Salem-Keizer School Board election process considered discriminatory by some

Natalie Pate
Salem Statesman Journal

The leaders who make major decisions about Salem and Keizer's children are elected in a way some argue is discriminatory.

While Salem-Keizer Public Schools' governing board members each only represent a portion of the district, they are chosen by voters districtwide.

Some believe this has historically created a disadvantage for candidates of color or those who can't afford to campaign across the entire region, leading to a school board comprised of people who do not reflect the diversity of the students and families they serve.

Now there's an effort to change that. 

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Board member Jesse Lippold Peone III is proposing voters only be allowed to select the representative of their zone — similar to how the Salem City Council and Chemeketa Community College's directors work.

"Currently, it's possible for someone to live in the east part of town like I do ... but then get voted in by west Salem or south Salem, and vice versa," Lippold Peone said. His proposed change "would allow us to pick our own representatives (for) our own community."

A screenshot of the virtual Salem-Keizer School Board meeting on Feb. 9, 2021. From the top to bottom, left to right: (Row 1) Chairman Satya Chandragiri, member Kathy Goss, member Paul Kyllo, member Marty Heyen; (Row 2) member Jesse Lippold Peone, Superintendent Christy Perry, member Sheronne Blasi, district attorney Paul Dakopolos; (Row 3) vice chairwoman Danielle Bethell, student advisor Leanette Mabinton, and co-Assistant Superintendent Kraig Sproles.

Lippold Peone said under this system, candidates would focus on campaigning to about 20,000-30,000 people from their own neighborhoods, instead of 200,000 across Salem and Keizer.

"You'd have better relationships with the schools in your area, with the parents in the area, because you can spend your time knocking on the doors of your neighbors and not on the doors of people most likely to vote off a list given by a political organization," he said.

Lippold Peone also believes this would make the winners stronger representatives.

There are seven seats on the board representing seven zones throughout the two cities. Members serve the entire district, but some zones are disproportionately impacted by various issues.

For example, schools in east and north Salem generally have more students of color, students experiencing poverty and students learning English as a second language. 

"Long story short," he said, "it gives the little guy a shot."

Jesse Lippold Peone III in front of Houck Middle School on Tuesday.

Not everyone on the school board is in favor of the resolution — or at least, not right now. It's scheduled to go before the board for a vote March 9 and, if passed, could go into effect for the May 18 election. 

A few board members argue they should wait until they receive 2020 U.S. Census data that will likely lead to the district redrawing zones. One member has expressed concerns it could create special interest groups, or lead those elected to only work for their zone and not for the good of the whole district. Some want to get more community input before deciding. 

At least two amendments are expected at the next meeting.

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The Salem-Keizer NAACP has publicly endorsed the resolution, saying it aligns with its mission of ensuring racial justice. The group hosted a virtual forum Tuesday to answer questions and hear community input.

Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste — the farmworkers and Latinx working families union known as PCUN — has endorsed four candidates for the May election, and supports the move toward zone voting. 

Marion County Clerk's Office on Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in Salem, Oregon.

'Make things a little bit better'

The May election will determine representation for four zones, including Zone 5 in east Salem, which Lippold Peone currently represents.

Lippold Peone said he's wanted to switch to zone voting since he was first elected in 2017, and even back in his time as a Salem-Keizer student.

A change of leadership previously stalled the conversation, he said, followed by the pandemic. It got onto the January agenda this year.

As a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the first Native American on the Salem-Keizer board, Lippold Peone said the at-large voting system reflects larger issues in Salem and Keizer, such as the pockets of town where people of color disproportionately live, or the investments made repeatedly in higher-economic areas of town over lower-economic areas like the Lancaster corridor. 

Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess points to a map of the Salem-Keizer school district precincts on Wednesday.

If the resolution isn't passed this month — and he is re-elected — Lippold Peone said he will "fight tooth and nail" to get it back on the agenda.

"Even if we pass this, this isn't the end of the conversation," Lippold Peone said. "Once the census comes out, we're going to have to redraw the zones, regardless of what election system we have.

"What I don't want is for people to get sidetracked by that," he said. "If we're so focused on that, people are going to miss the chance to make things a little bit better right now."

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The role of the school board

It's important to understand what school boards can do — and what they can't.

"As a school board member, you will be a jack of all trades. You will be talking about infrastructure, facilities, policies, budgets; you won't be fixing just one problem," said Sami Al-Abdrabbuh, chairman of the Corvallis Board of Education and president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus. 

The statewide caucus includes more than 60 school leaders who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color, or BIPOC.

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If a candidate runs on a single issue or just for their kids, for example, he said it might be more challenging. Al-Abdrabbuh was appointed to the Corvallis school board in 2017 and is running for re-election this spring.

"For sure, we want the best for our own kids," he said. "But when you're elected, people are delegating the job to you to do what’s best for all the kids."

West Salem High School graduate Emily Cheavtharn hugs a friend after her graduation ceremony on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 at West Salem High School in Salem, Oregon.

In Oregon, he explained, school boards are tasked with specific responsibilities.

They set, develop and approve policy; hire and evaluate the superintendent; approve proposed budgets; and serve in a quasi-judicial capacity for final appeals of complaints. 

"Because of these capacities, they are precluded, by definition, from operations," Al-Abdrabbuh said. "That's the most common misconception."

In other words, if there's a problem in a school or concerning an individual, board members aren't the ones to solve it.

They address things on a systemic level, he said, adding it's important anyone running for election understands the distinction, and for voters to know when they consider who will best serve them.

Four of the six Salem-Keizer School Board then-candidates, Raul Marquez, David Salinas, Satya Chandragiri and Danielle Bethell speak at a forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Marion and Polk Counties, at Salem Public Library in Salem on May 2, 2019.

Districts define their overarching goals. For Salem-Keizer Public Schools, the vision states: "All students graduate and are prepared for a successful life."

"The board members are the stewards of the ship who say, 'Here's the North Star; we're going that direction,' " Al-Abdrabbuh said. "The captain of the ship (the superintendent) and the staff are the ones making the decisions on a day-to-day level."

Process and limits of board elections

Under state law, school board elections are held in May every two years, and members serve four-year terms. To qualify, a candidate must be a voter of the district in question and registered to vote.

Districts can't impose additional requirements to be a candidate, including campaign finance limits overseen by the Secretary of State.

The Oregon Voting Rights Act — put into effect with House Bill 3310 in 2019 — also prohibits boards from actions that could impair the ability of protected classes from equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. 

However, school boards do control two major decisions in their elections — whether members represent specific zones or serve as at-large directors; and whether they are voted in at-large or by the constituents of their individual zones.

South Salem High School graduates sit spaced apart during a small-scale graduation ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020 at South Salem High School in Salem, Oregon.

Spencer Lewis, director of policy services for the Oregon School Boards Association, said it's not common for school districts to change their election systems like Salem-Keizer is considering.

"To be honest, I wish districts did it a little more," he said, adding, as an example, that some zones in the state haven't been redrawn in 20 or 30 years. "(Boards should) really look and see, is our election system the best for our district right now?"

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Lippold Peone believes Salem-Keizer's potential new approach would make them the only school board in Marion County where members represent zones and are elected by zone constituents only. 

Lewis did not have specific data on how many districts use which systems but said many are at-large because it's easier to fill and vote in the positions.

'The system isn't right'

Salem-Keizer board members have represented zones and been voted in at-large for as long as Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess can recall — at least since the 1980s, if not since the board was first started. 

By comparison, voters elect Salem and Woodburn city councilors specific to their zones or wards, as do voters for Chemeketa Community College's district directors.

Some, such as Portland Public Schools' governing board, also have zones but are elected by voters city-wide. In some areas, such as in the Corvallis School District, board members serve entirely at-large.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools encompasses parts of both Marion and Polk counties.

In Marion County alone, there are close to 145,000 voters eligible to decide board races. That number climbs to about 200,000 when including the Polk County voters. 

Broken into zones, there are closer to 20,000 voters each. But voting participation differs by region.

Levi Herrera-Lopez is voted to chair of the Salem-Keizer Public Schools budget committee during a meeting at the Student Support Services Center in Salem on April 23, 2019.

In 2017, for the east Salem Zone 5 race between Lippold Peone and Lëvi Herrera-Lopez, there was a 15% voter turnout, according to data collected by the Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments.

By comparison, in 2019, there was a 27% turnout in northeast Salem for Zone 2 between incumbent Marty Heyen and challenger Raul Marquez. And in the same year, there was a 37% voter turnout in south Salem for Zone 4 between now-chairman Satya Chandragiri and opponent David Salinas.

In all three examples, the winners — Lippold Peone, Heyen and Chandragiri — won the majority of votes for both their zones and the at-large counts.

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But Herrera-Lopez said at the recent NAACP forum that he wasn't able to campaign the way he wanted because of the at-large system.

He tried to focus on people in his zone, especially since voters are less likely to vote in an odd-year election following national races.

But he still had to appeal to voters districtwide.

As the first Latino person to run for the school board in more than a decade, he said, "They saw me as 'that Latino guy.' They didn't see I had more than 20 years living in the neighborhood and in (experience)."

Long-standing board member Paul Kyllo acknowledged that in his first campaign for the school board, he didn't put a single flyer up in his own zone in north Salem, but instead, dedicated his focus to the regions of town that historically had the highest voter turnout.

"That was many years ago, but that hasn't changed that much," he said. "The system isn't right."

Four of the board's seats are up for re-election this spring — Zone 1 in west Salem, currently represented by Kathy Goss; Zone 3 in south Salem, held by Sheronne Blasi; Zone 5 in east Salem, represented by Lippold Peone; and Zone 7 in north Salem, held by Kyllo. 

Seven individuals across all zones have filed for candidacy, as of March 3. Goss, Blasi and Kyllo have not filed.

Heyen of Zone 2 in northeast Salem, chairman Chandragiri of Zone 4 in south Salem, and vice chairwoman Danielle Bethell of Zone 6 in Keizer were elected in 2019. Their terms are up for election in spring 2023.

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'Show us that this is not racism'

Nationwide, the racial, ethnic and linguistic makeup of school boards rarely matches that of the students in the schools they are responsible for, according to a report by EducationWeek

A growing body of research suggests having more diverse school boards can make concrete differences.

For example, having just one minority member on a board increases a school district's financial investment in high-minority schools, according to the report, as well as some measurements in student achievement.

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In Salem-Keizer, two of the seven board members identify as people of color, compared to 57% of the district's 41,000-plus students who identify as a race or ethnicity other than white. Nearly 90 different languages are spoken in Salem-Keizer's families.

Students have testified at multiple school board meetings, especially in the past few years, about how they want to see more people on the board who look like them and may better understand their cultural experiences.

Roberts High School graduate Trianna Omwere wears candy necklaces after the graduation ceremony on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 at Sprague High School in Salem, Oregon.

Chandragiri said his experience as an immigrant allows him to bring a more global perspective to the board. He also said diversity of all kinds — including gender and sexuality — is the best way to mitigate implicit biases that every person has.

"Without diverse candidates and diverse views," he said, "the board will always take the same approach."

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Al-Abdrabbuh with the school board caucus said it's important students and parents see themselves reflected in their leaders. 

"We want to be mindful that the presence of figures of power could be intimidating," he said. "Sometimes it can be silencing."

A handful of community members testified during January's meeting in favor of the proposed resolution, saying it was "long overdue" and would support the board's previous statements in favor of equitable opportunities.

About 80 protesters attended the Education Over Policing rally outside the Salem Keizer Public Schools building on Lancaster Drive on Thursday, June 18, 2020. The rally, organized by Latinos Unidos Siempre, calls on the school district to divest from school resource officers.

"In the past, when I voted for the school board, I was put off by the fact that my choice candidate had to get a majority of votes in all parts of Salem and Keizer," said parent Maricela Lagos Garcia, whose testimony was interpreted from Spanish.

"That's ridiculous," she said. "What do these people know about our neighborhood and our children?

"Show us that it is not racism and prejudice that makes you want to maintain this antiquated exclusion method ... by voting in favor of this resolution."

Why are some opposed? 

In the Jan. 12 meeting, vice chairwoman Bethell argued the school board should take more time to hear from the community before making a decision.

Lippold Peone suggested, as an example, they post a Zoom call to get community feedback and attempted to ask district officials if they thought that was possible before the February meeting.

Bethell objected to the Zoom call and said the board would need to discuss and vote on a procedure. In the end, the board did not direct the district to obtain community feedback, nor did it organize its own session.

In its stead, the Salem-Keizer NAACP hosted its forum this month.

Lippold Peone spoke during the forum; Superintendent Christy Perry and a few of the school board members attended. More than 80 people participated in the call, and more than 150 initially viewed the stream on Facebook.

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Member Goss argued in January that zone voting would create more special interest groups and go against the statewide directive for elected officials to work for the interests of the entire population they serve. 

Lippold Peone said he disagrees and believes these reasons mislead and distract from the main questions at hand.

Chandragiri and member Heyen have both said the board should wait until the 2020 census data is released in the coming months.

Chandragiri plans to introduce an amendment to support this concept. He said he will not support the resolution without it.

...[T]he school board will create a board designated independent committee to hold multiple public hearings for drawing school zones after each census report is published, exploring various election methods which will increase opportunities for candidates of diverse background including candidates of color to run and win the election, consider models for candidate recruitment, training and campaign finance reforms.

"It is not a good practice to implement major changes with implications for decades to come without a thoughtful, transparent, inclusive process," he said.

Salem-Keizer School Board then-candidate Satya Chandragiri speaks at a forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Marion and Polk Counties, at Salem Public Library in Salem on May 2, 2019.

Clerk Burgess said the census results won't impact this year's election regardless of Tuesday's vote, specifically because he doesn't believe they will get the data until late this year or early 2022. 

Salem-Keizer will likely redraw its zones based on population since they have not been changed since 2011. Redrawn zones may not change school board representation. 

Lippold Peone also plans to submit an amendment to his resolution at the March 9 meeting, specifying that, if passed, it would be effective immediately. 

Other changes could be considered

Several board members agree there are problems with the current election model. While Lippold Peone is focused on changing to zone voting, that is one of many ideas.

Chandragiri has other suggestions, pointing out that voting by zone won't inherently diversify the board. 

For example, Chandragiri said the board can do a better job recruiting diverse candidates and explaining the process to those less familiar, as well as recruiting more voters.

Candidates have until March 18 to file to run for the seats up for election this May. 

Graduate Lupe Torres holds her diploma as her photo is taken during a small-scale, socially distanced graduation ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 for the Early College High School, Roberts Teen Parent Program and Baker Teen Parent Program. The ceremony was held at Sprague High School in Salem.

There are additional election models to consider as well. The current system is a plurality system in which the candidate with the majority of votes wins even if only a small percent of voters show up and the winner succeeds by slim margins. 

This could be changed to a ranked-voting system, for example, in which voters select more than one candidate and rank them as their first, second, third (etc.) choices.

If the board doesn't pass the current resolution in early March, the next opportunity to have a new system in play won't be until the 2023 election for even-numbered zones.

What comes next?

The Salem-Keizer School Board is expected to vote on the resolution at its 6 p.m. meeting Tuesday, March 9. 

Viewers will be able to watch the virtual meeting, including a YouTube broadcast via Capital Community Media. 

Community members can submit public comments in writing, or prerecorded videos, or sign up to call in during the meeting.

Sign-up for public comment opens with the posting of the agenda — usually the Friday before — and closes at 4:15 p.m. the day of the meeting. Video submissions are due by 2 p.m.

The Salem-Keizer Public Schools Lancaster Professional Center in Salem on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018.

Learn more about the Salem-Keizer School Board and upcoming meetings at salkeiz.k12.or.us/schoolboard. Learn more about being a school board member and what these governing groups do at getonboardoregon.org.

More information on the May 2021 election can be found at www.co.marion.or.us/CO/elections for Marion County and www.co.polk.or.us/microsite/elections for Polk County.

Additional election resources:

Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, Twitter @NataliePateGwin, or Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.