Salem-Keizer School Board delays recognition of student journalist following critical coverage of school board campaigns

Eddy Binford-Ross, a junior at South Salem High School, photographs the March for Floyd on Saturday, June 6. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The chair of the Salem-Keizer School Board is delaying the planned recognition of a high school journalist after her article critical of some board members was shared on Facebook by the Salem chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Eddy Binford-Ross, a South Salem senior and editor of student newspaper The Clypian, was scheduled to be recognized during the board’s monthly student spotlight at a Tuesday, April 13 meeting. The recognition followed Binford-Ross being named Oregon Student Journalist of the Year and winning a national Coca-Cola scholarship.

But board Chair Satya Chandragiri asked district administrators to pull the item from the board agenda Friday, saying he was concerned that recognizing Binford-Ross now would be perceived as taking a side in upcoming school board elections in May.

Binford-Ross published an article in The Clypian March 21 detailing how Oregon Right to Life and affiliated political action committees have financed the campaigns of a majority of sitting board members, including Chandragiri. The article also recapped scandals that have plagued the board over the past year.

She also wrote about a newly formed political action committee, Marion + Polk First PAC, which is backing a conservative slate of board candidates in the upcoming election.

The board had Binford-Ross’ recognition on a draft agenda for Tuesday following a planning meeting earlier this week, said Chandragiri.

He said the article largely recapped existing information about the board and that he didn’t take issue with it.  But Chandragiri said after the agenda was drafted, a community member sent him a screenshot of a March 24 Facebook post by the Salem Democratic Socialists of America. 

The page shared Binford-Ross’ article, saying “This in-depth article shows why we need (to) take back our school board!” and endorsing the liberal slate of school board candidates in the May election.

Chandragiri said that made him concerned that honoring Binford-Ross now would be seen as endorsing the board candidates mentioned in the post. He said he didn’t want politics to detract from Binford-Ross’ recognition and intends to spotlight her after the May election.

“If there is a controversy in these weeks before the election that would really distract us,” he told Salem Reporter. “Our board should be only focused on students.”

He added he’s previously worked with Binford-Ross to help her and other South Salem students start a suicide prevention nonprofit organization in 2019, and said she did well in a recent interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting discussing the article on the board.

“I really wanted her recognition to be stand-alone recognition without any controversy added because she had done a good job in more than one way,” he said.

Chandragiri texted Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry Friday saying he wanted to pull the item from the agenda and delay it until after the election.

“I am completely in support of recognizing her. However I don’t want our students to be placed in needless controversy or be taken Advantage of by other groups or people. Thank you for weighing in. Ethically it was not sitting well,” Chandragiri wrote in the exchange, which he sent to Salem Reporter.

Vice Chair Danielle Bethell texted she supported delaying the recognition.

Perry responded that she and communications director Sylvia McDaniel would notify Binford-Ross and her principal.

“This feels really wrong. I just need you to know that,” Perry said in her message.

Binford-Ross said she was surprised by the action since her article was published several weeks ago. She said she hadn’t heard from Chandragiri since.

“No one’s really reached out to me and so it feels very out of the blue to have them not have expressed anything and then go and ask to pull my name from the spotlights,” she said. “It’s probably really out of my hands at this point.”

Board member Jesse Lippold Peone, the only sitting board member who is running for re-election in May, said he didn’t buy Chandragiri’s explanation and that Binford-Ross isn’t responsible for who shares her article on Facebook.

“It’s completely unethical for us as a board and for our board chair to punish a student, a student journalist just because he doesn’t like what she says,” Lippold Peone said.

Lippold Peone is among the board members who received significant campaign contributions from Oregon Right to Life in 2017, though he describes himself as politically moderate and has increasingly been at odds with board leadership over the past year. 

Binford-Ross’ article described several instances of Lippold Peone shirking state Covid restrictions by attending maskless social gatherings over the past year.

“I don’t agree with everything in it,” Lippold Peone said of the article. “I have to fight for her right to be able to say what she wants to say and say what she needs to say. That’s our job. It’s our job to put the kids first.”

Correction: This article was updated to include Jesse Lippold Peone’s full name. Lippold Peone recently changed his legal name. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

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.