Tensions are already high in the races for the Eugene District 4J School Board, with disagreements among current board members, allegations of racism, debates about the use of the encrypted messaging app Signal and quarrels about public meetings law setting the tone.
This year, positions one, four, five and seven are on the ballot, and with the May 16 election on the horizon, many of the candidates emphasize putting an end to the dysfunction, though a continuation of the theatrics is now infiltrating at least one of the races.
Position one candidates are Tom DiLiberto, a former teacher, and Michael Bratland, a dentist. Some of Bratland’s priorities include academic fundamentals, safety in schools through police presence and sparing teachers from “disruptive” children. DiLiberto prioritizes student mental health, strengthening community input and rebalancing standardized testing, among other items.
Juan Carlos Valle, a local Latino civil rights leader, is also on the ballot for position one. However, an anonymous complaint filed against him led to a decision that the race had become partisan, and as a federal employee, Valle can no longer campaign or accept a school board position if elected. The decision leaves him with a “heavy heart,” according to his website.
Even without Valle’s withdrawal, the position one race is as much about politics as it is about education. Bratland, who is “fed up with the divisive politics replacing real educational success,” according to his website, BratPackOregon.com, has been endorsed by right-wing PAC Kids 4 Success, along with position five candidate Grant Johnson and position seven candidate Timothy Sutherland. The candidates reflect conservative attacks on public education in Oregon and across the country.
The principles of Kids 4 Success include removing “politics” and “ideological agendas” from school and letting “kids be kids,” again pushing against ideologies and “world views” in the classroom.
Bratland, who writes about putting up “Back the Blue” and anti-COVID lockdown billboards as an example of his involvement as a community member on the Kids 4 Success website, echoes the PAC’s sentiment that teachers should not be advancing their own politics in the classroom. He also writes that he is “not for” kids who are unruly or repeatedly disruptive. Bratland is a father of five and husband to a kindergarten teacher.
Bratland did not respond to EW’s request for comment despite repeated attempts. But according to his website, he has five main priorities. The first is to cultivate academic excellence through a focus on the fundamentals and positive learning conditions. The second is to require curriculum accountability, which, according to Bratland, means no “political activists” pushing “divisive ideological and extreme sexual viewpoints” on students. In other words, no teaching about systemic racism or LGBTQ+ issues.
His third priority, to restore the learning environment, comes back to Bratland’s distaste for “unruly” and “disruptive” children. He says Senate Bill 819, which modifies the abbreviated school day program for disabled students so that parents must give informed consent before their child is placed in the program, falls short by failing to address the behavioral problems these students may represent, thereby disempowering teachers. He instead points to legislators in Kentucky, who passed a bill that allows schools to indefinitely remove “chronically disruptive” students, as a better alternative to SB 819.
His fourth priority is to safeguard classrooms by putting police officers back in schools. And his fifth and final is to end school board dysfunction with a return to responsible leadership, leadership he believes he can provide.
While DiLiberto is politically on the other side of the spectrum from Bratland, he says he is also frustrated by the state of the 4J school board. He says people on the board actually have many shared goals, but that opportunities to act on them are being missed.
He says that, as a board member, he would be willing to listen to opposing viewpoints and different perspectives, and come to a compromise to reach those shared goals.
“It takes time, it can be awkward, it can be clumsy,” he says in an interview with EW. “But it’s absolutely necessary.” The topic of 4J tension is the only place the candidates align.
DiLiberto says his number one priority as a position one candidate is student mental health. He says creating time and space to foster healthy, educational relationships between staff and students, as well as interpersonal relationships between students, will help them to feel like they are truly a part of the school. He also wants to put counselors and mental health therapists back in schools.
“I think people understand that our focus needs to be there,” DiLiberto says. “Nothing is more sobering than some of the self-harm stories, the suicides we’ve heard of that are just tragic. But there’s also smaller things, like student anxiety and student depression, which maybe don’t hit headlines, but are really a burden for kids.”
His second priority is strengthening community input. He says that waiting for people to come up to the microphone at school board meetings is not enough. Some people don’t speak English, he points out, and some just don’t have the courage. He wants members of the board to be responsible for showing up at community events, for showing that they care.
He also prioritizes finding and retaining qualified staff, keeping class sizes and caseloads small, rebalancing what he believes is an overuse of standardized testing and teaching the whole child, rather than emphasizing only subjects included in standardized testing. He believes a spectrum of classes, like social studies, music, art, drama and career technical attention (CTE) are fundamental to keeping students enrolled in school and successful in life.
He says that having the perspective of a former teacher like himself will be very helpful for the school board when making decisions that directly impact kids. Additionally, he has experienced budget cuts as an educator, something that he feels is on the horizon, and knows how to weather that challenge.
“I think that the perspective that I bring is a ground-level perspective,” he says.
With the special election on May 16, voters must be registered by April 25. The term of office for school board members begins July 1.
This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. to learn more visit CatalystJournalism.uoregon.edu or follow on Twitter @uo_catalyst.