Local citizens can soon bid for seat on Salem-Keizer School Board

Want a job overseeing a billion-dollar agency with more than 4,600 employees?

Three seats on the Salem-Keizer School Board are up for election May 21.

Candidate filing opens Saturday, Feb. 9, but several hopefuls have already said they intend to run.

In zone 6, representing Keizer, Chuck Lee announced last week he’s seeking a fourth term on the board. Challenging him so far is Danielle Bethell, the Keizer Chamber of Commerce executive director.

Board member Marty Heyen, who serves northeast Salem in zone 2, will also run for re-election. No challengers have emerged yet.

The South Salem zone 4 that includes Sprague High School has an open field. Director Jim Green said he’s not planning to seek a third term.

Board members Kathy Goss, Sheronne Blasi, Jesse Lippold and Paul Kyllo are halfway through four-year terms.

Directors supervise Superintendent Christy Perry, help develop and approve the district’s budget and vote on major decisions like changing school boundaries.

Over the next term, they’ll oversee the negotiation of a new contract with Salem-Keizer teachers and the implementation of $620 million in school construction.

With a large education package being sculpted by the legislature and statewide calls from educators to reduce class sizes and better fund student services, it’s a pivotal time for education policy.

As a result, Salem-Keizer Education Association President Mindy Merritt said the union will be watching the candidates closely and intends to make endorsements earlier in the election cycle this year.

“These are the individuals who will have that final say in how our district is sculpted and shaped,” Merritt said. Endorsements will be made after the union’s political action committee interviews candidates, she said.

A seat on the school board is not for the faint of heart. Green said people often mistakenly believe the time commitment is just attending monthly meetings.

Green, who works as executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, said between communicating with constituents, attending other district events and preparing for meetings, it’s closer to a part-time job.

“For a lot of people it’s a shock actually how much time it takes,” he said.

The job is all volunteer, but winning an election isn’t cheap. In 2017, three new board members won seats in contested elections. Each received more than $10,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to get elected, according to campaign finance data.

That’s in part because prospective board members must campaign across the entire school district. Each seat requires residence in a specific area, but the elections are open to all district voters: about 136,000 people, according to the Marion County clerk’s office.

Kathy Goss, the current board chair, said her 2017 campaign was similar to her unsuccessful bid for state representative in 2014 in terms of the work required. The major difference? Candidates tend to have far less to spend than they would for a state race.

“It’s very difficult when you’re running for school board because you don’t have the amount of campaign contributions that you have for statewide offices,” she said.

Printing and mailing tend to be large expenses, but much of the effort is grassroots.

“It’s signs and walking door to door and it’s speaking at any engagement you could get,” Goss said.

Goss, a retired teacher, said she spent about 20 hours a week campaigning for the seat, which she won from a pool of four candidates. Being on the board is a similar time commitment, she said.

Candidates must file by March 21 and pay a $10 fee.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.