Oregon’s first all-Latino school board inspires students
Woodburn celebrated teacher Rosa Floyd (front center) being named the Oregon Teacher of the Year at OSBA’s Annual Convention in November. Board member Noemi Legaspi, (from left) Executive Secretary Jenne Marquez, board member Laura Isiordia, Superintendent Joe Morelock, Assistant Superintendent Juan Larios and board member Anabel Hernandez-Mejia are also shown here. (Photo courtesy of Anabel Hernandez-Mejia)
In 1999, Anthony Veliz was named Woodburn’s first Latino school board member.
In 2017, Woodburn became Oregon’s first-known elected majority Latino school board.
In October, Woodburn became the likely first all-Latino Oregon school board.
High school junior Zoe Philp, who has a white and a Latino parent, said the school board shines a positive light on the Latino community and inspires her.
“It shows we can have a professional role, not just labor work,” she said.
Philp said she feels safer knowing she lives in a community that embraces leadership that understands issues important to many Latinos, including immigration and racism.
Nationally, a growing effort to create school boards that look more like their communities calls for reaching into communities that have been historically underrepresented. OSBA’s Get on Board campaign offers resources to run for office and to help recruit new voices and retain school board members with experience in education leadership.
OSBA does not collect comprehensive demographic information on school board members, but Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus leaders think the Reynolds School District has the only other Oregon board made up entirely of people of color.
The city of Woodburn is 56% Latino, according to the 2020 census, and the school district is 87% Latino. Woodburn’s current board came together from a mixture of elections and appointments, with board members and community organizations encouraging people to step forward.
Gustavo Vela-Moreno, a mechanical engineer, was appointed to the board in May and became chair in July. Vela-Moreno served on the district’s bond advisory committee and is involved with the community. He went to Woodburn’s schools, and his wife and mother teach there. Even so, with his job and a toddler at home, he had to be persuaded to make the time commitment to be on the school board.
Conversations with community members showed Vela-Moreno that the board needed his perspective. He said his wife’s support and his good relationship with new Superintendent Joe Morelock have made the work possible. Among other things, he appreciates how Morelock finds ways to communicate that fit Vela-Moreno’s schedule.
Vela-Moreno said making him board chair the same time that Morelock started was a chance for the district to “start fresh” with its leadership.
Morelock came to Woodburn after the Newberg School Board fired him for “no cause” in 2021. There had been tension over a board policy banning “political, quasi-political or controversial” symbols.
Woodburn had been struggling with its own leadership. The board fired then-Superintendent Oscar Moreno Gilson in 2021. He later sued the board.
Morelock said some community members have approached him with concerns about having an all-Latino board. Morelock points out the board is a product of an electoral process and who is willing to serve.
Morelock said that although all the board members identify as Latino, the board is diverse in its experiences and viewpoints.
“They reflect the values of the people who elected them,” he said. “The challenge of every school board is to focus on every child.”
He also sees the positive effect the board has individually and collectively on students.
Senior Gabriela Delgado said the Woodburn board appears more responsive to racial issues than the white-majority school boards she experienced growing up in California.
Senior Amanda Figueredo said having school board members who can speak to her mother in her birth language makes it easier for both of them.
Senior José Paredes expects the school board to have greater awareness of ethnicity-related curriculum issues.
The board became all Latino after Eric Swenson resigned in August and Anabel Hernandez-Mejia was appointed in October. Hernandez-Mejia works with farmworker families. She has two daughters in the schools and had been involved in the superintendent search.
Hernandez-Mejia knows the board doesn’t represent everyone, particularly the district’s considerable Russian-speaking community, and is looking for ways to hear those voices. She said her own Latino and farmworker lens doesn’t prevent her from seeing others who might feel as if they are being left out of the decision-making.
“I know what that feels like,” she said.
Anthony Medina, who was elected in the historic 2017 cycle, said Latino community members feeling empowered to run for school board is now embedded in the district’s culture.
He is also proud of the district’s efforts to diversify its staff, although he is quick to point out it’s not enough. Half of all Woodburn staff are people of color, the highest percentage in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Education, and 41% of its teachers are non-white.
The city of Woodburn has been more than 50% Latino since at least 1990, but it took a while for Latinos to show up in leadership positions.
Veliz was appointed in 1999 and won the seat in 2001. When he joined the school board, he quickly learned “one is not the majority on a school board.”
Veliz, who later became chair of the State Board of Education, is proud to have brought a different lens to the board, but he said he often felt like he was seen as a spokesperson for all Latino people. He sees the current board as a better reflection of the community.
“It could have happened a long time ago,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
- Through its Get on Board campaign, OSBA will be offering two webinars in January to help school board candidates prepare to file by the March 16 deadline.