School board appointments put process in the spotlight
Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus leadership, including Anthony Medina (left) and Bill Graupp (right), addressed the City Club of Portland in March about why schools need diverse leadership. Caucus Secretary Helen Ying is speaking, and next to her is Vice President Donna Tyner. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
A vacant school board seat puts current board members in the middle of a fundamental question: What makes a great school board member?
Under Oregon law, current board members – rather than the public – vote to fill vacancies. One such vote last week in Eugene created a public outcry, and in Albany school board members are expected to vote Thursday (tonight) to fill a seat in what has already emerged as a contested process.
These decisions come while Oregon is grappling with equity and diversity in education. The state is trying to close achievement gaps for minority groups, and the recently passed Student Success Act emphasizes equity with its historic investment in education.
As volunteer leaders, school board members chart their schools’ path and make the single most critical hire: the superintendent. Who board members are, and what experiences and beliefs have shaped them, drive their decisions.
Recent elections have seen a surge in younger, more diverse candidates for Oregon school board seats. Yet there exists a significant gap between what Oregon’s classrooms look like and what its school boards look like. Nearly 2 in every 5 students in Oregon are of color. No data exist on school board representation by ethnicity, but in Oregon nearly 9 of every 10 adults are white.
Bill Graupp, president of OSBA’s Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus, recommends that school boards reach out to individuals of color and organizations that work in communities of color to find candidates.
In addition to uncovering promising candidates, he said, such an effort builds communication lines with communities and shows a respect and trust.
Of course, if a qualified candidate is bypassed, it could cause a greater backlash.
Graupp, who is a North Marion School Board member, stressed the need for a fair, transparent process. He said that districts need to make clear why a candidate was chosen, especially to local media.
“I’m not saying that just because you have dark skin you are qualified,” Graupp said. The caucus always supports a board’s need to choose the best candidate, he said. Elevating unqualified candidates would do more damage than good and is patronizing to communities of color, he added.
The word “qualified,” however, can itself be a code for other aspects that exclude minority candidates, such as familiarity, comfort or shared experiences.
Graupp said leadership needs to represent the community. The world is changing, and boards need to look long term.
“It’s not about doing something that is safe and comfy,” he said. “It’s about going out on the edge and brining in new people and getting them engaged in leadership of the community.”
Elected school board members come from all walks of life, with differing educations, employment histories and life experiences. There are no set criteria.
The interview process signals a board’s seriousness about equity and diversity. Candidates should understand the community’s demographics and systemic biases, according to Graupp.
The primary question for candidates in today’s world, Graupp said, is this: What does equity in education mean? He added that equity includes issues such as poverty and discrimination.
School board members are elected in odd-numbered years for four-year terms. If a member can’t fulfill the term, the board may appoint someone, typically until the next election.
House Bill 3310 (2019) strengthened rules to help people from protected classes run in school board elections, but boards have wide latitude in choosing replacements.
The Greater Albany Public Schools Board expects to vote Thursday on a new board member after a long and public application process. It has been a learning process for this board, which had not been through such a process before.
News reports have outlined how the Albany board began with a blind process that redacted names of the eight applicants, who were scored based on their answers to six questions. But as the board weighed which four applicants would advance as finalists – and the names were revealed – some opposition arose around a particular candidate who is both of color and has a work track record on equity issues. Albany has about 30% students of color – most of them Latino.
Albany Superintendent Melissa Goff said she did not want to comment on the board’s appointment process because the district is still considering candidates. She indicated that the district would look at lessons learned from this appointment when considering future applicants.
In Eugene, the school board has faced a backlash after choosing a white former board member from a 14-person candidate pool. The finalists included a Latina. The all-white board leads a district where about 30% of the students are minorities.
The board's process is documented on the district's website, with links to recordings of the meetings. Although many issues went into the board’s choice, it raises questions about how boards pick new members, who have an advantage in the next election and likely staying power.
Woodburn School Board member Anthony Medina said it is important for school boards to reflect the communities they represent. Medina, who is the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus treasurer, said boards should ask candidates the importance of diversity and equity and what they see their role as.
In 2017, Woodburn became what is believed to be Oregon’s first elected majority Latino school board. When a Latino member left the board in 2018, the board appointed Noemi Legaspi, a Mexican American.
She said that already having Latinos on the board likely helped her application.
“If the school board was all white, I don’t know that I would have been appointed,” Legaspi said.
Once in, she believed she could help change the district by asking questions that members with different perspectives might not think of or be uncomfortable asking. Her personal history and work experience were assets for a board leading a district more than 80% Latino.
“I can relate to many of their stories and the troubles they faced,” she said. “It’s one thing to read about it, and it’s another thing to have lived it.”
To win her election in 2019, she had to appeal to a broad swath of voters. Legaspi considers her cultural understanding an asset, but she brings a lot more to the board. She is a parent and has worked in the schools, including as a college and career specialist in the high school. She is passionate about addressing mental health issues.
The Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus is working to create a positive image of public office among communities of color so that more people will want to run.
“School board is the best place to enter public service,” Graupp said.
Candidates of color, though, face systemic hurdles to election, particularly if the community is majority white. School board vacancies are a chance to prime the pump.
North Marion School Board member Ricardo Verastegui was recruited to join the school board. Volunteer work in the community and in the school, including teaching Mexican folk dance, had shown his commitment.
When a vacancy opened in 2018, he applied. His appointment by the board whetted his appetite, and he ran and won in the May 2019 election.
“I wanted to make a difference in the community, not just for Latinos but for everybody,” Verastegui said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
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