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Women lead the way on Astoria School Board
Astoria School Board members Jenna Rickenbach (from left), Jeanette Sampson, Maritza Casarrubias, Heidi Wintermute and Grace Laman meet with Superintendent Craig Hoppes to discuss board goals. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
High school senior Georgia White is proud the Astoria School Board is all women but was surprised to learn that an all-female board is unusual. White has been surrounded all her life by female student and school leaders in Astoria, where she says ability matters more than gender.
White finds the fact of an all-female board interesting though not overly significant. But White, the student school board representative, said she is inspired by the individuals and empowered by their attention and respect for students.
With school boards, the sum of the parts can often be greater than the whole. School boards must act as a body, but they often interact with the community as individuals, where their life experiences help make connections. In Astoria, students and administrators are less focused on gender than what they describe as the notable quality and cohesiveness of the board members.
About 43% of school board members nationally are women and about 48% of Oregon school board members are women, according to a 2022 Ballotpedia article. It is unusual to have an all-female board in Oregon but not unprecedented.
Superintendent Craig Hoppes said the district is accustomed to having a majority-female board. He pointed to the board adding its first board member of color as a potentially farther-reaching change.
He said it is good for students to see women in roles of authority. More important to him, board members work well together and are making decisions to help move the district forward, he said.
“These are five quality people,” Hoppes said. “They care about students, and they listen to people.”
Board Chair Heidi Wintermute, who is a school psychologist in Washington, suspects that having all women makes internal discussions easier because of differences in gender communication styles. She said their board tends to be horizontal with authority and highly cooperative.
Wintermute also said having so many women on the board makes it easier for the women to speak up. No one is reduced to being “the female voice,” instead allowing her to speak more from other aspects of lived experiences.
Next year’s school board elections offer Oregon community members a new opportunity to support students. 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.
Jeanette Sampson (2012), Grace Laman (2013) and Jenna Rickenbach (2014) are Astoria’s three longest-serving board members. They were appointed before running for their seats. Having a board that worked well together and listened to each other were factors in their coming back.
Rickenbach said she sometimes wanted to quit during the pandemic, but she ran again last year because she thinks her experiences as a foster parent and as a parent of a child with a learning difference add insights.
“No matter what the makeup of our board, we have to be conscientious that we are looking at the needs of everyone,” Rickenbach said. “I look at it from that perspective rather than we are all female.”
Maritza Casarrubias, appointed in July, replaced the last man on the board. Casarrubias went to school in Astoria, has children in the system and is an emergency room nurse, a useful background as districts still grapple with pandemic health issues.
Casarrubias, who is Latina, is believed to be Astoria’s first school board member of color. She has heard from her children and Latino community members that this is the more significant development, but it also makes her feel like her actions are under a microscope.
Casarrubias said Astoria didn’t have the attention to equity it needed when she was in school two decades ago, but it has improved. She wants to be part of the greater equity focus.
“I want to create the pathway for the next person,” she said.
The Tigard-Tualatin School District had an all-female board from 2017 to 2019. Maureen Wolf, OSBA Board past president, was on that board. She said that among its prouder accomplishments was hiring Sue Rieke-Smith as the district’s first female superintendent.
A study released in 2021 showed about a quarter of Oregon superintendents are women even though roughly three-quarters of teachers are women. Wolf, who is now on the Northwest Regional Education Service District board, said the Tigard-Tualatin board didn’t go into the process thinking they needed to hire a woman, but she thought they might have been in better positions to appreciate a woman’s qualifications.
For students who interact with the board, such as Junior Lillian Bigby, the board’s character carries weight.
“Seeing such a powerful group of women making these decisions has really motivated me and encouraged me,” Bigby said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
- Through its Get on Board campaign, OSBA will be offering webinars in January to help school board candidates prepare to file by the March 16 deadline.