An Oregon School Chief’s Firing Has Echoes Of National Politics
Superintendent Melissa Goff was fired this week without cause. The decision has roots in the nation's culture war battles over COVID-19 and racial equity.
School board members in Albany took a dramatic step this week, summarily firing a superintendent who had received positive performance reviews and whose contract had just been renewed.
Perhaps more strikingly, most of them won’t say why.
Just two weeks after a new conservative majority swept into power at the board of Greater Albany Public Schools, the five-member body took up a hastily scheduled item Wednesday to sever the contract of Superintendent Melissa Goff without cause.
With supporters and detractors of Goff alternately cheering and shouting admonishments from the audience, three brand-new board members voted to fire Goff. The board’s chair abstained. And a fifth commissioner strenuously opposed the move.
But remarkably little was said in the 23-minute hearing about why Goff, who has led the district since 2019, was actually being let go.
“I just want to ask why,” board member Michael Thomson, Goff’s lone supporter, said at the meeting. “What is the community supposed to think?”
No response came Wednesday. The four remaining board members, Chair Eric Aguinaga, Pete Morse, Brad Wilson and Roger Nyquist, suggested their reasons were confidential, and did not offer any explanation to the public. All four either declined to elaborate Thursday or did not respond to an inquiry.
But the answer to Thomson’s question appears to reflect political rifts over COVID-19 and racial equity that have played out nationally, and sharply divided parents of Albany students.
COVID-19 And 'Critical Race Theory'
Like superintendents in many cities, Goff became a focus of anger over COVID-19 restrictions that prevented students from getting full-time, in-person instruction. Indeed, the school board’s new members — Morse, Wilson and Nyquist — all ran for the volunteer body under a banner of reopening schools.
All three also got financial assistance from the same political action committee in the May election: the Albany First PAC, run by conservative political strategist Reagan Knopp and funded, in part, by out-of-district money. For two candidates, Morse and Wilson, the PAC provided the majority of their relatively modest campaign funding. The new members all took office on July 1.
Goff and others believe there is more at play than COVID-19. In a school district that, until four years ago, had a mascot associated with the Confederacy, they say Goff’s efforts to steer resources and assistance to immigrant students and students of color has spurred backlash.
Some in the city have come to associate those efforts with the concept of “critical race theory,” the notion that racism can be embedded in systems regardless of overt individual racism or bias. The concept has been around for years, but in recent months has become an intense focus of the nation’s quick-changing culture wars.
“I believe if the only issue at hand was the pandemic, I would not have been fired last night,” Goff told OPB.
Thomson, the lone school board member to support Goff, agrees.
“Those whole protocol issues over COVID really drove the beginnings of the complaints,” he said. “There was always an undercurrent of, ‘Oh by the way, she’s pushing CRT.’ It was a combination of both.”
A National Fight At The Local Level
While the board members who actually voted to fire Goff aren’t offering any clarity, such a step would be in line with fights that are playing out in school districts around the country.
According to an analysis by NBC News last month, more than 160 districts in the United States have seen backlash over teaching or initiatives that emphasize race or gender, with some of that rancor being stirred up by national conservative groups that see the issue as a uniting political force.
“Conservative activists are setting their sights on ousting as many school board members as they can, and local Republican Parties have vowed to help, viewing the revolt against critical race theory as akin to the tea party wave from a decade ago,” the outlet reported.
That trend has happened elsewhere in Oregon, with superintendents losing their jobs after turnover in local school boards, the Albany Democrat-Herald has reported. In advance of May’s election in Albany, Linn County Republicans made a push to supporters to get “solid Republicans” onto the Albany school board.
Goff was hired by Greater Albany Public Schools in April 2019, after a four-year stint as superintendent of the Philomath School District. By her own account, one of her first moves was a nine-month effort to gather input through surveys, interviews, focus groups and forums.
“Very clearly, from all groups, a need to address racism in our schools came out,” Goff said. “There are students who don’t feel safe in our schools. There are students who observe other students not feeling safe in our schools.”
Goff set about starting to correct the situation, she said, launching monthly meetings with parents of Black students; offering diversity, equity and inclusion training to district staff; and holding some parent forums in Spanish.
“It has led to change within our schools that are good for kids, that are good for families — where families feel like they have a seat at the table,” she said.
During her two years in the job, Goff says she received “outstanding evaluations.” The latest came in June, when the GAPS board, under its former makeup, renewed her contract and gave her a pay raise.
Among Goff’s fans is Jodi Yoder, whose son is headed into eighth grade in the Albany district and is Black.
“He has gone through terrible things, from both teachers and kids,” Yoder said. “[Goff’s] engagement with marginalized groups is astounding. … I don’t know what more she could have done in the short time she was here.”
But not everyone has been pleased with Goff’s work. Besides taking flack for school closures and distancing protocols during the pandemic, Goff was criticized for scheduling changes at one of the district’s high schools. She also sparked outcry by pausing the practice of having police officers greet kids on their first day of school, which some students said made them feel unsafe.
“The abrupt cancellation … left a sour taste,” a highly critical editorial in the Albany Democrat-Herald said. “Most local law enforcement officers are heroes and if this issue were handled gracefully, it wouldn’t have seemed a slap in the face and resulted in a protest.”
Goff’s relationship with one school board member, Aguinaga, was so dysfunctional that she and another administrator wound up lodging a formal complaint with the board accusing him of disrespecting staff, leaking confidential information and more.
Based on that complaint, the previous school board censured Aguinaga in late May, calling on him to resign. By then however, the board’s three incoming members had already won election. Aguinaga refused to step down and, when the new blood was sworn in on July 1, he was immediately elected board chair.
Thomson, the board member who supports Goff, fought the move at the time, saying: “I think we would get off to a bad start if we elect a chair who was not only censured by the previous board, but does not send his kid to our public school district.”
But the concern was dismissed. One new member, Wilson, complimented Aguinaga for his poise in the face of censure. “That, to me, is the mark of a great leader,” he said.
A Sudden Agenda Addition
Even with the evident change in direction at the school board, Goff said, she was not expecting to lose her job. But during a closed executive session on Monday, board members decided it was time to sever her contract, placing a proposal to do so with little notice on the agenda for a special meeting two days later.
“They ran on certain issues that did not include dismissing me,” Goff said. “I have been surprised — and really a better word would be stunned — by this action 14 days into their tenure.”
Aguinaga told OPB on Thursday that the push to fire Goff “was added to the agenda at the request of multiple board members.” Specifically, the board voted to take advantage of a clause in Goff’s new contract allowing the board to fire her without cause in exchange for a year’s pay.
Aguinaga wound up abstaining from that vote. He would not discuss his reasons for doing so, or the board’s rationale for holding a vote to fire Goff. He said the board was “as transparent as we can get” about its reasons for firing the superintendent, considering restrictions of employee confidentiality.
Others disagree. State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, a Democrat who represents Albany, penned a lengthy letter praising Goff. She said she’s “never seen anything like” Thursday’s meeting.
“This board has been in place 14 days,” she said. “The last board just renewed her contract. There was not advanced public notice given. … They never stated a reason.”
Aguinaga took issue with the premise that new members have only been on the job for 14 days, saying they’ve been working with the district since their election in May. He added that he feels the Albany district’s efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion have been positive, but he stopped short of giving Goff credit for that.
To Yoder, the Greater Albany Public Schools parent, the decision to fire Goff was underhanded, She believes it is part of a larger backlash to the notion of critical race theory, and worries it could be a detriment to her local schools. But she also acknowledges a vocal group of parents within the district feel differently.
“She caused a lot of waves,” Yoder said. “She got in a lot of good trouble.”
As a result of being fired without cause, Goff will receive the equivalent of her $181,000 yearly salary plus benefits, which Thomson expects could raise the amount above $200,000.
The school district will begin searching for a new superintendent on Friday. Goff’s role formally ends on July 24.
“The work that we’ve done is to create systems and hire the right people for the right roles,” she said. “That work will continue without me in the organization.”