Two Portland school board members are stepping away from the board citing a lack of collaboration and tolerance for differing viewpoints, especially those that don’t align with progressive values.

Sarah Thompson, who has served on the board since 2006, announced Tuesday she is ending her bid for re-election, citing divisiveness in city politics and on the school board.

Hours after she made her announcement, Jeff Irish submitted his resignation to the board citing an executive session in August in which he said fellow board member Roberto Rodriguez urged the superintendent to reconsider an appointment to a district position based on an email the candidate had written to the City Council criticizing “the recent election and online activities of many of the progressive party’s newly elected.”

“The reading of this email was, in my opinion, purposeful and malicious in intent,” Irish said in a resignation letter to the board. “Even worse, five other members of the board who have never met the appointee, all agreed that an educator with over 20 years of exemplary service does not reserve the right to express their private opinion while climbing the professional ladder when perspectives do not align with the board.”

Irish shared his resignation letter with the Press Herald by email late Tuesday during the board’s regular meeting and said his resignation was effective immediately. Neither he nor Thompson was present at the meeting and it was not clear whether Irish’s decision was influenced by Thompson’s announcement earlier in the day.

School board Chair Emily Figdor said the decisions came as a surprise and she values a diversity of opinions on the board. “I think he’s speaking to a specific personnel item, and I don’t think the board can comment on it,” Figdor said of Irish’s resignation. “He’s specific around saying he’s been well-treated, respected and heard by the board and the superintendent and his team, but then he’s raising this specific issue.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana didn’t address the issues raised by Thompson and Irish.

“I found out about Ms. Thompson this morning and I found out about Jeff as we started this meeting,” Botana said at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. “I have nothing to say other than I thank them both for their service.”

Thompson is planning to finish her term on the board, but her decision means Nyalat Biliew will be running uncontested for an at-large seat in the Nov. 2 election. There are no other contested school board races as Figdor and Abusana “Micky” Bondo also are running unopposed.

“When I’ve served before it was people respecting one another’s opinions,” Thompson said. “We talk about wanting public input and hearing from more people, but there are people putting on social media how they’re going to vote before we even have public comment on a particular topic. It used to be much more of a team approach and that’s changed a lot in my mind.”

Jeffrey Irish

The decisions by Irish and Thompson come amid a number of high-profile departures from city government. Three incumbent city councilors are not seeking re-election and the city manager and police chief also are departing. Thompson said she feels as if the changes are coming as the city becomes increasingly progressive and politics are becoming more divisive.

“No longer are you a liberal Democrat even though you think you are and you’re registered as a Democrat,” Thompson said. “You’re now looked at as, ‘Whoa, you’re conservative.’ I think if you ask more liberal Democrats, they’ll tell you the same thing. That’s what I continually heard when I was out talking to people.”

In his letter, Irish said the executive session at the Aug. 17 board meeting left him questioning some of the board members’ character. He said he felt the issue raised failed to rise to the provisions in the law that allow the board to enter into an executive session and said it “better resembled a safe space for someone who felt hurt about another’s opinion.”

Irish said Rodriguez read aloud the email written by the appointee for the position in which that person wrote they were embarrassed by the election and online activities of recently elected progressive officials. Irish did not name the appointee in his letter.

SOCIAL MEDIA DIVIDING THE CITY

“I am not political at all, but I know right and I know wrong,” the person wrote in their email to the council. “The tweets, the Instagram and Facebook posts are dividing a city that doesn’t need dividing. We simply don’t have the same racially charged issues as big cities, but we are creating them.”

Botana said the district’s lawyer was present at the Aug. 17 meeting and said an executive session was permissible. He said he could not comment on the session, but neither the board nor district have made changes to the appointments approved at that meeting.

Irish, however, said the experience “casts shame on some of those elected and charged to place the interests of students above all else.”

“Ultimately, the board approves certain positions within our schools,” Irish said. “That session intentionally poisoned this person’s opportunity for an unbiased interview/selection process. We should embrace and encourage individual thought with students as well as staff. This was once considered the foundation for individual growth.”

Rodriguez, who is running for an at-large seat on the City Council, declined to comment on the points raised by Irish, saying he could not speak about the content of an executive session. Figdor also said she could not comment on the contents of the executive session, but said it was disappointing to see Irish step down during his first year on the board.

“It leaves the board in a lurch and I think does a disservice to his constituents,” she said. “It’s also highly unusual. Jeff and I talk. We regularly meet and talk and he hasn’t raised this specific issue with me.”

Meanwhile, Thompson said the school board recently hasn’t had the same types of collaborative discussions as in the past and members more often approach issues with their opinions already settled before public comment or board discussion. She pointed to the decision to remove school resource officers last year amid a national call for police accountability as an example.

“When I offered a resolution, it was, ‘Let’s talk about it and find out what’s going on and then make a decision,’ ” she said. “That wasn’t acceptable. It was like, ‘Nope. They’re gone tomorrow.’ … As soon as someone like myself and other community members brought up opposition to jamming things through like (what) happened, then watch out. You’re on the other side now and you’re automatically the enemy.”

Figdor, the board chair, rejected the idea that the atmosphere on the board has grown more divisive and said that, amid keeping schools open during the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve still worked together to accomplish several initiatives including overhauling and updating the district’s discipline policies, expanding access to pre-K and adjusting start and end times to the school day to better align with student sleep schedules.

DIVISIVENESS CLAIM DISPUTED

“I think the proof is in the pudding in terms of our being able to work together and get things done,” Figdor said. “In the last 2.5 years, I think it’s been unprecedented the amount we’ve been able to get done together and with a ton of community support. Many of our initiatives and policies have come from intense community dialogue, whether it’s new discipline policies, new policies around preventing sexual harassment, assault and discrimination or the switch to solar power. These are solutions coming to us from the community as the result of collaboration, intense research and dialogue.”

Figdor said she was grateful for Thompson’s commitment the last 15 years, but at the same time had endorsed Thompson’s opponent, Biliew, in the race. A 2013 Deering High School alum who is also a first-generation Sudanese immigrant, Biliew finished third in a three-way race for an at-large seat last year and is running on a platform that includes ensuring students of color have a safe space to learn and have their voices heard. She did not respond to a phone message or email Tuesday.

Figdor said she supports Biliew because she was happy to see a young person eager to get involved in the equity work that is the primary focus of the district.

“Having more diverse perspectives and life experiences on the school board strengthens our work,” Figdor said. “Nyalat is an immigrant and recent graduate of our schools. I’m thrilled she is a young person willing to step up and serve her community. I think her voice and her perspective will really strengthen our work.”

Thompson, meanwhile, feels her many years on the board and the knowledge she has accrued over that time are no longer valued by some members of the community.

“It’s completely fine,” she said of Figdor’s endorsement. “It’s not that I wanted it, but when stuff like that happens it’s like, I was chair for two years, I’ve chaired almost every committee, I built schools, I’ve been a long-time Portlander and you think that would be of some value.”

UNHEALTHY DYNAMIC

She said her decision points to a broader dynamic in city politics that isn’t healthy. One example Thompson pointed to was a widely denounced political mailer last spring that encouraged people to oppose certain candidates in the race for the city charter commission, including Cheryl Leeman and Steve DiMillo, both of whom are Republicans.

“They’re both Republicans. So what?” Thompson said. “So you put out a mailer condemning them? The civil discourse is just sad … I’m not saying that happened to me during this campaign, but the environment is sick.”

Thompson was first elected to the school board when her daughters were in sixth grade at King Middle School and third grade at the former Hall Elementary School. She survived a recall effort shortly into her first term that came at the confluence of a $2 million deficit and a controversial debate over access to birth control pills at King and went on to chair the board in 2014 and 2015. She said the decision to step away was a difficult one, but one that will benefit her mental health.

“It was really very hard for me to come to the conclusion I did, but I just find it’s taking more of a toll on me,” Thompson said. “Is it worth my health? I do care so deeply and do love the work, but (with) the negativity and public rancor among elected officials, I don’t know who would want to serve in office. Now we’re going to have people serving in office that are all like minds and where does that get us? If we’re all doing the same thing and all agreeing on the same things we’re not representing the community as a whole.”


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