BANKS, Oregon — In the town of Banks, 24 miles west of Portland, the search for a new superintendent ignited a heated protest among some residents, resulting in one of the two finalists dropping out.
Similar to other school districts in the area, over the course of the pandemic, some parents have taken issue with things like mask mandates and vaccines. In certain cases, the discontent has bubbled over at local school board meetings.
Recently, the search for a new superintendent in Banks became the latest hot button topic.
Kristen Accardi is a parent in the Banks School District and also served on the superintendent search committee. She and other community members spent hours vetting more than 30 candidates.
The school board narrowed it to two finalists: Brian Sica from the Beaverton School District and Melissa Goff, the former Greater Albany Public Schools superintendent, who was dismissed without cause when a more conservative board was elected.
The Facebook post at the center of the controversy
“There was a post on our community Facebook page basically taking an [Oregonlive] editorial that Melissa Goff had written and paraphrasing it in an inaccurate way,” said Accardi, "and telling the community that this person didn't represent our values and that this person wasn't the right choice.”
That Facebook post, which Accardi said has since been taken down, created a community firestorm.
“They were downright nasty,” said Milt Dennison, a contractor who was hired to help facilitate the superintendent search. “A lot of calling her a witch, and mainly because they felt she was way too liberal for Banks.”
Dennison said when he heard about the social media post, he got in touch with Goff.
“She had said, hey I really don't need this. I'm gonna withdraw,” Dennison said.
The news was frustrating for parents like Accardi.
“She basically checked every single box for qualifications, but it seemed to me that nobody cared about her qualifications. All they wanted to do was figure out whether or not she was lefty,” Accardi said.
Flyers were also posted on doors, calling Goff divisive and saying in part, "Community members deserve a superintendent that is moderate and down the middle, not a partisan lefty."
When news had spread on social media that Goff had withdrawn her name from the running, one person on Facebook wrote, "Our prayers have been answered the Woke Witch is gone.”
'An inflammatory smear campaign'
“It turned into an inflammatory smear campaign,” said parent Catherine Williams. “It became partisanship and not citizenship.”
She said she was disappointed the process was cut short and wasn't able to meet Goff face-to-face at a planned community meeting scheduled for June 6 for both finalists. She said both she and her daughter had important questions they wanted to ask the candidates, and she said that after Goff’s withdrawal, there was communitywide embarrassment and anger
“Like, how dare you put the stain on our community and how dare you make someone feel unwelcome before we get a chance to meet them and ask them questions and be able to make up our own minds,” said Williams.
A different take
Jodi Hailey is mom to five kids in the district and knows the man who wrote the original Facebook post.
“What I saw is [he's] standing up and saying, this is what I think. I really feel strongly that she is not a good candidate and not a good fit for our community,” said Hailey. “I don't think anyone imagined that she would withdraw.”
The latest turmoil over the superintendent search is part of a divide that Hailey said has formed and deepened throughout the pandemic. She said some parents don't feel represented by the school board, from issues that span masking to critical race theory, a way of viewing race in America, typically taught at the college level, that asserts institutions in the U.S. are systemically racist. It's a topic Hailey, who said she has Black godchildren, feels strongly about.
“What I disagree with is the contention that they fundamentally and systemically favor white people,” said Hailey. “If I can tell my Eritrean godchildren, your country is for you. The institutions in your country are for you. You have every opportunity that my white children have. You are strong. You are responsible for you. Those are the messages that will empower them and enable them to succeed."
Hailey asserts that all parents in the community, regardless of the side they’re on, want the same good things for their family and children.
“We all want diversity and inclusion and equity, really and truly. And the question is the framework in which you're pursuing that,” said Hailey.
Some parents' concern: that national politics and talking points are making it into local school board meetings
But people like Accardi and Williams feel there are more pressing matters to deal with that are affecting their local community right now. They said it seems national politics is making its way into local board meetings, like concerns regarding a list of children's books deemed inappropriate or transgender girls playing on girl’s sports teams. Both are issues Banks isn't currently facing. They said some people who have brought up these types of issues at school board meetings don’t have children in the district.
“Our high school is falling apart. The music program was canceled last year. In December and January, half our high school didn't have heat. Our kids are struggling. Behavior is outrageous,” said Williams.
“I care about the music department and I care about the building and all of these things have to be addressed. But I cannot not talk about the other issues that are so close to my heart because of the children I love,” Hailey said.
In regard to people who some believe bring national partisan politics to local school school board meetings, Hailey said people want to talk about issues they care about and to prepare for if and when they do come up.
What now for the community of Banks?
“I really, deeply wished that our community would try to do the hard work of finding that common ground,” said Hailey.
Meantime, Accardi has seen other parents who don’t seem to be working toward finding common ground. She is worried about what the conflict will mean for kids as they watch their parents disagree and fight.
“We've had kids who see their parents arguing on Facebook about politics, calling each other unkind things, not being respectful to each other. And we have kids in our classroom right now having the worst behavior year by all accounts. It seems to me that our kids are reflecting what they see as adults,” Accardi said.
The small town of Banks, like many other areas, is dealing with a deep divide with people on both sides who care but see the world through a different lens.
Dennison, the contractor hired to help facilitate the superintendent search, said this year, the Oregon Legislature made dismissing a superintendent without cause illegal. Dennison said now, school boards have to have cause if they want to dismiss a superintendent. He also said the man who wrote the original Facebook post, was a part of the search committee and violated a confidentiality agreement when he allegedly reached out to the Greater Albany School Board for more information on Goff.
Dennison says this is his first search for a superintendent where a small group of community members discouraged a candidate and that candidate withdrew.
"And it's the first time I've had a steering committee member violate the confidentiality agreement and start doing their own reference checking,” said Dennison, who has helped facilitate superintendent searches for about 25 years.
We reached out to both the Facebook post's original author and Melissa Goff through acquaintances. Neither wanted to speak to us.