The political signage telling you everything you needed to know about the McMinnville School District election this season came in the form of multiple yard and field signs, clearly expensive and featuring soft pastel designs with attractive candidate portraits – all visibly from the same sources.
And the signs were only the most obvious part of a heavily funded school campaign different from those in McMinnville’s past, with a lot of campaign money poured into a de facto slate of conservative? candidates aiming at a takeover of the McMinnville school board.
Observers in western Yamhill County watched this closely, some with alarm, because they’ve already seen a similar kind of takeover in the neighboring Newberg School District. Voters may have been watching Newberg, too, and not just in McMinnville. What has happened in Newberg over the last couple of years may have affected some of the school board results in Hillsboro, North Clackamas and other communities where conservatives appeared to have lost?
That unusual ripple effect would at first seem unlikely, except that for many months the Newberg story has bounced around the state and even the nation.
Two years ago, control of the Newberg board shifted from a centrism board to an activist conservative slate of trustees, running as supportive of parental rights. It quickly fired its superintendent Joe Morelock (who was as quickly tapped as superintendent in the Woodburn School District and then this year on May 8 to lead the Willamette Education Service District).
His firing was without cause, coming after he refused to issue directives he said were illegal. The board’s choice for a replacement was on paid leave pending investigation – into what hasn’t been made public – at the Jewell school district, where he landed after a forced resignation at Beaverton in 2018 “after retweeting an offensive remark about undocumented immigrants.”
The board drew a lawsuit from the Newberg Education Association after a decision banning all political signage, one among many controversial actions. In the last year, the district has seen a heavy exodus of administrators, teachers and students, which has cost the district state funding.
Recall attempts were tried in early 2022 against the board chair and vice chair, but those fell short, after the board members benefitted from well-funded anti-recall campaigns.
Much of this and more has been reflected in news stories across Oregon and far beyond.
At McMinnville this month, four school board seats were up for election, sought by two veteran centrist incumbents seeking reelection, who were joined by two allied newcomers. They faced a slate of candidates – whose faces were on those expensive signs– backed by many of the same people and organizations who have supported the board in Newberg.
Those challengers appeared poised to take the district in the same direction.
In a May 8 article, the McMinnville News Register showed how local races for school districts, and some other local governments, that normally attract little campaign money are becoming dominated by a few large contributors, notably the George family of Newberg. The article said that family alone has spent more than $35,000 on the May elections in Yamhill County, a highly unusual amount for those contests.
That support has led some local observers to wonder whether a Newberg-style activist slate might prevail in McMinnville. It didn’t. When the votes were counted, the two incumbents won in landslides, and their allies won decisively. The Newberg style didn’t sell in McMinnville.
This isn’t the story of just one county, however.
Three school board candidates in Canby who ran as parental right proponents and who supported book banning efforts there lost decisively. In the North Clackamas School District, a slate backed by Basic Right Oregon, which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, easily prevailed over more conservative opponents. Wilsonville expanded its board’s left of center majority. Hillsboro saw social conservative groups, including Communities for Sensible Schools and Oregon Right to Life, raise more than $80,000 this year for local races, fall short too.
The most striking result of election night, though, was back in Newberg. Five board seats were up for election, three held by conservative activist incumbents and two open seats sought by allies of theirs; as of late Wednesday, all five were losing their bids to moderate challengers, who were backed by the group Oregon CARES, which had support from the Oregon Education Association. The board will shift effective control.
Every election is different, each campaign has its own logic, and some of these races may be reverberations of some national political trends or in a few cases individual campaigns. And among the school board races statewide there were some right-leaning exceptions – Crook County School District being one of the clearest.
But the Newberg case overall, and some of its counterparts in other places, seems to have generated lessons absorbed by voters across the region.