New Salem-Keizer board leaders mull reopening live public comments

Osvaldo Avila, Salem-Keizer School Board director, is sworn in at a July 13, 2021 meeting (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Two fresh faces will lead the Salem-Keizer School Board for the next year – and they’re getting to work on a new public comment policy.

Board directors unanimously elected Osvaldo Avila as board chair and Ashley Carson Cottingham as vice chair during their meeting Tuesday. It was the first meeting for the pair, as well as Karina Guzmán Ortiz and María Hinojos Pressey, who were all elected to their seats in May.

Avila, 42, is a talent and equity grant administrator at Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission who has two middle school students in the district.

Following the swearing in of new members, directors spent much of the meeting discussing how the board will receive public comment as meetings open back up to the public.

That’s been a hot topic over the past year as discussions about school reopening, Covid protocols and the removal of police from schools have garnered dozens or hundreds of comments – far more than the board typically receives.

“We have a more interested public than we’ve ever had,” Perry told Salem Reporter in a June interview.

Ashely Carson Cottingham, Salem-Keizer School Board director, smiles after being sworn in at a July 13, 2021 meeting (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A series of contentious virtual meetings last summer about the presence of police officers in local schools led past Chair Satya Chandragiri to put forward a policy limiting public comment offered during meetings to written submissions, rather than live call-ins.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board directors agreed they want to return to live public comments in some form when meetings reopen to the public – something Perry and Avila are hopeful could happen in August.

Currently, board members are meeting in person, but the public can only watch via livestream and isn’t allowed inside the room.

A proposal by Sylvia McDaniel, the district’s director of community relations and communications, would have the board hear up to half an hour of live comments at most meetings, limiting individual speakers to two minutes, with additional time if needed for comments to be translated into English. Live comments would only be related to items on the agenda that the board is reading or voting on.

People could also submit written comments on other topics.

Prior to Covid, the board held two public comment periods at each meeting – one for items on the agenda, and one for other topics, allowing speakers up to three minutes. Unless a major decision was on the agenda, it was rare for more than a few people to sign up to speak.

Several board directors suggested other ways they could engage with the public outside of meetings, such as holding regular community forums in various locations around the district.

Avila said he and Carson Cottingham will discuss the proposal with district leaders and intend to come back to the board with a draft policy.

He said he’s heard concerns from some community members that the proposed two-minute time limit isn’t long enough and wants the public to weigh in on their plan.

“We’ll propose an opportunity for public comment on our public comment,” Avila said in an interview with Salem Reporter following the meeting.

Board directors also unanimously approved a new two-year contract with the Salem-Keizer Education Association, the union representing district teachers and other licensed employees. It gives those employees a 3% raise on their base salary for the coming school year, and an additional 3% raise for the 2022-23 school year.

New school board Director Karina Guzmán Ortiz, left, student advisor Grace Caldwell and Directors Ashley Carson Cottingham, María Hinojos Pressey and Osvaldo Avila smile as supporters hand them flowers before their first meeting on July 13, 2021 Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!

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.