on Aug. 10: Black Lives Matter signs and Pride flags, the anti-racism resolution and the All Students Belong policy.
“I am against the public display at taxpayer-funded institutions of any political messaging that shapes how our students see the world,” Shannon said. “Our job is to educate in the basic subjects and we’ve done a terrible job at that while focusing on this political indoctrination. You can’t pretend like Black Lives Matter isn’t an organization that has been pushing a certain political and cultural movement in our country or pretend that these signs aren’t taking a side in that debate.”
The volume of public comment on those issues is expected to be significant and Penner said she’s already received dozens of messages from community members who oppose Shannon’s efforts to dismantle those policies. Of the 96 emails the board received about the issue of BLM signs at Dundee Elementary earlier this summer, Penner said 87 percent were in support of keeping the signs.
Whether widespread public input is enough to move the needle when the board votes on these issues remains to be seen, and these decisions will likely chart the future of a board that is becoming more partisan, political and contentious each time it meets.
“We live in a very polarized time,” Shannon said. “We are not an island. I would hope that we can work to try and find common ground, but when there are bad ideas being put forward — no matter how positive a name they’re being given — you have a responsibility to stand up and speak the truth as you see it. If people want to call that polarizing or political, so be it.
“There is a strain of political thought in this country that is very authoritarian in its approach to not allowing dissent. When it finds dissent, it throws around accusations like sexism, like Brandy Penner did. That doesn’t fly with me.”