When COVID-19 caused school closures around Oregon and around the country in 2020, everything went virtual, including school board meetings.
Meetings typically hosted in boardrooms moved to Zoom and YouTube, where anyone could watch the decisions and conversations around schooling.
“So we’re streaming, they become more accessible, parents way more engaged in the decisions around the system of education …. clearly it’s across the state, it’s across the country,” said Maureen Wolf, chair of the Tigard-Tualatin school board and president of the Oregon School Boards Association board.
At the same time, there has been ongoing recruitment in the last several years to add more people of color to school boards, to better reflect school communities and the students they serve.
School boards around the country have been meeting virtually since March 2020. Some board members say the accessibility of meetings has increased interest in joining the board.
Because of all of these factors, as well as pressing issues that emerged during the pandemic, there are more candidates and more interest in school board elections than in the past.
“There’s all these different reasons, and motivations for board candidates, and then all the sudden you see an explosion of those that are running,” Wolf said.
Wolf decided not to run for reelection this year. She’s been actively recruiting candidates of color to diversify the board and fill her seat. The five-member Tigard-Tualatin board currently consists of five white people: four women and one man.
OSBA’s Get on Board campaign, started in 2017, aims to keep sitting board members engaged, and get new candidates, particularly people of color, interested in running for school board.
These efforts and others seem to have paid off.
By OSBA’s own count, reaching out to boards of elections in Oregon’s most populous counties, there have more candidate filings than open positions in Clackamas, Washington, Marion, Lane, and Multnomah counties.
In Lane County, with 57 open board positions, 82 candidates have filed. In Clackamas County, 66 candidates have filed for 37 open positions.
OSBA keeps historical data on past school board elections. From 2005 to 2017, races lacked competitiveness, with returning or unopposed candidates dominating the field. OSBA data show the majority of races with one candidate, and the majority of incumbents filing for their board positions. In 2013, for example, 84% of races had only one candidate and 80% of incumbents filed for re-election.
This year, some incumbents are facing candidates who have disagreed with them over an issue that’s caused deep divisions throughout the pandemic: whether school buildings should be open or closed.
In the Sherwood School District, Duncan Nyang’oro, an auditor with no prior government experience, is running against incumbent Patrick Allen, chair of the school board and director of the Oregon Health Authority.
On his campaign website, Nyang’oro claims Allen and the school board “chose politics over our kids.”
Nyang’oro’s leading priority is “five full days in school.” The rest of his platform is vague, with additional priorities to “focus on the basics” and engage with parents.
Elsewhere, in Portland Public Schools, another candidate committed to reopening is challenging an incumbent. Caterer and president of a local PTA, Libby Glynn is running against incumbent Julia Brim-Edwards. Glynn has been endorsed by ED300, a group formed in the last year to fight for “full reopening” of Oregon schools.
The group formed a political action committee in March and has endorsed 28 candidates across the state who commit to “full reopening,” “science-based decision-making,” and reject union dollars. ED300 also said its endorsed candidates avoid “inflammatory rhetoric on issues (i.e. race and gender-matters) unrelated to our primary purpose.” One of its founders is running as a write-in candidate for a Lake Oswego school board seat.
ED300 director Rene Gonzalez said candidates accepting money from teachers’ unions kept the organization from endorsing more candidates.
“We are ecstatic with our slate of candidates,” Gonzalez said. “Sadly, in 2 of our larger districts – Beaverton and Portland – we could find only 1 candidate in each district that met our criteria.”
According to the Oregonian, two Portland Public Schools board candidates received a total of $26,000 from the Portland Association of Teachers.
Leaders at both Portland and Sherwood school districts have said they plan to have schools open full-time next year, if allowed by state rules.
In the Newberg School District, Renee Powell is running for the Zone 5 seat. Powell, an artist and design consultant, is advocating for a full-time reopening too.
She said that although the district has plans to reopen, if elected she will “be in a position to see that they’re implemented.”
When asked what else is a part of her platform, she said she will be focused on curriculum, “with an eye toward back to basics, academic excellence and CTE [Career Technical Education],” she wrote. “Also, I’ll be making sure anti-American, anti-family subject matter is not part of that curriculum.”
While some of the interest in local school board races has been a clear reaction to how school operations have changed during the last year of the global pandemic, other seats are drawing interest as a result of years of recruitment and advocacy.
In Newberg, Powell’s opponent is Tai Harden. Harden is Black, and she runs a consulting firm helping companies with diversity, equity, and inclusion work.
Her two children have attended Newberg schools, and experienced racism according to Harden. Serving as an advisor for the district’s Black Student Union, she heard about an incident she said inspired her to run for school board.
“A Black male student shared that he is called the ‘N-word’ at school so often that he requested from his teachers to leave class five minutes early so he didn’t have to be called that when passing between classes, or hear that word being said when passing from class to class,” Harden said.
“I thought to myself, this student is missing out on valuable learning time, every day, because they’re hearing this word, or being called this word.”
She said she is running to make sure all students, not just Black students or students of color, receive “an education free of harassment and discrimination.”
If elected, Harden said she would be the first Black person to serve on the Newberg school board.
She’s part of a growing number of candidates of color running in this cycle.
In 2017, Color PAC, a political action committee supporting candidates of color supported nine candidates. In 2019, that number was 24. This year, it’s 49.
“We believe those who have the richest lived experiences, who live at the intersections of multiple intersecting oppressions, identities, are most and best equipped to solve many of the systemic and structural problems facing its communities,” said Ana del Rocio, executive director of Oregon Futures Lab and Color PAC, and former school board member for the David Douglas School District.
Color PAC is focused on elections and the “pre-candidacy” stage. Oregon Futures Lab is more focused on what happens after Election Day, and how candidates are supported.
The groups have expanded their support to include candidates in 10 counties, and are seeing more parents and caregivers running for office this year.
At first, del Rocio said the organization was unsure what impact COVID-19 might have on their efforts, but she concluded the pandemic may have inspired people to run.
“I think this was a time for people to see the worsening impacts of not having people who look like them, and who have lived lives like them, at decision making tables in moments of crisis,” del Rocio said.
“… A lot of it was about resisting the powerlessness that I think a lot of people have felt in COVID, experiencing people being sick, people’s lives being lost, and not have any power to do anything about it.”
Del Rocio said COVID-19 made running digital campaigns easier, and more accepted by the public. She also said training and information sessions that explain the role of school boards helped get more candidates into the field.
If candidates win, del Rocio said her organization is planning for training as soon as this summer to build support and develop a sense of belonging among school board members across the state.
But with the increased number of candidates running comes an increase in threats, intimidation, and harassment, del Rocio and Wolf said.
Harden has been accused of stealing signs from her opponent’s supporters, with one suggesting pressing charges, according to a story from the Newberg Graphic. She called it “undercover” racism.
“To call me out and accuse me of a crime with absolutely no evidence was, to me, rooted in racism,” Harden said.
Hoa Nguyen, a candidate running for a seat representing the David Douglas School District, found a racist note on her door last month.
The Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus, an OSBA-affiliated group, sent a letter to candidates of color welcoming them and explaining the role of school boards before telling them how to report incidents of harassment.
“You are not alone and the leadership of the OSBMCC is here to be a resource and means of support,” the letter read.
Sonja McKenzie serves as vice president of the OSBA board and treasurer of the OSMBCC. She chairs the board of the Parkrose School District in east Multnomah County and is running unopposed this May.
“It is intimidating and it is hard sometimes to be the only voice of color on boards or at conventions, but it’s an opportunity,” McKenzie said.
Del Rocio said candidates speaking out against incidents now may help candidates in the future.
“That to me is just a really good indicator of changing the campaign culture, so that people who run in the future will hopefully have a less harmful experience,” del Rocio said.
A small number of candidates in this year’s Oregon school board elections have received national attention for views on topics like comprehensive sexual education, and “critical race theory,” an analytic framework that examines systemic racism and inequality as inherent in society’s institutions. School board candidates running for seats in Bend-La Pine and Beaverton have both received attention from conservative outlets locally and nationally.
Jeanne Schade, a certified teacher running for the Beaverton school board, appeared on Glenn Beck earlier this month, saying “antifa” was coming after her. She recounted a conversation with a mother.
“She wants her kids to be safe in schools, she wants them to learn correct history… that’s what schools are meant to be, educational facilities and not ideological camps where propaganda is pushed,” Schade said.
Several Bend-La Pine candidates recently appeared on Fox News, talking about what prompted them to run.
“If you look at what the Oregon Department of Education is posting on their website about what they’re teaching kids, it’s all about divisiveness, and it’s dangerous.” said candidate Maria Lopez-Dauenhauer.
Lopez-Dauenhauer and three other Bend-La Pine candidates have been endorsed by ED300.
McKenzie, with OSBA, is concerned that school board races are becoming overly politicized.
“School board work is not political work,” McKenzie said. “It is community work, it is driven by the desire to have good student outcomes, it’s a way to engage in your community, support your community.”
School boards are tasked with three general charges: setting policy, hiring and evaluating superintendents, and passing a budget.
McKenzie said those parameters, along with the collaborative nature of being a part of a school board, are not political in nature.
“You’re not a legislator, for those people thinking they’re running on school boards with a political platform, that they’re going to come in and bring their political agenda, there’s no place for that,” McKenzie said.
For Tigard-Tualatin school board chair Maureen Wolf, she said some of this pushback is expected from years of working on equity policies and community engagement. She cites the district’s anti-bias hate speech policy and listening sessions after the death of George Floyd as examples.
“What you’re seeing is a result of that,” Wolf said. “Some that believe that school should be reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, and that’s all that school’s about.”
But Wolf defends what Tigard-Tualatin, and other districts are doing, as focusing on the “holistic child,” with strategies like social-emotional learning.
“We’re pushing it, and we’re really trying to move this work forward.”
In Oregon, turnout for May elections like these is typically low. In Multnomah County, about 16% of registered voters sent in their ballots in May 2019.
With days until May 18, there is hope that an increased number of candidates and interest in school board races will lead to an increase in turnout.
“I’m hopeful that people are paying attention to this active campaign season, and that they vote,” Wolf said.
“Vote. This matters, this is your community, this is making big decisions for the future of Oregon.”