What should have been an ordinary meeting of the Eugene School District 4J Board of Directors quickly turned into tense debate with concerns about public records and allegations of racism.
At a Feb. 1 regular board meeting, the 4J board was conducting the routine business of adding new items to its agenda. Board Member Laural O’Rourke elevated tension when she proposed a discussion item regarding board members’ use of Signal, an app that provides encrypted instant messages for users to ensure privacy, which could be a violation of Oregon public records and meetings laws.
“We know that board members use Signal, which I believe is against public meetings law,” O’Rourke said. “All the messages disappear, almost depending what time you pick. As a board we should decide an ethical way we’d like to have our communication.”
Signal is popular with journalists and whistleblowers for its privacy settings. Signal messages disappear after a certain time, so the app has been a source of concern for public officials in other states, such as New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department, due to its inability to be preserved for investigations and public records law, according to The Imprint.
This is not the first time the 4J board has dealt with allegations of violations of Oregon’s public records law.
In 2021, Eugene Weekly reported on possible violations of public meetings law uncovered through public records requests and interviews with board members. The board members said at the time that any violation was accidental.
Oregon Revised Statute 192.630(2) says that a quorum of a public entity’s governing body, defined as the minimum number of members who must be present for the group to take official action, “may not meet in private for the purpose of deciding on or deliberating toward a decision.” Though there is no number that defines a quorum, Oregon law says it “appears to be a majority of the governing body.”
Using group text for communication can be a form of meeting in private.
According to text messages obtained by EW at the time, now-former board member Martina Shabram told Lafer that the majority of the board was discussing business, which was a violation of Oregon public meetings law.
Fast forward to the Feb. 1 board meeting. Lafer said that changing the agenda to include discussion about board communications would require unanimous consent and that he wouldn’t approve the item addition. “It seems to me something that would be better to have questions in and get legal advice from in a memo before we put time in the meeting,” he said.
That remark then sparked charged discussion about Robert’s Rules of Orders and the use of “head nods” in approving agenda items — such as approving contracts with other school districts. O’Rourke said that the board would then need to vote on adding every other new business, making something routine into a 30-minute process.
“All of a sudden after I place something — the Black board member — asks to place something on the agenda, all of a sudden Gordon is asking for a vote,” O’Rourke said.
While the board discussed whether to add an agenda item about whether to publicly discuss a complaint covered during the closed doors executive session, O’Rourke began to say that she was experiencing racial harassment by the board chair, Maya Rabasa.
As the board discussed the item, Rabasa said 4J cleared the room of the Sheldon High School girls volleyball team who were waiting to be recognized by the board for winning a state championship. “This is not how we need to be conducting ourselves when we have students here to honor,” Rabasa said.
The board took a pause from its discussion on adding agenda items to recognize the volleyball team.
According to a Feb. 2 KEZI article, Lisa Wood, a mother of one of the athletes, told KEZI she was interested in recalling O’Rourke.
Wood shared an email on Facebook that she sent to Superintendent Andy Dey and the rest of the board about O’Rourke and the Feb. 1 meeting. In the post, Wood said that after 20 minutes of O’Rourke’s allegations of unfair treatment, she was “very simply uncivil.”
“I ask that the school district choose to remove Laural O’Rourke from the board,” Wood wrote, citing the district’s Beliefs and Values.
According to messages obtained by EW, O’Rourke emailed Wood, saying that she stopped reading her “racist letter.”
“The fight for equitable treatment for Black people is usually not critical for many people who aren’t concerned about equity or my treatment while on this board. You are apparently one of them,” O’Rourke wrote. “How wonderful that you are apparently teaching your child to be biased and to not care or understand others. Be Better.”
Board member Judy Newman offered to move O’Rourke’s item on board communications to a future meeting. O’Rourke said that she was proposing this item at the beginning of the meeting rather than adding to a future date because she has been blocked by Rabasa and Lafer in the past.
Lafer said that O’Rourke’s question on the use of Signal was a legal one and that her characterization of the public meetings law was not right. “But I’m not a lawyer, and you’re not a lawyer,” he said. Lafer added that the board should seek a legal answer of whether the use of Signal was allowed. “We should get a legal answer of what kind of legal records should be retained, what kind of messaging is OK and is not,” Lafer said.
Two other board members commented that they would want to see public discussion on board member communication formats.
Board member Michelle Hsu said she wanted to have an attorney present for the discussion to answer board questions. “If there are board members who are not following policies, I’d like to have clarity on that because I believe that it’s happening,” Hsu said.
Board member Alicia Hays said she supported O’Rourke’s questioning of the use of Signal. “I don’t know what Signal is, but what I do know is that three board members don’t use it and four board members do,” she said. “It’s confusing to me what that is.”
The board voted 3-4 to not add the item to the Feb. 1 agenda, with Hays, O’Rourke and Newman in favor. The board voted in favor of adding it to a future agenda, though unspecified, with legal guidance.
To watch Eugene School District 4J Board Meetings, visit 4j.lane.edu/board/meetings/.
This article has been updated.