May 2021 Salem-Keizer School Board candidates for zone 3: Ashley Carson Cottingham, left, and Linda Farrington

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.

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.

Zone 3 represents the part of south Salem that includes South Salem High School. Two candidates are running for the seat currently held by Sheronne Blasi, who is not seeking re-election.

Ashley Carson Cottingham, 42, is the deputy director of the Oregon Employment Department’s paid family and medical leave division. She ran as a Democrat for Marion County Commissioner in November, losing the race to current school board Vice Chair Danielle Bethell. Carson Cottingham is part of the Community for Salem-Keizer Schools slate.

Linda Farrington, 60, is a retired nurse and former school district budget committee member. 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? 

Carson Cottingham: 7 years

Farrington: 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).

Carson Cottingham: Yes, one child in second grade currently, and one who will enter first grade in the fall.

Farrington: Four adult daughters and two adult sons who graduated from South Salem High School between 2003 and 2012. And I have two granddaughters in first and third grade attending public 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.

Carson Cottingham: I am currently the Deputy Director for the Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Division with the Oregon Employment Department and have worked for the State of Oregon for the past seven years. From 2014-2019, I served as the Deputy Director and then Director for the Office of Aging and People with Disabilities at the Department of Human Services. I worked in DC for a number of years on policies and laws to improve services for seniors, end elder abuse, expand access to healthcare, increase funding for domestic violence prevention and equal pay for equal work. Each of these roles had an impact on children and families.

I was also a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children in 2003 and 2006. Through this experience I saw children and families at some of their most difficult moments. When I was in high school I provided childcare as a volunteer at a center where parents attended classes while involved in the child welfare system. I will bring all of my professional and volunteer experience to support children and families in Salem-Keizer schools.

Farrington: 2021 Lay counselor for parents at Salem Heights Church

2009 Salem Keizer Schools Budget Oversight Committee

2007 - 2009 Volunteer coordinator, community built concession stand and bathroom completion at the football and baseball fields South Salem High School,

2003-2005 SK24J Salem Keizer Schools Budget Advisory Team

2007 Chair, South Salem High School Graduation Party

2000 - 2003 Volunteer for Victims Assistance, Marion County DA's Office

Assisting victims and their families through the court process and connecting them to helpful resources in order to minimize the effects of crime in their lives

1995 Peacemakers Mediation Ministry at Salem Alliance Church

Esther Ward, my daughter, was a school counselor at Bush Elementary and then at Richmond Elementary before spending a year at McKay as a Behavior Specialist. Her experiences have added to my understanding about school and families in need.

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.

Carson Cottingham: For the past year I’ve served as a Marion-Polk Food Share volunteer. I completed the Meals on Wheels training program and then spent time learning the operation of one of the food pantries in Woodburn. Since then, I’ve volunteered my time handing out food boxes to families in need through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. This type of work has played a role in my life since I was a child delivering Meals on Wheels with my grandparents. When I worked in the U.S. Senate, we specifically worked to increase funding for home-delivered meals programs nationally, because something as simple as basic nutrition can have such a significant impact on a person’s ability to thrive in our communities. Ensuring kids and families aren’t going hungry is a major priority of mine. I am also appointed to the Salem Housing Advisory Committee and Cherriots’ Budget Committee.

Farrington: I was privileged to lead the community that included 25 businesses in coming together to build new bathrooms and a concession stand at our high school when the old ones had to be torn down because they were no longer safe. Some local businesses had started to build them, and had just laid the foundation, when the District told them they had to pay prevailing wage to their volunteers. The businesses couldn’t afford that, so the project lay dormant for several years. I found a plumber and electricion who could complete the job properly who both donated material and time. We used apprentice schools to build the concrete brick walls and pour the floors. I had a lot of help and learned a lot. The new facilities continue to serve PE classes as well as the many school and community events that are held at Caldarazzo Field. We are always better when we work together.

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

Carson Cottingham: I spent the past year as a working parent, juggling distance learning and seeing how my child and their skilled teachers struggled. I also witnessed what a friend of mine, who is a mother and a teacher, has gone through. I simultaneously watched the pandemic devastate the vulnerable seniors I was advocating for. I want to bring my experience leading large teams, being responsible for multibillion dollar budgets, making hard and life-impacting decisions, and negotiating big contracts to helping our district focus its resources on fully reopening our schools as quickly as we safely can and giving our educators the resources they need to serve their students.

Farrington: Opportunity for every child! We need to open schools for a full five days of in person instruction. Beyond the educational benefits, one often overlooked reason is for the wrap around services that schools provide to student. We must continue to provide alternatives such as online teaching for those who want it. In addition, there is a lot of catching up to do academically so we need to focus on the basics.

Even before COVID we were behind other districts in Oregon and way behind schools in other states.

We actually know what to do to increase student success but for some reason it isn’t getting done! There is substantial data telling us that meaningful connection and parental engagement is the key to student success. There are many resources outlining how to do it. Of course, it only happens if schools are open!

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?

Carson Cottingham: Everyone has done their best in an immensely difficult situation, but the reality is that many kids have fallen behind.

Having worked with vulnerable seniors this last year I have seen us lose so many Oregonians to COVID-19, so I take it very seriously. I’ve also seen how devastating the social isolation has been for that same population. I think kids are experiencing some of the same types of impacts of being home and isolated. We must follow the public health guidance and be careful and responsible as we reopen, but we must get kids fully back into classrooms quickly and help teachers assess how far behind they are, what additional social and emotional support they may need, and how to catch them up in a compassionate and person-centered manner.

Farrington: Equity means we need to open schools full time to get our eyes back on our lost kids and wrap services around them. Yet it appears that the school district has no plan to return to regular school yet. We understand the virus better now and know how to prevent spreading it. We know how to open schools safely and there is no scientific justification to continue hybrid learning for the majority of students. Of course we need to keep choices available for the students who are vulnerable or did much better with online learning. But the socioeconomic costs to everyone for keeping hybrid schedules are staggering, especially our most vulnerable students & families, because all of our safety nets and services are found in school. Many parents have had to quit their jobs because there is very little daycare available. Achievement scores have been dropping and now we are way behind. This is unacceptable

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?

Carson Cottingham: As a school board director, I would prioritize listening and learning from families and leaders in our underserved, diverse and marginalized communities to understand what support their children need from our district to succeed. I am in full support of the equity framework put forward by the school district and believe that as a board we must demonstrate our commitment and take actions that show the equity lens is being applied.

While this past year has been very hard for my husband and me as we worked from home while our son was doing remote learning, I am well aware that I had advantages many others did not. Families living in poverty and from historically marginalized communities have been hit very hard by the crises of the last year and I am committed to ensuring we center their voices in the conversations and decisions we will need to make to build back to a stronger school district.

Farrington: I think it is very important to make sure that everyone is recognized, included, and their unique learning needs are addressed so that they can reach their full potential. It is our job as Board Members to make sure that each child has every possible opportunity to excel. We need to listen to parents, staff, & students, to hear what they say the problems are and where the assumptions lie. We need to examine the data and make informed decisions about how to bridge the gaps. These gaps have existed for a long time and only seem to be getting worse. There is a lot of research on how to decrease absenteeism and increase graduation rates which should increase a student’s opportunity to succeed. They all say parent engagement and communication is key. But for some reason this isn’t happening. So something needs to change.

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?

Carson Cottingham: I see the roles as intertwined to ensure a productive and high-functioning school district. I have learned from leading large teams that more people receive the support and services they need when the frontline workers succeed. In our schools, that’s our teachers and other education professionals. As a school board director, I will work closely with our superintendent to understand their vision for the district and respect their leadership. Together, I advocate that we adopt a servant-leadership style that ensures our teachers have the tools and resources they need to have the highest-quality education possible. I would also spend my time connecting with teachers, parents and students to understand the issues we face on the ground in each classroom. I do not think the governing documents need to be changed if there is a relationship of trust and a common equity-focused vision for the district.

Farrington: Currently, the school board hires a superintendent to take care of operational details of running the school district. The school board is tasked with overseeing the policy governing the school district’s operation.

This makes sense to me as the school board can’t be responsible for all of the details. However, I am not a rubber stamper and firmly believe that everyone works best with reasonable accountability. It is incumbent upon the Directors to look at the school outcome data and make sure that all expectations for ensuring equity, quality, content, and safety are met.

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?

Carson Cottingham: I am fortunate to have many caring people who have supported my campaign through individual donations. I am also lucky to have the experience of working in both our state’s and nation’s capitals with members of both parties on policies to support seniors and people with disabilities. The school board is a nonpartisan position and I have the relationship-building skills necessary to work with every person elected to our school board. I have been very open in my communications with voters about my endorsements. Community for Salem Keizer Schools was created by a large number of community organizations across our region to ensure we had a diverse range of voices running for, and elected to, our school board. All supporting organizations are listed on my website, but I am particularly proud to be supported by Salem-Keizer teachers, local parents, PCUN, and Stand for Children, and several of our local legislators and city councilors.

Farrington: I’m proud to be endorsed by many community leaders, including all three Marion County Commissioners, Retired Salem Police Chief Jerry Moore, School Board Member Satya Chandragiri, Salem City Councilor Jose Gonzalez, AnneMarie Dufault, and many others including current and former school district staff such as Kim Marshall and Sophie Bechtel.

One thing that I think is critical is ending all the fighting and political rancor surrounding our schools and the school board. Respect and communication are key values I hope to bring to the School Board. We need to get back to focusing on kids. In all my roles as a mother, a nurse in the emergency room, volunteering in the community, church, music and sports events, I had to work together with many different kinds of people, often when they were in crises. Growing up in a multi-cultural setting moving between Thailand and Malaysia I had to learn to get along. That is normal for me.

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

Carson Cottingham: Safety is a top priority for me as a parent, and it would be as a school board member. Many community members have passionately shared their perspectives on the SRO issue with me and as a school board member I will continue listening to community voices. As a parent, I have followed the district’s deliberations over the past year and testified last summer for a more nuanced approach. I am in strong support of ongoing threat assessment work to keep our kids safe and support Superintendent Perry’s decision. The school board will be looking at school safety in the future, and I will ensure that we are always focused on effective violence prevention, mitigation and response for every school, with students, parents, and public safety officials at the table.

Farrington: No. School Resource Officers provided an important layer of protection for our students and staff. Because of their unique training and skills, SROs were able to work across many school, legal, and community systems to coordinate care and help students in a way that no other discipline can do. They were part of the very successful multidisciplinary threat assessment teams and Sexual Incident Response committees.

The data is clear that the SROs primarily sought to find non-criminal ways to help a student in trouble, only rarely resorting to an arrest or referral. Removing SROs does not remove police from schools the way that people think, because this decision may result in more arrests as officers will arrive off the street and not know the students or staff involved and have less time to find non-criminal solutions. There will be missed opportunities for coordination with community and school partners in child abuse investigations and no opportunity to build positive relationships with students.

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?

Carson Cottingham: Making such a change would make elections more accessible for people running in the future as well as be more of a representative democracy if enacted. While I think I would likely support such a change, I have learned over the years that until I study an issue and hear from people on all sides I prefer to keep an open mind.

Farrington: I can see both sides. I don’t mind changing to zones but I think it should be done at the same time as the redistricting. I think this change may help some minorities have a better chance at representation so it seems like a really good option. We must do the work to research all the options thoroughly and get public input and make sure what we implement is a fair, equitable solution.

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

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