3 on school board targeted for recall following concealed carry ban, efforts to remove books

A Salem parent is seeking to recall three members of the Salem-Keizer School Board, alleging they have been dismissive of parents with differing political views and failed to prioritize the education of students.

Casity Troutt filed petitions to recall board Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham, former Chair Osvaldo Avila, and Second Vice Chair Karina Guzmán Ortiz with the Marion County Clerk on Aug. 25. All three were elected to four-year terms in 2021.

Her petitions reference all three board members voting in August to ban people with concealed carry permits from carrying firearms on school grounds, board members’ support for retaining challenged books about gender and sexuality in school libraries and their handling of public comment during school board meetings.

“We’ve got to do something about this school board who is pushing these radicalized agendas and allowing this behavior,” she said during an Aug. 29 appearance on the “Newsmakers” show on conservative talk radio station KYKN.

DOCUMENTS: Read the recall petitions filed against Avila, Carson Cottingham and Guzmán Ortiz

The three board members targeted in her petitions did not address specific claims against them in statements sent to Salem Reporter.

“As Chair of our school board and the mom of two kids in Salem-Keizer schools, my only focus is making sure we have a successful school year. Distractions right now are not going to help get students prepared,” Carson Cottingham said in a statement.

“I am excited for the new school year ahead for thousands of children and youth, including my own. I am focused on my duty and commitment to serve and support all students. I simply don’t have time for politics,” Guzmán Ortiz wrote.

Avila said in a statement, “The schools in our district have made tremendous strides recovering from the crises of the last few years, but (there) is a lot more work to be done. As a father of kids in Salem-Keizer school and a board member, working on behalf of our students and teachers is the only thing I am thinking about.”

Troutt did not seek to recall Maria Hinojos Pressey, the fourth member of the board elected in 2021 who voted in favor of the concealed carry ban and was supported in her campaign by the same generally liberal groups as the other three board members targeted.

Troutt said she and other parents supporting the recall have found Hinojos Pressey more responsive to emails from parents raising concerns and more willing to question district leaders or push for data in board meetings.

“She tends to respond a lot more to community members with all different views and opinions, so we can really appreciate that,” Troutt said.

Oregon law allows voters to seek a recall of virtually any elected official for any reason, providing only that petitioners must submit true information on the recall petition.

To qualify for a recall election, petitioners must get at least 15% of local voters who voted in the last governor’s race to sign under state law.

For the Salem-Keizer board members, that means organizers must get 16,283 signatures supporting the recall of each board member from registered voters who live within the school district boundaries by Nov. 23, said county clerk Bill Burgess.

Troutt has been a regular presence at school board meetings over the past year and has challenged district policies allowing transgender students to use locker rooms and bathrooms corresponding with the gender they live as, and allowing schools to use a student’s chosen name and pronouns without informing their parents.

In March, she filed a challenge seeking to remove “Stamped: For Kids,” a book about the history of racism and antiracist activism in the U.S., from elementary school libraries. A committee of teachers, a librarian, administrators and parents selected by district administrators voted 8-1 to retain the book after several closed-door meetings, a process Troutt has described as lacking transparency.

Troutt said she ultimately decided not to appeal that ruling further because she didn’t believe the district would be responsive or give her concerns a fair hearing.

“We just realized that if we want to make real change in our district we have to go to the top, and our school board directors are the top,” she said.

She testified at the Aug. 9 school board meeting saying the graphic novel memoir “Gender Queer,” which includes depictions of oral sex, should be removed from high schools. The book is in three district high school libraries and was retained following an unsuccessful challenge from a grandparent over the summer

Troutt described the book as “nothing short of cartoon pornography,” leading some in the audience to chant “hate speech.” Carson Cottingham interrupted the testimony to ask the audience to stop, then asked the school district’s attorney to clarify that Troutt’s comments were First Amendment protected speech.

“This is an opportunity for public comment and this speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution … I’m not debating with the audience. We’re going to have an orderly meeting with public comment,” Carson Cottingham said, before asking Troutt to continue.

Troutt is the vice chair of SK We Stand Together, a Salem-based advocacy organization seeking to “replace identity politics and social activism with critical thinking, personal determination, and objective truth” in local schools, according to its website. The group has pushed for the return of police officers to local schools and objected to the district’s policies on transgender students.

Linda Farrington, the group’s chair, who narrowly lost the 2021 board election to Carson Cottingham, told Salem Reporter Wednesday that the recall effort is separate from the nonprofit organization and that they will be staying out of it.

Troutt said she’s stepped back from her role in the group to focus on the recall campaign. She’s formed a new political action committee, Salem-Keizer Education First, to bolster that effort and said she’s considering a run for school board, though she’s concerned about threats she’s already received since launching the recall effort.

The county’s elections manager approved the recall petitions Aug. 26, meaning organizers can now begin collecting signatures. Campaign committees supporting all three recalls have filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office and reported no money raised and no expenses as of Thursday morning.

The elections office has 10 days to review the signatures. If enough valid signatures are submitted, the affected board member has 5 days to respond to the petition in 200 words or less, or resign. Once a response is filed, the election must be held within 35 days, Burgess said.

Under that timeline, the latest date to conduct a recall election would be Jan. 13, 2023.

School board recalls have rarely made it to the ballot in Marion County, according to election records. Since 1990, the earliest year where results are available online, just two recall elections over school board have taken place. In 2011, voters recalled a Central School District board member by an 8-1 vote. In 1990, an effort to recall four members of the Cascade School Board failed.

The next regular school board election for Salem-Keizer will be in May 2023, though none of the targeted board members are up for election. Seats representing zone 2 (northeast Salem), 4 (south Salem) and 6 (Keizer), currently held by Marty Heyen, Satya Chandragiri and Danielle Bethell, will be on the ballot.

This article was updated following an interview with Cassity Troutt.

Correction: This article originally attributed a quote from the Aug. 9 school board meeting incorrectly to board Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham rather than the school district’s attorney, Paul Dakopolos. The article has been updated with an accurate quote from Carson Cottingham. 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.