Second-term director Sara Magenheimer was elected chair and Tom Scott vice chair in a contentious meeting of the Canby School Board Monday night — the first one open to the public in more than a year because of coronavirus restrictions.
The public had a lot to say.
For some, it was their first chance to openly denounce the decision by district administrators, based on county health officials’ recommendations, to exclude seven Canby High School seniors from marching in their June 11 graduation ceremony due to Covid-19 protocols.
Though the decision was made over a month ago, parents, students and other community members who’d wanted to speak on the matter at the last meeting in June were stiff-armed by then-Chair Angi Dilkes, who suspended all public comment due to what she called the “uncivil nature of the majority of comments received.”
“When elected, tyrannical leaders unconstitutionally shut down the public, only bad things can happen,” said Stephanie Boyce, a former candidate for Canby City Council. “On June 17 at the Canby School Board meeting, the public was told that their opinion and voices were not valuable enough to be heard.
“Not only was this government body silencing people, it was signaling that the very people who elected them do not matter.”
Boyce went on to compare the temporary suspension of public comment to private companies like Google and Facebook’s enforcement of their terms of service, which some critics say is biased toward conservatives.
“Please don’t allow the school board to become an extension of Big Tech,” Boyce told the board, which included new members Shelley Vissers and Sherry Smith, who defeated Dilkes and Mike Zagyva in the May election. “We deserve better.”
Others, like Katherine Christiansen, chose to criticize Magenheimer by name, saying she had failed to stand with the seven students at graduation or push back on the decision to suspend public comment.
Christiansen had been so outraged over Dilkes’ decision that she accosted the former chair in the Canby High School parking lot after the June 17 meeting, even seeming to block her from getting to her car for a brief period until Scott and Magenheimer intervened, according to a cellphone video Christiansen posted publicly to social media.
The two school board members addressed the criticism from Christiansen and others later in the meeting, saying they had not known about the unofficial graduation ceremony for the seven seniors until they had already left school grounds.
This third, unsanctioned ceremony had been attended only by board members Dawn Depner and Stefani Carlson, a handful of district staff and the boys’ friends and family.
“If I had known, I certainly would have stayed for those young men,” Magenheimer said. “No one ever asked that of me. I never said I wouldn’t stand with them.”
“You’ve been called out before,” a woman — evidently, Christiansen — shouted from the audience. “You never said a word until now.”
“Because no one’s ever reached out— I’m not going to get into it,” Magenheimer continued. “I just wanted to state that: I didn’t walk away. I didn’t know it was happening. I just wanted to make that clear, because it feels like there’s a lot of misinformation that’s happened around this event.”
Scott said the decision to exclude the seniors was an administrative one — not something the board would be involved in.
“Our role is to create policy and make sure the superintendent is following those policies,” he said. “I feel awful for those kids. I couldn’t imagine being a parent and going through that. But a decision was made — a tough decision — and people have to make tough decisions sometimes.
“You don’t have to agree with it — obviously, you don’t agree with it — but it was the decision that was made. Again, I don’t question those decisions 30 minutes before a ceremony because that’s not my job.”
Other commenters called on the school board to not require masks or Covid-19 vaccinations for the 2021-22 academic year (guidelines that were indeed adopted later in the meeting at the recommendation of new Superintendent Aaron Downs).
Still others lambasted critical race theory, or CRT, a once-obscure concept in academia that has sparked school board protests and classroom bans in some states and has become a frequent punching bag on conservative media.
“Any teaching that separates people as oppressor and oppressed is completely inappropriate,” said district mom Stefanie Ward. “All it’s doing is stereotyping people based on their skin color. I don’t understand how this isn’t still considered racism, just in reverse.
“How does putting ideology over facts portray an accurate description of the past? History isn’t there for you to like or dislike. It’s there for you to learn from. If it offends you, that’s even better because you’re less likely to repeat it. It’s not yours to erase or destroy.”
It set the stage for a tense showdown over the election of new board officers, with Magenheimer and Depner both earning nominations for chair — a role that carries the power to lead meetings and set agendas, call special meetings and represent the board in an official capacity at district functions.
Many of the public commenters who spoke that night had voiced support for Depner to serve as chair.
“We’ve made it clear who we want,” Christiansen interjected in another testy exchange that preceded the board vote and involved other audience members, some of whom appeared to push back on Christiansen. “Those who spoke — we’ve made it clear who we want.”
“This is a board decision, not a public decision,” Scott shot back. “While we appreciate listening to you guys, it’s a decision made by the seven of us. We heard what you had to say, thank you.”
Depner, who was first elected to the school board in 2019 but has a long history of service on the Canby Fire Board and through Operation Snuggle, a nonprofit she founded, called on the board to come together and serve Canby students.
“It’s a tough job but one I feel is so important,” she said. “And, at the end of the day, we need to be able to say it’s one we’re doing for the betterment of our children. Without a doubt, I feel we’re helping kids and that is absolutely the most important thing that I can do.”
Carlson and Smith also spoke in favor of Depner.
“I sit here today because the people in our community spoke and wanted change,” Smith said. “This includes change in leadership. The parents and community have become frustrated that their voices have been silenced by the previous board and administration. It’s created an us vs. them mentality.
“We need board leadership that knows and follows policy, responds to the public, asks difficult questions, is honest with the board and the public, shows leadership — rather than following or misleading — and has a history of voting and fighting for kids.”
Vissers, who campaigned with Smith on a similar platform, spoke to the difficulty of the decision.
“This is a very divisive board, and it’s unfortunate, and it’s hard,” she said. “It really is hard to be in this position. I think both of them would make excellent candidates. I do feel Sara has been kind of lumped in with the old way of doing things, and I don’t think that fair.”
Board member Rob Sheveland shared a similar sentiment.
“I don’t think we’ve got bad candidates, but we’re all going to have to vote ‘nay’ somewhere,” he said. “We’re all voting for the person we feel is the best candidate. I think we have a good board. I hope we are going to be able to work together well. I don’t see any reason why the outcome of this vote would change any of that.”
Magenheimer was ultimately elected chair, with Scott, Sheveland, Vissers and herself in favor, and Carlson, Depner and Smith opposed. Depner was also nominated for vice chair, but lost to Scott on the same 4-3 split.
“I will commit to working as the board chair,” Magenheimer said. “I truly am committed to this community. I grew up here; my kids go to school here. I have the same investment as you all to do the work and do the best job I can.”
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