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Newberg school board member announces resignation, citing 'toxic work environment'

Board member Ines Peña informed her colleagues of her decision at a board meeting on Tuesday.

NEWBERG, Ore. — Newberg School District board member Ines Peña has resigned her position. She announced her decision at a board meeting Tuesday night, citing a "toxic work environment."

Peña first ran for a board seat in 2017 and lost, but she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in 2019 and reelected to a new four-year term in 2021. She was the board's first Latina member.

In a statement posted to her Facebook page Tuesday night, Peña said her decision to step down was made to "prioritize my well-being," and reiterated the assertion of a toxic work environment, at one point stating that she feared for her safety.

"I will no longer tolerate the emotional, and psychological abuse," she wrote. "To clarify, I don't use the word 'abuse' lightly. Part of our board training includes being able to identify abuse. What I have experienced, and I am sure others have too, is just that, abuse. I will no longer participate in the damage done to our community."

Board vacancies are filled through appointments made by a majority vote of the remaining board members, according to district policy. The appointee serves until June of the next election year, with regular school board elections held in May of odd-numbered years.

RELATED: Oregon bill would protect superintendents from no-cause terminations

The seven member board has made headlines in recent months due to a series of controversial decisions including banning school staff from displaying Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride signs— later amended to a ban on all political displays — and firing former superintendent Joe Morelock without cause.

Each of those decisions passed on a 4-3 vote, with members Dave Brown, Brian Shannon, Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell in the majority and members Rebecca Piros, Brandy Penner and Peña in the minority. 

Brown and Shannon have described the political display measures as an effort to maintain a politically neutral learning environment in schools.

Piros, Penner and Peña have all been highly critical of the conservative majority's approach to those decisions, at various times stating in board meetings that the other four members were moving too quickly, without clearly defining the policies or fully complying with Oregon public meeting laws.

Brown and Shannon, who serve as board chair and vice-chair, respectively, were both subject to a recall election last month, with the leaders of both recall campaigns citing many of the same grievances voiced by the dissenting board members. 

RELATED: Brown, Shannon on track to retain Newberg school board seats

Brown decried the recall campaigns as wasteful, and downplayed incidents of racism in Newberg schools in an interview last month.

The recall election generated exceptionally high turnout at more than 58%, far greater than the turnout in the 2019 and 2021 elections in which all of the current board members were elected to their present terms.

The final results are not scheduled to be certified until Monday, but with nearly every vote already counted, Brown and Shannon are set to retain their seats. In both recall races, about 52% of district voters opted to retain the members, with about 48% voting to remove them.

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