Salem-Keizer School Board members elected Satya Chandragiri chair for the 2019-20 school year in a split vote after hundreds of public comments. (Screenshot from public meeting)

The two newest members of the Salem-Keizer School Board will serve as chair and vice chair for the coming year after a divided vote during a Wednesday afternoon meeting.

A majority of board directors voted for Satya Chandragiri to serve as the board's next chair, despite overwhelming public comment in support of electing Director Sheronne Blasi to the role. Danielle Bethell was elected vice chair.

“We are going to heal. I promise. We will get through this with no blame, no shame, but just roll up our sleeves and get to work. So don’t miss the next board meeting," Chandragiri said in a speech following the vote.

The board has been at the center of intense public criticism over the past two weeks over their handling of calls to remove police officers from Salem-Keizer schools and after a March virtual board meeting during which Director Paul Kyllo held a Black man's face as a mask during the meeting with no public rebuke from his fellow board members.

Chandragiri and Bethell have largely flown under the radar as thousands have called on Kyllo and former Chair Marty Heyen to step down, though youth group Latinos Unidos Siempre has criticized both for appearing unwilling to consider removing police from local schools. Neither publicly announced their plans to seek leadership roles prior to the meeting Wednesday.

In response to questions about whether police should remain in schools, Chandragiri has previously said he sees a need to look at school climate and discipline practices in response to the calls to remove police and wants to understand why Salem-Keizer has a high expulsion and suspension rate.

In a June 18 interview with Salem Reporter, he said working to build trusting relationships between police and students is important, and said keeping officers in schools is an important part of the district's risk assessment systems.

“These children have to grow up into adults and if something bad happens in their house they have to call the police," he said.

He said the number of police assigned to schools - 11 officers across the district - is much less than the number of security and behavior specialists who play a more direct role in school discipline.

The district received over 300 public comments related to the chair and vice chair election, spokeswoman Lillian Govus said during the meeting. About 130 called on the board to elect Blasi as chair, saying she has done a better job listening to communities of color and could restore public trust in the board. About 40 were opposed to Jesse Lippold's election as chair. Few addressed Chandragiri or Bethell as potential candidates for leadership.

The annual election typically garners little or no public interest.

"As the parent of two Black students in the district, I have long been concerned with the board's lack of leadership, indifference, and at times outright hostility to issues of racial equity. The board requires leaders who will address these issues in an informed, proactive manner. To that end, I respectfully ask that you elect Sheronne Blasi as chair of the board," wrote parent Heather Oswalt in a typical comment.

Chandragiri, who represents the portion of south Salem including Sprague High School, is a psychiatrist. He was elected to the board in 2019, defeating challenger David Salinas, an electrician and Salem-Keizer parent, for the open seat.

Their race was the most expensive in Salem-Keizer school district history, with Chandragiri drawing financial support from Oregon Right to Life and Salinas from PCUN, Oregon's farmworker union, and other labor groups.

Bethell, who represents Keizer, also won her seat in 2019. She's the executive director of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce and currently running as the Republican nominee for a seat on the Marion County Board of Commissioners.

Bethell nominated Chandragiri for chair, while Director Kathy Goss nominated Blasi and Kyllo nominated Lippold. Lippold withdrew his name from contention and joined Blasi and Goss in supporting Blasi for the role.

Bethell, Chandragiri and Heyen voted for Chandragiri as chair. Kyllo voted for Lippold in a first ballot, then changed his vote to Chandragiri.

The same four directors elected Bethell vice chair in a first round of voting.

The board is scheduled to meet in a work session next week to hear an update on the district's plans for reopening school in the fall.

SUPPORT ESSENTIAL REPORTING FOR SALEM - A subscription starts at $5 a month for around-the-clock access to stories and email alerts sent directly to you. Your support matters. Go HERE.

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