After financial turnaround, Salem-Keizer Education Foundation announces Kelly Carlisle as new director

Kelly Carlisle will lead the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation after a decade at the Salem-Keizer School District (Courtesy/Salem-Keizer Education Foundation)

After a tumultuous year to get its finances on track, the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation board announced Friday the hiring of Kelly Carlisle, a longtime local educator, as its new executive director.

Carlisle was an assistant superintendent at Salem-Keizer School District from 2014 to 2018 and previously directed high school programs, working with the foundation on mentorship and academic programs. Since leaving the district, he’s worked as a program director at George Fox University, in the College of Education.

The announcement comes after foundation leaders have spent the better part of a year addressing cash flow problems and a significant debt tied to the organization’s rapid growth and construction of a new building, the Mike McLaran Center for Student Success.

“I really appreciate everything folks have done this past year to stabilize and reorient this organization,” Carslile said.

Carlisle’s hire reflects a new foundation with a more focused mission and commitment to financial sustainability, interim executive director Brent Neilsen said.

“We’re feeling strong and vital,” Neilsen said. “We’ve turned stuff around.”


The foundation’s problems came to light about a year ago after longtime executive director Krina Lee stepped down last August. The Statesman Journal reported soon after the organization was behind on payments to vendors.

A Salem Reporter investigation in January found unexpected expenses from building construction and gifts that didn’t materialize contributed to a heavy debt and an organization many felt was stretched too thin.

READ: For Salem school foundation, a year of turmoil and challenge

On Friday, Neilsen and board president Jeff Aeschliman detailed the steps they’ve taken to address those problems.

The foundation is now current on the $300,000 in short-term debt it began the year with, paying off much of it and establishing payment plans with a few creditors.

“That has been a huge stress reliever,” Aeschliman said.

They’ve leased part of the second floor of their two-story headquarters to Bridgeway Recovery Services and are closing leases with other tenants, Neilsen said. The foundation’s staff will operate on the first floor.

That’s put the foundation on track to make mortgage payments, increased the building’s value and allowed a restructuring of building debt so it can be paid off more quickly, Neilsen said.

The Salem-Keizer Education Foundation’s downtown office and former storefront advertised a clearance sale in January. Its closure was part of the foundation trimming its operations (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Over the past year, the foundation has not laid off any staff, other than some retail workers when closing its store in March. But through attrition, their core staff has dwindled from 20 people to 12, Neilsen said.

As staff left for other jobs, Neilsen and board leaders looked at their roles, reassigning some duties and cutting others.

They talked to the Salem-Keizer School District and identified three services to focus on: before and after school programs, youth sports and school gardens.

The foundation’s signature events, including the Awesome 3000 race and the Crystal Apple Awards for educators, will continue, but they’ve stepped back from smaller initiatives like an annual spelling bee and Lego robotics tournament.

“A lot of those little things don’t necessarily cost a lot but … they take staff time,” Neilsen said.

Some of those events, like the robotics tournament, will continue, but without foundation involvement.

Wherever possible, “our effort is to find out who we can hand it off to,” Neilsen said.

Board members began drafting a job description for a new executive director early this year, but waited until May to start searching. Aeschliman and Neilsen said they wanted the organization to be on more solid footing before bringing in someone to lead it for the long term.

A search committee, led by board member Lisa Harnisch, reviewed 45 applications from across the country and interviewed three finalists, Aeschliman said. Carlisle stood out for his experience in the district, prior knowledge of the foundation and his leadership style, which Aeschliman described as “even-keeled” with a focus on listening.

“He was head and shoulders above the other candidates,” Aeschliman said.

Part of the foundation’s work over the past year has been changing an internal culture to focus more on listening to community and district needs, Neilsen said.

“One of the things we were accused of in the past was telling too much and not listening enough,” Neilsen said.

Carlisle starts on Aug. 19 and will spend his first months on the job talking to staff, community members and district leadership about the foundation’s future.

“One of the challenges we’ve got to confront in Salem is that there are places where some of the nonprofits overlap with each other,” he said.

Neilsen, who was board president before taking the interim job a year ago, will help Carlisle transition into the role before leaving in September.

The shift takes place before the foundation’s annual Back to School Lunch, its largest fundraiser of the year, which will be held Sept. 10 at the Salem Convention Center. Leaders are hoping the lunch will let them reintroduce the foundation to the community.

Through a difficult year, Neilsen said they’ve been helped by other nonprofit and business leaders and community members who reached out asking how they can help.

“People were rallying there with us,” Neilsen said.

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

Correction: This article originally misspelled interim executive director Brent Neilsen’s last name.

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.