Facing intense scrutiny, Salem-Keizer board will elect new leaders Wednesday

The 2019 Salem-Keizer School Board (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A normally routine task for the Salem-Keizer School Board – the election of a chair and vice chair for the coming year – will take place Wednesday, July 1 with a heightened level of public interest as at least two director vie for the seat.

The seven-member board has been under intense public scrutiny in recent weeks over their handling of calls to remove police from local schools, a meeting where Director Paul Kyllo wore a mask of a Black man’s face over his own with no public rebuke from his colleagues, and a general perception the board does not take the concerns of students of color seriously.

Directors Sheronne Blasi and Jesse Lippold, intend to seek the chair role, according to interviews with five board members Tuesday.

Directors Paul Kyllo and Marty Heyen said they will not run for leadership roles, and Kathy Goss, who served as chair during the 2018-19 school year, said she’s interested in the vice chair role. Directors Satya Chandragiri and Danielle Bethell did not immediately return calls and texts Tuesday afternoon asking about their plans.

A noon meeting Wednesday will likely serve as another forum for frustrated community members to weigh in on the board’s conduct. Twenty-eight people have already submitted public comments, district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said, mostly either supporting Blasi for the chair role or advocating against Heyen and Lippold.

Board leadership elections typically draw little or no public interest and took only a few minutes at the meeting one year ago where Marty Heyen was elected chair and Lippold vice chair.

In addition to running meetings, the board chair serves as a gatekeeper, deciding which items will be placed on the board agenda (though three directors can elect to add an item if the chair does not) and which topics the board will hold work sessions on. By policy, the chair serves as the public liaison for the board, talking regularly with the superintendent and representing the board in other matters outside the boardroom.

Blasi, the only politically liberal member of the board, represents the district including South Salem High School and is in her final year of her first term on the board. She is the director of statewide veteran services for the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.

She served as board vice chair for the 2018-19 school year and last week publicly called for current chair Marty Heyen to resign. Blasi said she wants to move the board and community forward by publicly committing to being antiracist and “get back on track and try to heal the community” after weeks of conflict.

On the issue of police in schools, Blasi said she’s committed to listening to communities of color and wants to work toward a solution that addresses both concerns about school safety but “doesn’t continue to marginalize and make our students of color feel like they’re a target.”

Superintendent Christy Perry, in an unprecedented public rebuke of the board during a June 23 meeting, said she would support Blasi as chair, a largely symbolic declaration because the elected board hires and supervises the superintendent, who has no formal say in their leadership.

Director Paul Kyllo said he intends to nominate Lippold for chair after a request from Lippold to do so. Kyllo declined to elaborate on his reasons for supporting Lippold over Blasi, but is often the only board member voting against district plans and typically takes a more confrontational approach with Perry than other board directors.

Lippold was also elected in 2017 to represent southeast Salem and, at 24, is by far the youngest member of the board. He’s a realtor by profession and won his campaign with Oregon Right to Life and other conservative causes as major donors, but describes himself as politically moderate. He said those donors reflect his later entry into the race when more left-leaning causes had already lined up behind his opponent, Levi Herrera-Lopez.

Lippold said he’s willing to support Blasi as chair but doesn’t believe she has the votes needed to win the seat. He believes he could be a bridge between Blasi, frustrated community members and the board’s more conservative wing.

“I think that I could be the compromise between Sheronne and what the other board members are wanting,” he said.

Lippold said he’s more open-minded than some board members, including Heyen, who have said they would not consider removing police from schools. If the program is to remain, he said it will need significant changes.

“I think our focus should be keeping kids safe and if that means getting rid of (school resource officers), I’m totally open to that,” he said. “The board is needed to listen and learn and help facilitate.”

He apologized both in an interview and during the June 23 board meeting for making light of Kyllo’s mask stunt, saying he should have realized immediately Kyllo’s actions were harmful.

The board meeting will be virtual and livestreamed on YouTube and CCTV at noon Wednesday. Public comments can be submitted to [email protected] or via a Google form until 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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

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.