May 2021 Salem-Keizer School Board candidates for zone 1, from top left: Osvaldo Avila, Richard Riggs, Ross Swartzendruber and Kari Zohner

On May 18, local voters will select four new members of the Salem-Keizer School Board. Although candidates must live in the district they represent, voters get a say in all four races.

Salem Reporter sent all 11 candidates the same questionnaire based on reader suggestions and major issues facing the board and district. We’re printing responses from candidates over the coming days, organized by zone.

This year, the races have drawn two slates of candidates backed by political action committees. They are Community for Salem-Keizer Schools, organized by liberal and progressive groups including farmworker union PCUN, Progressive Salem; and Marion + Polk First, a conservative group largely funded by Oregon Right to Life.

The races also have several contenders not backed by either group. We’re noting in our Q&As whether candidates are part of one of these slates for added context for voters. For an overview of these groups, their funding sources and interest in board races, see our prior coverage here.

The seat representing west Salem has the most crowded race, with four candidates seeking office: Osvaldo Avila, Richard Riggs, Ross Swartzendruber and Kari Zohner.

Avila, 42, is a grant administrator at Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission. He’s part of the Community for Salem-Keizer Schools slate.

Riggs, 52, is a regional director for the Oregon State University extension service. He is not part of a candidate slate and has to date received campaign donations only from individuals.

Swartzendruber, 56, a sheep farmer, former owner of Black Sheep Advertising and ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Oregon’s Senate District 12 seat to represent west Salem in 2020. He is not part of a candidate slate and has to date received campaign donations only from individuals.

Zohner, 49, is a realtor, former substitute teacher and coach in the district. She is part of the Marion + Polk First slate.

Responses to each question from all candidates are printed below. Candidates are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

How long have you lived in the Salem-Keizer School District? 

Avila: 6 years

Riggs: 15 years as of June 2021

Swartzendruber: 32 years

Zohner: 30+ years

Do you have any children currently in the district, or children who have graduated from the district? If so, please list their current grade(s) or graduation year(s).

Avila: Yes, we have two children in middle school in the District.

Riggs: Children: two children, both West Salem high school graduates (2012 and 2014); grandchild: future Salem Keizer graduate (2037)

Swartzendruber: Lillian, senior, Henry, freshman, Rose freshman

Zohner: Drew, age 16 at West Salem High School; Cade, age 14, at Straub Middle School

Please describe any previous experience with K-12 education or issues. This could include paid or volunteer work in schools or with youth, work in a related organization, or service on committees, boards, task forces, booster clubs, etc. Please include the year(s) for the work or service.

Avila

I have over 18 years of experience working to help high school students pursue their postsecondary or career technical education with various experiences from advising to managing and directing college and statewide programs that included robust budgets. I have successfully established strong collaborative relationships with local school districts implementing community and family leadership and engagement programs to increase high school completion and access to postsecondary education.

Currently, I work for the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. I manage a grant aimed to improve postsecondary completion rates and close gaps which includes improving access to college and career and technical opportunities for all students. I collaborate with the Oregon Department of Education through committee and policy engagement with the various committees: ODE Rules Advisory Committee, Latino/a/x & Indigenous Student Success Advisory group, the Black/African American Student Success Plan Advisory group, and the Native American/Alaskan Native Student Success Plan Advisory group.

As a volunteer, I have volunteered in my children’s classrooms, civic engagement opportunities, within the church, and I have also been a youth soccer, baseball, and football coach.

Riggs

-Chemeketa Community College Board of Education: elected 2007 and re-elected 2011

Vice-chairperson and Chairperson

-Association of Community College Trustees: 2009 – 2011

Served on public policy committee and the finance and audit committee

-Chemeketa Community College Foundation Board: 2009 – 2011

-West Salem HS Band Boosters (elected): 2009 – 2014

Chairperson

-Walker Middle School band volunteer: 2007 – 2010

-Monterey Elementary School Parent Advisory Committee (elected): 2004 – 2006

Chairperson

-Willamette University College of Law, Street Law instructor: 2008 – 2009

-Victoria Master Gardener Association: 2004 – 2006

Chairperson of the education committee

-Junior Achievement of British Columbia, instructor: 2005 – 2006

-Rotary Club of Victoria B.C.: 2003 – 2006

Served on literacy and science fair committees

-Marion County Teen Court: 2010 – 2012

Swartzendruber 

I've volunteered in Salem-Keizer schools since 1997 as a classroom aide and chaperone. In 2015, I was elected President of the Straub Middle School Music Boosters. We raised $75,000 with the help of the business community which paid for transportation, instruments and personalized jazz lessons.

This led to helping found The Music Lessons Project in 2018, which provides personalized music lessons in all Salem-Keizer Title I Schools. Connecting students with adults make this program successful and the community of interest is growing.

In 2017, I joined the Oregon Public Education Network, a statewide group of parents and retired teachers that educate policymakers about K12 issues. Successful efforts include the administrative suspension of summative, kindergarten and essential learning skills assessments. Local outcome measurements were included in the Student Success Act, have been adopted by the school district and are under review by the board.

Zohner

-Graduated in the district, born and raised in Keizer. Graduated from McNary.

-I have worked as a Coach in the S-K school district on and off for 20+ years.

-McNary High School, JV Soccer and Softball Coach, 1996-1998

-Sprague High School, Dryland Ski Coach, 1998

-West Salem High School, JV Soccer, JV Softball and JV Basketball coach from 2008-2016 (off and on during those years)

-Restricted Substitute Teacher, S-K Schools, roughly 2015-2017

Describe one volunteer circumstance where you held a leadership position and used that position to accomplish a specific goal. We are looking for information on not only previous leadership but effective leadership to share with readers.

Avila: In addition to my professional work I have volunteered as a mentor for students at risk of dropping out of school, helping improve their life opportunities. I know firsthand how to reach and motivate these students so we can improve graduation rates in our schools.

Riggs: As a volunteer in Salem-Keizer schools I supported Walker Middle School’s music program and was elected to the West Salem Band Booster board where I served as chairperson. The band booster board coordinated the Music Day fundraiser, regional marching band championships with the Northwest Association of Performing Arts, Jazz Day, color guard and percussion events and OSAA competitions that benefited thousands of students in Salem Keizer and across Oregon and Washington.

Swartzendruber: Salem Creative Network was a nonprofit founded to provide creative solutions through social innovation. In 2010 the nonprofit created Solarize Salem, a residential bulk solar purchasing program designed to increase renewable energy sources in the area. As program administrator, I negotiated contracts, developed marketing and produced the campaign that resulted in 52 homes with solar installations in the mid-valley.

The residential program success led to developing a commercial bulk solar program that completed installations on Kalapuya Elementary and Straub Middle Schools. The program also established certification through workforce development training. Both programs required creative solutions to achieve success.

The same approach was taken as a member of OPEN. We designed an effort to decrease standardized testing in k12 education by negotiating policy and developing a broad campaign to influence district policy, legislation and administrative rules. Five years of meetings later, three tests have been discontinued.

Zohner: I worked for a Real Estate company that partnered with the Liberty House for a beautification project. I led my team to work with the Liberty House to order plants, dirt, and help to direct the day of service. Our team was made up of 20 volunteers who planted plants and cleaned up the building at Liberty House.

What one issue motivated you to run and how would you address that as a board member?

Avila: I am motivated by seeing so many kids from families like mine. My parents both had to leave school at a young age to go to work, and they did not get access to the opportunities they deserve. I hope to address that by bringing my personal and professional understanding of the obstacles facing families who have never been to college, and who don’t have financial resources. I am motivated to provide them with a voice backed with education, knowledge, real experiences, and a passion to improve education opportunities for all students.

Riggs: Special interest politics now dominate the board, which has led to bickering and infighting among board members and an overall failure of the board to put the interests of children first.

When the community attempted to address the board’s dysfunction the board voted to limit the voices of community members. The board needs new leadership and I would push for a vote of no confidence in the current chairperson and seek a new leader from the board. I would also push to reverse the decision to limit community voices, push for the board to hold board meetings in person around the district at different schools so more community members could attend and always allow for virtual meeting options so parents with young children could attend from home and not be forced to pay for child care.

Swartzendruber: Equity has always been challenging in Salem-Keizer. Outcome, or competency-based models of instruction increase inequity and after 30 years, the results are clear – data-driven decision making failed our community. Teaching to the test neglects the whole student, reducing them to number. In addition to establishing local outcome measurements that actually exist in our community, I would continue educating policymakers at district, state and federal agencies.

Other equity issues exist in district campaign finance, election and ethics policy. Campaign finance and contributor limits should be addressed. Currently, any individual or organization anywhere is allowed to contribute any amount. In 2017, Zone 1 campaigns spent more than $70,000.

Election reform may include zone, ranked-choice or STAR voting. The district is larger than a state senator's, making campaigns more expensive. Other voting methods may eliminate spoiler candidates.

Board member ethics concerning meeting laws, decorum and third-party interests should be reviewed.

Zohner: As a mother, this last year has been a difficult one on my family, as well as others in the community. We have watched once thriving young kids be reduced to staying inside and missing so many opportunities. Children are not designed to be on a computer for extended periods of time, locked away from their peers. Watching the teen suicide rate and mental health struggles has pushed me to want to get our kids back to school full time, and to focus on helping our kids, and our families, get back to normal and to find what helps them thrive. We are 45th in education nationally and are one of the last states to get our kids back in school, and STILL not full time. Kids must get back to school full time—that is my top priority.

The past year of online school has been challenging for many students and families, both academically and from a mental health perspective. Is there any particular result of the pandemic in schools that you would focus on as a board member?

Avila: As a working parent this past year I know how hard our teachers and school staff have worked to make distance learning a success. I appreciate their ability to respond and continue teaching our students. Despite their best efforts, it just isn’t the same as being in the classroom for everyone, and the disparities are exacerbated among our highest needs students and families.

We still have people in our community, including in the families of our students, at risk of getting sick, so we need to listen to public health experts and proceed carefully; I believe we need to reopen our school as quickly and safely as we can when we can.

I will focus on making sure that our students don’t give up and drop out, after falling behind this year. We must address the academic disparities to make sure all our students can graduate and have equitable access to education opportunities.

Riggs: The after effects of the pandemic will be felt for many years to come and will be the most important issue the board deals with in the immediate future. For example, student learning was disrupted and there will need to be increased learning opportunities for students to get back on track.

More importantly though, students, teachers, administrators, parents, etc. have been traumatized by the pandemic. It is likely there will be higher numbers of student disciplinary matters and possibly more instances of suicide or self-harm. There will also likely be more family disruptions due to divorce or separation, which will also further traumatize students. Schools will need to provide more counselling services for students and additional training and education around recognizing and responding to trauma for all education professionals.

Lastly, I would not be surprised at higher rates of teacher and administrator turnover, which will have significant cost to school districts as they lose experienced educators and bear the expenses associated with finding and training replacements.

Swartzendruber: My main focus would be connecting students with adults to re-establish relationships. The shift to comprehensive distance learning and Edge instruction software has separated and isolated students. Canvas learning management software now monitors all students and staff. These radical experiments in pedagogy create a lack of trust in the community are create further inequities. Now that Edge is permanent, enrolling nearly 8000 students (nearly 20% of students), questions arise about bond-funded building capacity, Edge demographics and segregation issues.

Mental and physical health of students and staff have suffered during the pandemic. Administering summative assessments will take more time away from student-teacher relations.

Salem-Keizer should follow Deputy Superintendent Gill's lead to waive assessments for 202-2021.

Zohner: We must find a way to get our kids mentally healthy by connecting them back to the activities they love without burdensome restrictions. Hybrid learning, 2 days per week, is NOT enough to get our kids caught up with the rest of the nation. Oregon was already behind, now we have fallen further behind the rest of the country as most places (including many private schools here in Oregon) have found ways to get kids back to school without mass outbreaks.

All activities, including sports, STEM, music, and drama need to be back. Our families need to be able to support our kids and our community, and our kids need to participate without hesitation.

Our kids should not be tested on a year of dramatically reduced learning. Let’s get them back in the classroom FULL TIME, relearning how to interact with other students and staff and find the love of learning again.

The board has a specific policy to consider underserved, diverse, and marginalized individuals and groups when deciding school policies (often called the “equity lens”). How do you see that policy fitting into decisions you would make as a board member?

Avila: My parents are immigrants, and I’m the parent of two students of color. I understand the equity lens. Many of the students I have served over the years are from historically marginalized communities. I guide my work through an equity lens perspective to assure all students have real and fair opportunities to succeed in their high school career by assuring that all students have equitable access to academic opportunities that will prepare them for the future. Using an equity lens assures that all students and families are being treated fairly, their opportunities are real and attainable by all students; that our decisions will be informed and we understand how and whom they will impact the most so we remove the barriers and close achievement gaps.

Riggs: I will be present and engage in meaningful conversation with all communities across the district during board meetings and outside of board meetings. I have always taken my role as a leader and public servant seriously ensuring all people have access and services are provided equitably. As a GenX white male I recognize my privilege in society and I am willing to use it to make space for and give voice to the concerns of historically marginalized communities. I recognize and value diversity and have always worked to ensure it is valued by the organizations I have led.

Swartzendruber: The equity lens has seen little use in Salem-Keizer. Both the boundary redraw and Student Investment Account ignored equity issues raised by the community. The boundary needed revision after the first proposal was rejected. The Student Investment Account funding proposal had to be resubmitted due to lower revenue. This revision included local outcome measurements for music, a first for the district.

Both revisions would have been unnecessary had the Board and committees followed the equity lens.

The equity lens is totally ignored when considering summative, kindergarten and essential skills assessment. These assessments have now been discontinued by the Oregon Department of Education and this may be permanent with pending legislation. Salem-Keizer has been unresponsive to parent requests to increase equity.

Zohner: All voices, all genders, all races need to—and deserve to be—heard without bias and without a political agenda. I intend to keep politics out of the school board by listening to families and kids, as well as staff, to reach agreements in policy and standards that need to be revised, or that need additional solutions. I intend to listen, research, and respond.

What do you see as the school board’s responsibility versus the superintendent’s? What changes, if any, would you make in the governing documents outlining that relationship?

Avila: In addition to my work in education I have worked on the side to support my family in management positions in small businesses in the Salem area. I learned there that if you are going to be ‘the boss’ you need to know what is happening in every part of your company, and take responsibility for the success or failure of your business. I would bring the same approach to the school board. I would work to understand more about how the governance works within our district before trying to change it.

Riggs: The board’s responsibilities and relationship to the superintendent are set by board policies #3 and #7, which generally state the board must be an advocate for the district, students and constituency it serves, seek community input and develop organizational policies. The Board also has a responsibility for “excellence in governing,” which include, focusing on issues rather than personalities, respecting decisions of the full board, even if in dissent, making every reasonable effort to protect the integrity and promote the positive image of the district and one another and never embarrassing each other or the district. The board also delegates authority to the superintendent but has responsibility to monitor its proper use and hold the superintendent accountable.

I see no necessary changes to these policies. The failures of the current board stem primarily from board members not following their own guidelines. Regardless I would open the guidelines for discussion with the board and superintendent, reminding them of their responsibilities and seek community input on whether there should be changes or additions.

Swartzendruber: Ultimately, the school board is responsible for all decisions in the district. Policy governance has given this decision-making responsibility to the superintendent, which may leave the board open to liability. In addition to setting instruction times, adopting texts and other instructional material, school boards are responsible for creating the vision for the district. With no board goals or vision, the superintendent sets the district agenda, which may differ from elected officials.

The policy governance model needs review after more than a decade of use. The district may be too large for board governance to work effectively. Executive limitations may need adjustments for easier management. Board goals should be a requirement for incoming chairs and the community should have input on governance models.

Zohner: The school board is ultimately responsible to the community. They oversee the superintendent and in turn must hold her accountable. To me it seems like this isn’t always working right now. We have the district administration making decisions that should be the board’s responsibility, such as abruptly ending the School Resource Officer contract, despite a recommendation to keep it from the student-led, diverse task force the district was supposed to take input from. At the same time, it seems like the board isn’t cohesively setting a direction for the administration. My vision is a board that is rigorous in its debating of ideas, but committed to a clear plan of action for the highly qualified staff to execute.

Many Salem Reporter readers have told us they’re deeply concerned about the growing partisanization of the school board and the involvement of special interest groups in recruiting and funding campaigns. What should readers know about who your supporters are, including PACs? What skill would you bring to the board to help bridge divides among board members?

Avila: A big part of my current job is bringing folks from all over our community together to help increase education and completion opportunities for students from working families. This means families throughout our communities, elected officials, and business leaders coming together to focus on the same goals. I would bring this experience to decreasing divisiveness on our school board, as we all focus on the important goal of improving our schools.

I have raised money from those close to me for my campaign’s budget, and I am proud to show my community that groups of volunteer parents like PCUN and Stand For Children, as well as our local teachers, support me.

Riggs: Unlike others running for zone #1, I have not accepted special interest money. My campaign is supported by donations from individuals, not the special interest PACs of the left and right. I am running because special interest politics have caused board dysfunction and a failure of the board to put the interests of kids first in all of their decision making.

What I offer the Salem Keizer School Board is proven record of nonpartisan governance and leadership experience. I have a broad and deep background in state, county, and local government, including service as an elected board member to Chemeketa Community College. Additionally, I served in the Navy for 20 years in a wide variety of leadership roles with many hundreds of officers and sailors working for me. I also understand state and local budgeting issues and public meetings law from years of firsthand experience and have been a teacher and education administrator in a variety of settings most of my professional life.

I have advised boards including DOGAMI’s, the Child Care Education Committee, and the Early Learning Council, testified before the legislature and served nationally on the Association of Community College Trustees Policy committee and Finance and Audit committee. I understand the purpose and function of boards that make laws, set policy and/or manage budgets, including county commissions, state agency boards and elected education boards.

Lastly, among the other candidates for Zone #1 I have been most engaged in local issues, have voted most consistently in all elections, and have volunteered more extensively throughout the community in a variety of settings, including being elected to serve on the West Salem Band Boosters, serving in the Salem Sunrise Rotary, volunteering with the Oregon State Bar Association Military Assistance Panel, Marion County Teen Court, Salem Health’s emergency department and many other organizations.

Swartzendruber: My campaign is funded by individuals with no corporate contributions. This allows me to represent voters, rather than power brokers located outside our community. I've witnessed the breakdown of the board effectiveness as partisanship escalates.

My extensive experience developing cultural programming in Salem allowed me to meet and work with leaders across the partisan spectrum. These insights are imperative to restore trust between the board and community, as I recognize areas of shared alignment. Continuing down the path of hyper-partisanship damages our community and voters deserve better alternatives.

Zohner: I am supported by servant leaders in our community, ones who have gone above and beyond to build community and a sense of purpose in our cities. These individuals or groups have a heart for kids and our community and I am proud to partner with them to serve the district if elected. The only agenda I will push on the school board is the one I’ve clearly outlined to voters: opening schools, focusing on the basics to improve the quality of education, and keeping our kids safe.

Do you agree with Superintendent Christy Perry’s recent decision not to renew contracts for school resource officers? Why or why not?

Avila: I have talked to voters on both sides of the issue. Those voters are deeply concerned, whether they support SROs in our schools or oppose them, and a small group of folks have tried to make this a political issue.

This isn’t a political talking point for me. This is the safety of my own children, and our community’s children. That includes understanding the experiences of children in marginalized communities. I do support the district's decision, because I know they consulted with research and experts, as well as many in our community, some of which have serious concerns about discipline in our schools.

If this decision comes before the board again I would make sure input from every part of our community was heard, and look at the latest research before making a decision. We all want our kids to be safe, and we can approach these issues in the future without ignoring any group of parent voices.

Riggs: I do not agree with the decision. SRO’s provide important safety functions to our school. When done correctly SROs can be integrated as education professionals into a school and provide mentorship, counselling and instruction to students in addition to fulfilling their safety role.

From August through November of 2020 a student led task force examined the issue of SRO’s in S-K schools and in January 2021 provided their recommendations to the board and superintendent. The task force had representation from the Hispanics/Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, South Pacific, and Micronesian, Asian Americans, and LGBTQ+. The students, juniors and seniors all came from diverse experiences and were drawn from McKay High school, North Salem High School, South Salem High School, Sprague High school, and Early College High School. The task force’s recommendation was “not remove SROs from the Salem Keizer School District and instead make changes to the system that needs to be fixed rather than getting rid of it as a whole.” I fully support and agree with the task force’s decision and am disappointed the district’s leadership did not give it more weight.

Swartzendruber: The decision to discontinue Student Resources Officer contracts in schools is long overdue. Fueling the school to prison pipeline only serves outside interests. Establishing any rehabilitation, wellness or workforce development pathways based on data gathering for outside interests should be discontinued.

Zohner: I do not support Superintendent Perry’s decision. I have had direct connections with SRO’s in the past and know what a tremendous asset the SRO’s bring to our campuses. They not only provide security to the students and to the staff, they provide mentorship and a source of confidentiality to students who need someone to go to when they are in crisis. For many kids, this is all that they have. Her decision went against the decision of a diverse student task force that wanted to keep SRO’s in schools. We need her to listen to our kids.

New board members will join incumbents to consider changing the district’s election system to draw voters from specific zones instead of across the district. What is your view of this approach?

Avila: I have been more focused on issues that directly affect our kids education rather than on a hypothetical political or campaign issue like this one. I can see the pros and cons of this idea but I need to study it further and hear arguments from both sides to be better informed.

Riggs: I fully support election by zone vs at large. The current at-large election process dilutes the voices and concerns of people within a specific zones amongst the voices and concerns from across the entire district. It also requires candidates who run for office to have substantial funds at their disposal so they can campaign across the entire district, which generally precludes all potential candidates from seeking office, except for those who are backed by deep pocketed special interest groups. These special interests have led to severe polarization of board members and a dysfunctional board.

Swartzendruber: Certainly, outreach is more expensive with at-large elections. The district is almost twice the size of senate districts, which cost more than a half million on campaigns. Directors should represent the entire city and dividing into zones will speed separation. Zone 1 has more voters, so any change should be made when drawing new boundaries.

Zohner: I believe that the voting system should stay as is. Many people who choose to run for this volunteer position have relationships throughout the city and the votes should reflect that.

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

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