Teachers, Unions Question Molalla River School Board’s Adoption of Controversial Proclamation

The Molalla River School Board’s adoption of a controversial proclamation supporting parents’ rights in education may be considered by their union to be a breach of contract and violation of state law, according to an email obtained by the Canby Now Podcast.

On Oct. 10, the board of directors passed a resolution proclaiming November Parents’ Partnership in Education Month. The language of the resolution was brief and relatively straight-forward, and appeared aimed at recognizing the important role parents play in their children’s education, as well as encouraging meaningful collaboration between the school district and the families of its students.

However, not everyone saw it that way. The Nov. 4 email from Director Jennifer Satter described a phone conversation she had with an employee of the Oregon Education Association (OEA), who represents their local affiliate, the Molalla River Education Association (MREA).

“She indicated to me that the OEA considered the board adoption of the Parent’s Rights in Education proclamation not only a violation of our contract with the MREA, but a violation of state law,” Satter wrote. “It is my understanding that they intend to file a formal grievance against the district for what they consider a violation of the contract.”

The Controversy

The controversy stems more from the group that originated the resolution than the resolution itself, a nonprofit called Parents’ Rights in Education, or PRIE. It describes its mission as “protecting and advocating for parents’ rights to guide the education of their children” and, in its website and published materials, seems to focus on the topics of sex education, LGBTQ issues and students’ access to contraceptives.

The group promotes a conservative and traditional approach to these subjects, and opposes the comprehensive sex education curriculum required by the state of Oregon.

“Citizens need to know of the blatant judicial and political effort to steal the rights of parents!” PRIE says on its website in describing the purpose of the November campaign. “Often, state legislation requires local schools to teach biased viewpoints, and departments of education force local school boards to adopt controversial political agendas.”

Satter, who was the only board member to vote against the resolution, recommended in her email that the board draft a statement “better explaining the intention of the board in adopting the proclamation,” and further distancing themselves from PRIE.

PRIE announced in a newsletter that Molalla was the first school board to adopt their proclamation, and they may be the only one. In an email, PRIE Executive Director Suzanne Gallagher was unable to provide the names of any other districts who had passed it.

“As a national organization, we have a wide reach,” she said. “We do not have a bead on all the school districts considering the resolution. Salem-Keizer passed something, however, their proclamation does not address the purpose of the Proclamation, recognizing Parents as key partners in the policy/curriculum approval process required by school board members.”

The Opposition

The issue became a topic of lengthy discussion at last week’s school board meeting, after dozens of parents and teachers crowded in to support — or oppose — the resolution.

MREA President and Molalla River Middle School teacher Jeff Claxton was the first to speak, and he began by acknowledging that on the surface, the resolution seemed to be “a simple, innocuous, and good-intentioned proclamation, trying to encourage parents to be more involved in their child’s education.”

“Unfortunately, as one looks deeper into that proclamation, it turns out that it is neither simple, innocuous, nor good-intentioned,” he continued.

He went on to describe PRIE as an “anti-LGBTQ organization,” and said that passing their model proclamation equates to “the board supporting the group’s ideas and goals, thus creating an unsafe, and unwelcoming, place to work and learn, for everyone.”

He concluded by asking the board to rescind the resolution, a request that was echoed by several others.

Matt Brady, a speech language pathologist for the district, was one of several teachers who made emotional and, often, quite moving appeals for the safety of LGBTQ children, who historically have been targets of bullying and violence in public schools throughout the country.

Another commenter, Nicole Higginbotham, read a statement from her sister Michelle Lowe, a counselor at the middle school and the adviser for their student-led gay–straight alliance, the Equality Club. The statement was addressed to Board Chair Linda Eskridge, who had presented the original proclamation, and who had been quoted in a 2018 post on PRIE’s website criticizing the Equality Club.

The Supporters

While many of those who spoke echoed Claxton’s and Lowe’s statements in opposing the resolution, the board was not without supporters.

Breeauna Sagdal, a Molalla resident and candidate for the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, said she does not enroll her kids in public schools, but the school board’s resolution made her consider changing that stance. She was “so excited” when she read it, she said.

Ray Hacke, an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit law firm that defends religious freedom, parental rights and civil liberties cases, had strong words for the teachers: “Learn your place, or be put in it.”

Hacke said parents’ rights have a long-established role in the Oregon education system, one that has been affirmed through multiple court decisions, and he blamed teachers and their “arrogant attitude” for parents who are increasingly removing their children from public schools.

The Response

After public comment, the board members took turns sharing their thoughts. Director Craig Loughridge said the board made it “very clear” last month that their adoption of the resolution did not mean they were aligning with PRIE or any other group.

He admitted to being “disappointed” by the response, and even expressed bewilderment that the board would be accused of being anti-LGBTQ.

Director Mark Lucht also struggled to understand why the political beliefs of a group he knows nothing about were being ascribed to him.

He said he supports parents’ rights and involvement in their children’s education, and believes it’s something that most teachers and community members support as well. He said he would not vote to rescind the proclamation unless the community comes together to present an alternative.

Board Chair Eskridge tried to explain her problems with the sex ed curriculum, but it was a challenging environment for that discussion. She struggled to make herself understood, seeming to claim that kindergartners are learning that “anal sex is as normal as holding hands,” and that the curriculum includes a “course on masturbation.”

Just for the record, as someone who has been on the receiving end of lectures about masturbation in school, home and church, I can assure you that it is super-awkward and unwelcome in all three settings.

Finally came the board’s student liaison, Natalee Litchfield, a senior at Molalla High School and an amazingly poised and well-spoken young lady. Not only is she far more mature than I was at her age, I’m pretty sure she’s far more mature than I am right now.

Here’s what she had to say about parents’ rights in education, and what she believes the limits should be.

The board ultimately voted to continue the discussion at this week’s work session, schedule for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Molalla River School District Office, 412 S. Sweigle Ave.

The following day, Molalla Superintendent Tony Mann sent an email to all district staff in which he expressed pride and gratitude for the teachers who had spoken the night before.

“The MRSD staff who spoke affirmed their commitment to all children,” his email read in part. “They were clear about their unwavering commitment to assure for their wellbeing and protection, regardless of status in this or any other protected class.”

He also shared the troubling statistic that LGBTQ youth are significantly more at-risk for depression and suicide.

“We have a moral obligation to protect them and assure their right to a free and appropriate public education in schools that are safe socially, emotionally and physically,” he said of LGBTQ students. “This moral obligation and my personal commitment to this work remain unwavering.”

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