Split Salem-Keizer school board commits to antiracism in 4-2 vote

A full house packed into an Oct. 12, 2021 Salem-Keizer School Board meeting as the board considered a resolution committing to equity and antiracism. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

For Christy Perry, a school board resolution committing Oregon’s second-largest school district to antiracism was a continuation of the work she’s done for years.

Perry, who’s been superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District since 2014, said publicly stating a commitment to equity and antiracism won’t immediately change district curriculum or policies.

But she said it shows 40,000 district students – who are majority students of color – and teachers that the school board cares about their success.

“It’s important that we at this moment in time … really say these are our values and this is what we’re going to work for,” she told Salem Reporter Wednesday morning. “To publicly lay your stake in the ground in a way and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to show up.’”

The resolution, which the board approved Tuesday night in a 4-2 vote following a heated public comment period, started by affirming white supremacy “has no place in our schools or in our boardroom.”

It called on the board and district to address “the overrepresentation of students of color in special education and the underrepresentation of students of color in talented and gifted and college-prep programs,” commit to hiring and retaining a more diverse workforce, and make “real changes so that we change biased yet predictable outcomes related to disproportionate discipline, achievement rates, and the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The resolution was a central focus of public testimony Tuesday night, mirroring debates over issues of equity, race and inclusion that have become focal points in other Oregon boardrooms.

The Newberg School Board made national news in late September after banning district teachers from displaying symbols considered “political, quasi-political or controversial,” including Pride and Black Lives Matter flags, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

With the Salem boardroom capacity capped at 60, parents and residents waited in a line outside in the rain for their turn to enter and speak, and audience members alternately booed and cheered speakers, causing Chair Osvaldo Avila to ask for order multiple times.

Opponents said they believed the term “white supremacy” is applied too broadly, particularly to conservatives, and said the resolution would result in a lowering of academic standards. Some questioned why the board was discussing racism rather than education.

“Equity, as stated in the resolution, means equal outcomes instead of equal opportunity,” said Linda Farrington, a retired nurse who ran unsuccessfully for the board in May. “White supremacists become anybody that you disagree with. Who’s going to decide what hate speech is and who’s a white supremacist?”

Parent Ronald Koneski described the resolution as “Marxist ideology.”

“Why should high-performing children suffer for the sake of equity? When I read this resolution, I feel this district desires a class of students that are mediocre at best, but they’re all equally mediocre,” he said.

Those in favor included several parents from the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, a Latino parent group, and members of youth group Latinos Unidos Siempre.

“We need more work from the district against racism. We need to build a just and restorative model for discipline and behavior modifications of students,” said Maricela Lagos Garcia, leader of the coalition’s parent organizing group, speaking in Spanish.

Board vice chair Ashley Carson Cottingham told Salem Reporter Wednesday she and Avila brought forward the resolution because they see addressing disproportionate outcomes based on race as key to ensuring academic success for all students.

“We believe that racism is a real threat to students’ physical and psychological wellbeing and that systems of structural racism have oppressed students of color. It isn’t enough that we aren’t racist. We have to take antiracist action and we have to make sure that it’s strategic and intentional,” she said.

Carson Cottingham pointed to district data showing Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, multiracial and Native American students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white peers.

She also mentioned recently released state data showing Salem’s Latino and Pacific Islander students showed some of the largest backslides in graduation readiness during online school last year.

Carson Cottingham said a resolution on its own won’t fix that, but it’s a commitment that the board will look at data about discipline rates, graduation preparedness and hiring a more diverse educator workforce – all longstanding goals of Perry’s – and push district leaders to make progress.

“They need to hear from the leadership of the district and especially new members that we take this seriously, that we don’t want any form of white supremacy in our schools and that we are committed to working hard to ensure we can achieve equity. I think it’s really important for kids and educators to hear us make that public commitment and then the hard work after that begins where we will be looking at the data,” she said.

Board members Satya Chandragiri and Danielle Bethell voted against the resolution, with Bethell saying “90% of what’s in here makes complete sense to me.”

“When you start a proclamation targeting people with the word white it makes them feel targeted and set aside,” she said.

Chandragiri said “there should be no place for dangerous ideologies of white supremacy” in schools, but worried the resolution would lead to further division.

“We don’t want this hypervigilant school where everybody’s going around looking for white supremacists in every white teacher and things like that. That toxic atmosphere shouldn’t lead to people getting so scared either they leave and go or they make a mistake and somebody jumps on them,” he said.

Board member Marty Heyen was absent Tuesday but previously said in a September board meeting that she did not support the resolution as written.

Perry said the board resolution doesn’t mean changes in curriculum or immediate policy shifts, and said the district has no intention of eliminating its talented and gifted program or advanced placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

She teared up following the vote Tuesday night, saying some board members’ statements in opposition to the resolution made it harder for her to retain talented administrators from diverse backgrounds.

She mentioned the district’s two assistant superintendents, Iton Udosenata, who is Black, and Olga Cobb, who is Hispanic and bilingual in Spanish, saying both were hired because they were the most qualified people for the job.

“I have to sit there and ask them to continue to come to work in this environment and you can’t do a unanimous vote on an antiracism resolution?” she said.

Early in her tenure as superintendent, she created several programs intended to recruit and train more teachers and administrators of color within the district. She also created an equity office for the district which has targeted improving graduation rates with an early focus on Black and Pacific Islander students.

Perry said the resolution shows a majority of the board shares her goals and she expects they’ll hold her accountable for results.

“It is about keeping every door open and creating every opportunity for kids,” she said.

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

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