Oregon school boards are tasked with ensuring their districts prepare students to graduate and succeed in life. (Photo by paseidon/Pixabay via Canva)

Across the top of a mailer recently sent to voters by a Christian-based political action committee was the message: “Local school board races have never been more crucial.”

The flier – endorsing conservative candidates running for three of the seven seats on Salem-Keizer Public Schools’ governing board – said a review of recent headlines shows school districts across Oregon are “shifting from the essentials of education … to an assortment of controversial ideologies, including gender fluidity and early sexual experimentation.”  

A progressive group also released mailers, supporting the opponents: “Conservative Republican activists, aggressively funded by right-to-life associated PACs, are bringing the national culture wars playbook to the (Salem-Keizer) elections.”

Those dueling perspectives underscore the increasingly political nature of school board races, a phenomenon that’s been building for years in Oregon and beyond. 

Come May 16, Oregon voters will determine the next lineup of elected officials to govern the state’s 197 public school districts. These positions oversee decisions that affect taxpayers, tens of thousands of educators and more than 550,000 students in the state’s K-12 system.

The positions are unpaid, and they’re supposed to be nonpartisan. But special interest groups have been upping their involvement and funding for these races, while candidates’ platforms focus more on issues often outside their role on the school board.

Role of a school board

Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, has been involved with school boards for more than 30 years. In some ways, he said, the challenges facing the May election are the same as they have been for decades. 

It’s always a struggle, for example, to find new candidates in smaller, more rural districts, he said, leading to the unspoken rule that if you’re a board member in these areas, you can’t leave until you have someone to take your place.

What has changed, he said, is a greater interest in school board races for Oregon’s medium- and larger-sized districts, the biggest of which are PortlandSalem-Keizer and Beaverton

School board members decide district priorities and goals. They set educational policies, hire, fire and review the district’s superintendent, and approve the district’s annual budget. They are generally not involved in daily school operations.

And yet school board campaigns have become increasingly focused on day-to-day issues and political topics, with platforms centered on book selection, sex education and racial justice or LGBTQ curriculum.

In the last few years, Green has seen more progressive and conservative slates of candidates presented together to voters, based on shared values related to these topics. 

Meanwhile, political action committees and special interest groups have increased their support  of these slates. The anti-abortion group Oregon Right to Life PAC is just one example, having endorsed and donated to “pro-life” candidates across the state in the past several elections, describing themselves as “as a king-maker in GOP elections” and saying their work on school board elections, though their newest venture, is “one of the most important.”

But school boards don’t deal with many of the issues these groups focus on. 

“I can tell you from my eight years on the Salem-Keizer school board,” Green said, “I don’t believe I ever voted on abortion once.” 

Green didn’t invest much in campaigning either. But today candidates hire campaign managers, post signs, distribute literature and poll constituents – frequently shelling out upwards of $30,000-plus for their campaigns. 

“(It’s) like they’re running for the Oregon legislature or Congress,” he said.

There’s been heightened interest in school issues in recent years, especially after the closures at the start of the pandemic, Green explained, though some people might run to progress their political careers.

“We have seen for quite some time now, not only in Oregon but also nationally, where school board races are kind of training grounds for individuals who want to run for higher office,” he said. 

Green stressed that it doesn’t matter what political party a school board candidate is affiliated with. “What matters,” he said, “…is that they have the best interest of their kids and their school district in their minds when they enter that board.”

Four-year commitment

Candidates need to be ready for a substantial commitment. 

School board directors serve four-year terms. They attend multiple meetings every month, often serve on statewide committees and speak on behalf of their districts at various events, and regularly communicate with their constituents. 

As Green put it: “School board members deal with two things that people hold very near and dear to their hearts … their kids and their tax dollars.”

Salem-Keizer directors alone serve more than 40,000 students and thousands of educators. The district operates a more than $1 billion budget, one of the largest food systems in the region and the second-largest transportation system in Oregon, he said. It is also one of the largest employers in the state.

But more than anything else, school boards are tasked with ensuring their districts prepare students to graduate and succeed in whatever comes next.

In choosing future leaders, Green advises voters to do their research. Attend any remaining candidate forums, read candidates’ websites and ballot bios, and speak with the candidates themselves. Ask them, he said, why they want to be on the school board and what they’d hope to accomplish in their term. 

“If their first answer doesn’t circulate somehow around kids,” he said, “I would argue they’re probably looking to be on the school board for the wrong reasons.”

LEGISLATIVE BILLS
 Several bills this session have attempted to change or impact Oregon school boards. Many did not make it out of committee, but some are still alive. 
Senate Bill 292 would require school board members in districts with more than 4,000 students to file a verified statement of economic interest. Sponsored by Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, the bill sailed through the Senate education and rules committees and passed the Senate on a unanimous vote. It’s now in the House rules committee. 
House Bill 2753, with Democratic Rep. Ben Bowman of Tigard as the chief sponsor, would allow school boards to choose to provide directors with monthly stipends. It passed the House education committee with one Republican, Rep. Tracy Cramer of Woodburn, voting against it, and passed the House with Democratic support on a 36-20 vote. 
The Senate education committee approved the bill unanimously Tuesday, with Republicans Sen. Robinson of Cave Junction and Sen. Weber of Tillamook absent.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Natalie Pate, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She covered education for the Statesman Journal for more than seven years and was the co-founder and lead of the Salem Storytellers Project. She was an Investigative Reporters and Editors Fellow in 2021 and remains an IRE mentor and member of the Education Writers Association. She was named a 2022 EWA Reporting Fellow and published an in-depth series that summer on prison literacy programs. She is a graduate of Willamette University, where she majored in politics and French. Find her on Twitter @NataliePateGwin.

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