Salem-Keizer School Board recall falls short of signature goal

A parent effort to recall three Salem-Keizer School Board directors will not move forward after organizers fell short by about 2,000 signatures.

Wednesday was the deadline to submit signatures for the recalls of Ashley Carson Cottingham, Osvaldo Avila and Karina Gumán Ortiz with the Marion County Clerk. All three were elected to four-year terms in 2021.

Casity Troutt, a district parent, filed recall petitions against the three on Aug. 25, arguing they had been dismissive of parents with differing political views, failed to moderate public comment appropriately, and failed to prioritize the education and safety of children.

Troutt said in a statement Wednesday that political action committee Salem-Keizer Education First had not met their target of 16,283 registered voters signing recall petitions for each of the three directors.

“This may be disappointing, but we did what we wanted to do, we got people’s attention! I ask everyone to keep pushing, keep talking and keep educating! The number of voters in our district who had absolutely no idea what was happening in our schools was astonishing! We still have a lot of work to do. This is just the beginning! We will be announcing our next steps on moving forward with change in our district soon!” Troutt said in the statement.

The recall effort comes as public schools and school boards races nationally are increasingly politicized, with conservative groups spending millions in November races to influence local board races and push back against what they describe as a liberal focus on identity over core academic subjects. Campaigns often focus on sex education, particularly material on gender identity and LGBTQ people and sexuality, as well as material discussing race and racism in American history.

The recall committee’s Facebook page over the past three months has posted in support of returning police officers to local schools and shared excerpts and photos of books covering sex education, gender and sexuality, including the graphic novel “Gender Queer,” which is available in three district high school libraries.

A grandparent’s effort to remove the book from high school libraries failed in June after a district-selected committee voted to retain it. ​​The book includes depictions of same-sex oral sex, genitalia and conversations about sexual experiences, which were the focus of the complaint.

The group also highlighted a confrontation between Avila and football referees following a West Salem High School junior varsity game in late October that resulted in Avila being banned from district sporting events pending an investigation. That investigation remains open, Superintendent Christy Perry said Wednesday.

“We have educated the masses on what is happening in our district and what our children and educators are experiencing on our campuses,” Troutt said in her statement. “We have brought to light what has been festering in the dark. Pornographic material in our school libraries, the lowing of academic standards, extreme safety risks, and district policies that cut parents out of critical life decisions their children are making, our community is starting to stir and realize what is being done to our children.”

Salem-Keizer Education First raised about $19,000 toward the effort as of Tuesday. Over $12,000 of those contributions were from Marion+Polk First, a political action committee that backed a conservative slate of school board candidates during the 2021 election who lost to a more liberal slate that included Carson Cottingham, Avila and Guzmán Ortiz.

“I’ve been focused on my work on the board and standing up for children, families and educators. I will continue to focus on what matters,” Guzmán Ortiz said in a statement Wednesday.

“I am glad to see that this recall effort is over. We’ll continue to do heart work for our school district that is equitable and inclusive where all of our students can be successful in their academic journey with passionate educators fostering their education. We will also continue to work on supporting our teachers and classified staff,” Avila said in a statement Wednesday.

Had the recall effort succeeded, the Salem-Keizer School District would have footed the bill for a special election. Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess estimated the cost would have been between $150,000 and $225,000, depending on how many of the three directors faced a recall.

The district’s next election for school board is in May 2023, with three seats up for election in zones 2, 4 and 6. Those seats represent northeast Salem, southwest Salem and Keizer, respectively, and are currently held by Marty Heyen, Satya Chandragiri and new appointee Robert Salazar.

Filing for those seats opens in February.

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.