No change for May 2021 school board elections as Salem-Keizer adopts longer process for review

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

The Salem-Keizer School Board on Monday said they’ll reevaluate how board elections are conducted, but won’t make any changes to the process ahead of the May 2021 contest where four seats are up for election.

The resolution, approved on a 4-3 vote, came after board Director Jesse Lippold Peone originally put forward a proposal earlier this year to change to a zoned election system ahead of the May 2021 race.

Director Marty Heyen introduced an amendment requiring a longer process for public feedback, which was approved on the same 4-3 split.

The board stopped short of committing to a by-zone election system, saying it will depend on public input gathered as part of their review.

Currently, the school district is divided into seven geographic zones. Board directors must live in the zone they represent, but are elected by voters across the district, which spans two cities and two counties.

Lippold Peone’s proposal would have let voters in each zone elect their own representative.

Heyen’s amendment instead said the board would adopt a new elections process by the fall of 2022 after multiple town halls and consultations with elections experts. The deadline is intended to let changes take effect before the next board races in May 2023.

The process would include “inviting election experts to consider a zone based and other additional best practice election improvements or reforms if needed based on the outcome of the community process,” the adopted resolution reads.

“As I have stated on numerous occasions, I believe that any changes require thoughtful consideration that allows the entire community to share their views,” Heyen said.

The amended resolution passed with Heyen, board Chair Satya Chandragiri, Vice Chair Danielle Bethell and Kathy Goss voting for it. Lippold Peone, Sheronne Blasi and Paul Kyllo voted no.

Lippold Peone said he was disappointed by the longer timeline.

“I’ve noticed a pattern with our current school board recently where we will often pass issues that are important to us personally as soon as possible without much hassle, but then we take issues that are important to the community and we drag them on for months and months without taking action,” he said.

Lippold Peone put forward the change as a way to make it easier for a more diverse group of candidates to run for office, saying the requirements of campaigning across such a large geographic area are prohibitive for candidates without significant outside funding or support.

His proposal was supported by the Salem-Keizer NAACP and a coalition of Latino community organizations.

The board’s student advisor, McKay High School senior Leanette Mabinton, told board members she agreed with Lippold Peone’s rationale. She said it’s important for students to see board members who look like them making decisions and said if the board was acting with students’ interests in mind, they’d make the change now.

Mabinton was concerned the new school board seated after May’s election might opt not to follow through on a plan to modify the elections process.

“We don’t even know if it’s going to be the same people,” Mabinton said.

Lippold Peone wanted the changes in place in time for the May election, where four seats, including his own, are up for election. Lippold is the only sitting board member who has filed to run for re-election.

Bethell said she didn’t think there was enough time to make changes before the filing deadline of March 18.

“I think that we’re just really rushing this,” she said of Lippold’s original plan. “If we’re actually talking about really doing the work, we should do the work.”

Public comments submitted to the board about the proposed change were split, with a majority supporting moving to the zoned system. Thirty-four people told board members they wanted to make the switch, while 24 objected to the plan as presented. A fair number of those objections, however, centered on the timing of the proposal or the lack of public input to date, rather than the change itself.

Board members who supported the longer timeline had various reasons for doing so. Heyen and Chandragiri focused more on the need to get greater public input, with Heyen saying she would have liked to make changes sooner, but the Covid pandemic and other board matters delayed conversations that began last year about moving to a new system.

She said a process to change how the board is elected should be done in conjunction with a redrawing of the school district’s zone boundaries, which will happen after 2020 Census data for redistricting is released in later this fall.

Goss and Bethell expressed skepticism that zoning elections would lead to the desired outcome of a board that better represents the district’s students. Both said they feared it could exacerbate divides among board members if each member feels beholden only to the zone that elected them, rather than the district as a whole.

“We have enough trouble operating together right now as a single board,” Goss said.

The board did not identify a specific timeline or process for gathering public input about how elections are conducted, and no town halls or other events have yet been scheduled.

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

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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.