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School board blends voices with passion and experience
Senitila McKinley started her Seashore Family Literacy work more than 30 years ago to fill a learning gap in the Waldport community.
McKinley was already a full-time special education assistant for the Lincoln County School District, but she saw some students struggling while learning to speak English and their parents feeling lost in the school system. Seashore’s primary’s focus has stayed education, but the nonprofit has grown to provide food, clothing and services, especially for the homeless.
Two years ago, McKinley saw running for the school board as another way to support young people getting an education.
“I wanted to be the link from the poorest of the poor,” McKinley said. “I wanted to be that link, that voice to the board.”
In recent years, many Oregon school boards have sought an expanded representation of their communities’ experiences. 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.
The school board filing period opened Feb. 4, and candidates have until March 16 to file. The election is May 16.
The five-member Lincoln County School Board is in transition. McKinley, along with Mike Rawles and Peter Vince, started in 2021.
McKinley, an ordained Episcopal minister, brings a unique perspective. She moved to the United States from Tonga in 1978 after marrying an American. She earned a general educational development diploma with her daughters helping her with her English and spelling.
McKinley is an at-large representative of OSBA’s Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus, which supports new school board members and helps them become more effective advocates.
She started Seashore Family Literacy with the help of students, parents and teachers. Seashore legally formed as a nonprofit in 2000, and McKinley retired six years ago to fully focus on Seashore. It has expanded to three Waldport locations, including a community garden, a bike shop and a community center.
The nonprofit helps children and adults improve their reading, writing, math, computer and communication skills. The center also offers job training, summer camps, clothing and meals.
From her first school board meeting, McKinley noticed how racial and equity issues insinuated themselves into even well-intentioned discussions. She said racism is embedded in school language and the ways underserved students are perceived. Students who were Black like her, who were poor or learning English, were described as problems to be solved or outliers to be integrated.
“We have a reason to not want to participate,” McKinley said. “We don’t feel welcome. We don’t feel included.”
McKinley, putting herself in the students’ shoes, wants to change the education system.
“I’m not doing this to be nice or cute,” she said. “I’m here for a purpose.”
Board Chair Liz Martin admires McKinley’s passion and dedication and says working with her has been a pleasure. Martin said that like a lot of newer school board members, McKinley has had to learn what a board member can and can’t do. At the same time, McKinley has pushed Martin to approach some issues differently.
“It’s a new way of looking at things I’ve been looking at for 10 years,” Martin said.
Martin, who has been on the board since 2010, has focused on mentoring new members on issues such as working within the board and with the superintendent. She tries to check with board members individually to make sure they are understanding procedures. Her experience has been important this year as the board hires a new superintendent, a school board’s most important job.
Superintendent Karen Gray, who is retiring this year, said the board’s support has helped her get through the past couple of years and move the district forward. She said a veteran school board member such as Martin helps everything run smoother while new members such as McKinley have pushed the district to look at practices differently for the benefit of students.
The seats of Martin and Megan Cawley, who started in 2019, are up for election this year. Martin has decided not to run.
“It’s time for new people to come on,” Martin said. “That’s how boards should work.”
Martin is not done yet, though. She thinks it is a school board member’s responsibility to be out in the community looking for the next volunteers for the board. She helped recruit people two years ago, and she is talking to prospective candidates again this year, some who had never thought of school board work. Martin tries to be clear about the time commitments and challenges but also to share how rewarding the experience can be.
She feels good about the student-centered focus of the new members.
McKinley said good school board members need to totally believe in the power of education and understand their place.
“Know that you are taking on a role that is not about you; it’s about the children,” she said. “You need to forget yourself.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA