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School leaders hold key to unlocking all community voices
When Lori Theros looked at the board for Klamath Falls City Schools in 1993, she thought it was the province of attorneys, doctors and business owners.
“My impression was they wouldn’t take someone who was just an employment specialist,” she said.
Theros, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, also didn’t see any people of color.
Progress has been made since then, but misconceptions about school boards still deter many qualified candidates, especially from underserved communities. As Oregon nears school board elections May 18, school administrators and board members can change the dynamic by recruiting diverse candidates to file as candidates starting Feb. 6.
OSBA’s Get on Board campaign can help, encouraging sitting board members to continue to offer their experience and urging community members, especially those of color, to accept the challenge.
OSBA is holding webinars Wednesday, Jan. 13, and Tuesday, Jan. 26, to answer prospective candidates’ questions.
Studies show school cultures and district resources for students of color improve when at least one board member has a diverse racial or ethnic identity.
Theros can testify to that from her own experience. She was on a district planning committee when then-Superintendent Ray Crawford encouraged her to join the board. Theros was appointed soon after and still serves on the board, as well as the OSBA Board.
The Klamath City Schools board has made a concerted effort to expand its diversity. Board Chair Mychal Amos is a member of the Yurok Tribe, and Carlos Soriano is Latino.
Theros has encouraged people “who have a little different voice” to join her district’s committees and task forces, opening a potential entry point to board membership. Along with other board members, she has helped people of color to feel more comfortable with the district’s work as well as letting them know anyone can serve on the board.
Klamath Falls’ student body is and 23% Latino and 6% Native American, with most of the rest White.
The board’s diversity helped it craft responsive policies as the area’s Latino population grew, she said, and helped again in recent months as distance learning highlighted internet connectivity problems in lower-income homes.
“We had the inside story of how we could help those kids,” she said.
Theros said board members still have a lot to learn. The Black Lives Matter movement revealed that they weren’t as culturally sensitive as they thought, she said.
“We need to keep on the path to making school better for all our students,” she said.
One of democracy’s core beliefs is that everybody’s ideas should be represented, said Sami Al-AbdRabbuh, Corvallis School Board chair and president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus.
School boards can never completely represent every viewpoint, Al-AbdRabbuh said, but it is crucial to have as much representation as possible.
“We have to push ourselves to ask who we are missing from the table,” he said.
The caucus provides resources and helps school boards find, recruit, develop and retain school board members of color. That can be important in establishing community support.
“If you have a lived experience and none of the board members reflects your experience, it’s going to be hard to trust the system,” Al-AbdRabbuh said.
School board work is unpaid and time consuming, leading to a heavy representation of retirees, stay-at-home parents and the wealthy.
Ashland School Board member Sabrina Prud’homme said school boards need to do more to recruit working parents and recognize the need to meet around job schedules.
Prud’homme, who is African American, was recruited in 2017 by Eva Skuratowicz, a White board member. Prud’homme said she might have pursued the school board someday, but the recruitment pulled her in sooner.
Three of five Ashland board members identify as people of color in a southern Oregon community whose student body is 74% White.
“It’s not about just having representation that has to match exactly,” Prud’homme said. “It’s about having the school board composition that enables a board and a district to create the educational environment that is best suited in that community.”
Tomas Monter-Rangel, who is Latino, was appointed to the Ashland board in February 2020. He said he has been able to help the board understand cultural sensitivities around family communication.
Parkrose School Board Chair Sonja Mckenzie praises her board for keeping the equity conversation focused on what is best for the children and setting a goal of more board diversity.
Mckenzie is believed to be the first African American woman on Parkrose’s board. The Portland district’s student body is 68% students of color, but Mckenzie is the only board member who has identified as nonwhite.
Mckenzie, OSBA Board vice president and Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus treasurer, said board members can bring an equity lens from sharing the lives of their partners, children, loved ones and family members. Still, she said, it takes lived experiences to understand the full impact of racism, biased systems and constant microaggressions.
Mckenzie encouraged potential candidates to overcome fears of difference and find common ground in the desire to offer kids the best education.
“People need to understand that in every community there are people who are just as smart as them, just as passionate about kids, just like they are,” she said. “They just look different.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA