School Board Airs Concerns over Political Speech in Classrooms

Concerns over inappropriate political speech being shared by teachers in virtual classrooms were the subject of much discussion by the Canby School Board last week, as several members said they have received concerns from parents about such activity occurring on more than one occasion.

Canby School District board members Dawn Depner, Stefani Carlson and Tom Scott all said at a virtual meeting Thursday they have received messages about teachers using their virtual classrooms to air political views in inappropriate ways since classes resumed three weeks ago.

While all acknowledged that political lessons have a role in education — for example, in a high school social studies class — they said such discussions should be broad, impartial and student-led, not centered on the teacher’s personal views.

“My concern, which I’m also hearing from other board members, is that there’s been really unnecessary use of politically charged items and lessons,” said Scott. “It’s happening. I’ve also been sent items that prove it’s been happening. And I find them completely unnecessary in our education system.”

Board member Mike Zagyva — who’s also a retired Canby School District social studies teacher and a former principal at Ackerman and Eccles — made clear that he has not heard of such activity, but he found the possibility inappropriate and concerning.

“My position has been clear: it’s a teacher’s job to teach students how to think, not what to think,” Zagyva said. “That’s the parents’ job. When a discussion comes up, [a teacher] may take an opposite view, just to teach that student how to present an argument or whatever. But the bottom line is the classroom teaches students how to think, not what to think. That’s mom and dad’s job.”

Though he admitted there “may be exceptions,” he said he never personally observed anything in his career at Canby schools that would violate that basic philosophy — which Carlson said she believed most parents would agree with.

“The problem is I have received so many things this past week that would prove that the environment is not anything like it was when you were teaching,” said Carlson. “It’s a very, very different environment. There are views being pushed.”

Carlson, Depner and Scott did not get into specifics about the alleged inappropriate speech or the evidence that they had received, because they had been advised that they could not discuss specific lessons or teachers at a public meeting — something that also concerned the three.

“What I would like to see is much, much firmer policy regarding political speech in the classroom,” said Carlson. “The job of the school is to teach reading, writing, math, science and history. It is not the job of the school to push political agendas, any of this. So I’m really concerned with what I’m hearing, and I would be happy to share some of those, but I was also told I wasn’t allowed to share some of those.”

The reasoning for curtailing the discussion was that it may violate existing Canby School District policy for disciplining or questioning teachers — which may be done by the board in closed session, with the educator present, but not at a public meeting — as well as portions of the collective bargaining agreement between the district and teachers’ union that concern criticism of teachers.

The three said they did not wish to criticize teachers, but were clearly frustrated that lessons and curriculums could not be discussed openly.

“I think we as board members need to know what lessons are being taught, and parents need to know what lessons are being taught,” Carlson said. “Why aren’t we allowed to share what’s being taught in a public meeting like this?”

Zagyva and board Chair Angi Dilkes repeatedly pointed to existing processes for parents’ concerns to be investigated by district staff, including the school’s principal and, ultimately, the superintendent.

“I believe strongly in academic freedom for our teachers,” Dilkes said. “I feel comfortable as a member of the board about the processes that are available for people — both parents and members of the public — to elevate a concern. I trust our teachers. I trust our staff. I trust our administrators. I trust our superintendent.”

But those processes don’t always work, Depner and Scott said. In today’s super-charged political climate, some parents fear that going to the teacher directly or even to an administrator might lead to retaliation for their child, they said.

Depner was also unhappy that the district had declined to provide copies of teacher lesson plans and curriculums that she had asked for, based on parents’ concerns.

“Anytime we have a policy that directs information away from a board member, and away from us being able to ask for the curriculum or for additional information, we have a problem,” said Depner. “I believe we have a responsibility to our constituents to be able to go and ask the questions if they’re fearful to do so.”

No one said that a school board member should ignore a concern from a parent or constituent, but that they should be handled through the superintendent’s office, not the school board — which is meant to operate, in Zagyva’s words, at the “50,000-foot level.”

“To be fully blunt and honest, it has been presented to our superintendent and we disagree,” Scott said, before calling again for revisions to the district’s policy.

Superintendent Trip Goodall was part of the meeting but did not speak over the course of the approximately 30-minute discussion.

In the end, it became increasingly clear that the board could make little progress without knowing more about the political speech that allegedly occurred. Dilkes said only that the activity had not been “black and white” (she gave an example of a teacher displaying a poster of a political candidate during a Zoom lesson), but rather, seemed to fall in a “gray area.”

Zagyva said he would like to see the materials that had been shared with other school board members.

“I’d be really anxious to see some of the information, because if it comes from a math teacher, that’s wrong,” he said. “If it comes from a science teacher, we’ve got a problem. If it comes from a language arts or a social studies teacher, they’re talking about politics, that’s totally appropriate in high school.”

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