Legislators consider shielding school superintendents from rash school board actions

Two groups are hoping the legislature will pass bills barring school boards from firing superintendents for following the law and to create greater training and oversight for school boards

By: - January 13, 2022 5:30 am

School board members meet in the Salem-Keizer School District. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Leaders from the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators and the Oregon School Boards Association are asking legislators to protect superintendents from some firings and require greater oversight and training for those serving on school boards.

The proposals respond to several recent high-profile firings of school superintendents by their boards for enforcing mask and vaccine mandates, as well as ideological battles over political symbols in schools, student equity initiatives and certain classroom lessons on racism. About half of Oregon’s 1,400 school board positions were up for election in the 2021-22 school year and many were filled by new members, according to the Oregon School Boards Association. Some of those new members campaigned on platforms against the teaching of critical race theory or opposed Gov. Kate Brown’s pandemic-related mask mandate for students and school employees. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that looks at the role race and racism play in U.S. history, law and institutions. 

The school boards and administrators groups proposed the Superintendent Protections Act and a School Leaders Training Act to combat and prevent some of the more polarizing battles between superintendents and their boards. The measures could be taken up in the February legislative session.

One would bar school boards from mandating superintendents ignore or violate state and federal laws, or any emergency or executive order that applies to school and education service districts. It would also protect superintendents from being fired for following state and federal laws and emergency and executive orders. 

Currently, superintendents in Oregon can be fired “without cause,” meaning a superintendent can be dismissed for any reason. The legislation would require school boards to give one year’s notice that it was firing a superintendent “without cause.”

Representatives from the two groups said the reforms would provide districts with greater stability and avoid costly upheavals in school leadership, like those in Newberg. That the school district is currently paying salaries to both its former and current superintendent after abruptly firing then-Superintendent Joe Morelock without cause two months into the school year. 

Morelock’s firing came after the board tried to enforce a new policy banning “political” or “controversial” symbols in classrooms, which included Pride flags and Black Lives Matter symbols.

The other legislation would task the state Education Department with creating a new advisory board to approve and implement training for school boards. The advisory group would hold school boards accountable for training new members and conducting public self-assessments. 

There is currently no mandate in Oregon that newly-elected school board members attend training for their roles, though some districts provide that. The Oregon School Boards Association also provides board training.

Lori Sattenspiel, a director of legislative services at the School Boards Association said in a recent House Education Committee meeting that they want such training required by law so that districts don’t cut professional development budgets. States such as Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia and Vermont require training for new school board members.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.