School boards morph to look more like their students
Stephanie Windham cares deeply about resurrecting Portland Public Schools’ program for recruiting teachers of color. The board meeting Tuesday night was the moment she said she had been waiting for.
Windham, a retired African American teacher, made her case to a new Portland Public Schools board with three African American members, the most in its history.
“I don’t know the background of each one of these individuals, but there are some things we all share as African Americans,” she said. “They know what it is like to have our kids spoken for.”
Newly composed Oregon school boards are holding their first meetings this month after an unusually heated election season that had strong racial undercurrents. Some candidates lost amid veiled and not-so-veiled race-based opposition, but Oregon’s school board diversity in general seems to be increasing. Boards around the state welcomed their first members from different groups or achieved new levels of diverse representation.
“It’s getting good,” Windham said of her own board. “When the public sees diversity, it brings diversity.”
In Oregon in the past year, racial justice and equity issues often underlaid passionate disagreements about issues such as COVID-19 precautions, school policing and curriculum. Board members of color said they fended off opposition that ranged from misinformed to hateful.
Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus President Sami Al-Abdrabbuh said he wept after one election event because of the hurtful speech and the dismissal of his lived experience.
People of color were clearly targeted in elections, facing harassment and intimidation efforts, said Al-Abdrabbuh, the Corvallis School Board chair. In his own district, someone filed to oppose a person of color even though a seat sat open with no candidates yet. In at least one other district, the board member of color was the only one to have an opponent.
The national debate about critical race theory cropped up in Oregon campaigns. Critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship showing racism can be embedded in policies and institutions. It has little to do with K-12 teaching.
Al-Abdrabbuh said efforts by school boards to implement policies to create more compassionate children and promote equity are being misconstrued as trying to make children feel guilty about being White.
Bill Graupp, the previous caucus president, thinks his focus on equity and racial issues as well as community whispers about critical race theory contributed to him losing his North Marion School Board seat.
Four white candidates ran unopposed. Graupp, who is Japanese American, was the only one to have an opponent.
Sarah Powlison, who won the seat in a tight vote, did not campaign. She said she did not know anything about Graupp when she filed to run. Powlison said she ran because of unhappiness with comprehensive distance learning and the education needs of her own children.
Graupp said Powlison did not do anything that troubled him. But he said the opposition to him on social media misrepresented his positions on racial and equity issues.
He would like people dealing with racial justice, equity and diversity school policies to study the research and attend conferences and trainings.
“You are leaders in education. Read the book; don’t listen to any news channels,” he said. “You have a responsibility to kids to become informed.”
Northwest Regional Education Service District Board member DaWayne Judd called the focus on critical race theory falsehoods “gaslighting.” He said it’s traumatizing to repeatedly be told things that aren’t true. He said people need to be better informed and they need to be ready to hear the truth.
“Before we can enact policy change, before we can define problems, we have to talk about the history of racism,” he said. “We are going to confront trauma.”
Judd was appointed to the ESD board’s business community position and is believed to be the first African American on the board. He was told this week he could lose his seat because the position requires employment by a business within the ESD’s boundaries. Judd recently changed jobs.
He said school boards should consider the structural barriers that perpetuate all-White boards. Judd said racism includes turning a blind eye to systems that hold people down.
“Remove emotions from this and realize what institutional systemic bias looks like,” he said.
If a position’s requirements stand in the way of adding diverse candidates, “then you need to change the requirements,” Judd said.
Board members with agendas that do not conform to the board’s predominant experiences can be labeled as unproductive and “rogue members,” Judd said. He said that sense of being isolated, particularly if you are the only member of color, can feel like your voice doesn’t count.
“Leadership should ask honest questions and take the time to listen,” he said.
Judd found support with the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus.
“I no longer feel I am isolated in fighting this struggle alone,” he said.
He said White board members are key to challenging the norms.
“Finding allyship is not a matter of finding people who presumably look like you. It’s finding people who think like you,” he said.
New Hillsboro School Board member Nancy Thomas, who is African American, found support in former school board member Martin Granum, who chose not to run and to back Thomas to take his position.
Hillsboro became a majority minority board this cycle. Thomas said that kind of diversity gives her freedom to tackle more topics.
OSBA Board President Maureen Wolf decided to leave the Tigard-Tualatin School Board to make room for a person of color. Marvin Lynn, an African American man, won her seat with her support.
“I believe in the idea that children should see themselves in adults around them,” said Wolf, who is now on the Northwest Regional ESD board. “This was the most important thing I could do for my community to say this is really important.”
New Tigard-Tualatin board member David Jaimes, who is Latinx, said the community has been strongly supportive of the district’s equity and diversity work and the board’s makeup now better reflects its ideals.
He said White allies are important but school boards need members of color to make all families feel welcome.
“If you can see yourself in a role model, then you feel like, ‘Oh, I can get there or I can approach that person,’ ” Jaimes said. “It’s a feeling of relief almost.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA