School board vice chair Jesse Lippold looks at documents during a meeting on May 7, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

On Tuesday afternoon, seven volunteer school board members will spend an afternoon outlining the future for more than 40,000 school students in Salem and Keizer.

Other than a brief meeting in July, it’s the first opportunity for members of a new Salem-Keizer School Board to get to know one another. They’ll discuss priorities - student behavior and mental health are high on the list - and see how they’ll bridge their differences in age, political affiliation, geography and life experience to work for students.

READ: Average Salem-Keizer school board campaign tops $25,000

Complex challenges face Oregon’s second-largest school district with an annual budget of $1.2 billion for 65 schools and nearly 5,000 employees. But the staff mandate boils down to one: ensure all students graduate prepared for life after high school.

The board members are the public’s link to that charge, monitoring Superintendent Christy Perry’s progress on student achievement and evaluating her job performance while mostly staying out of the day-to-day running of the district.

The stakes have rarely been higher for public education in Oregon.

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“You’re entrusted with two things that people in the school district hold near and dear to their heart - their kids and their money,” said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association and a just-retired Salem-Keizer board member.

Local school districts are poised to receive millions in new funds next year, with Salem-Keizer slated for about $36 million. Significant construction is underway at five district schools to add space and modernize classrooms, with additional projects planned for nearly every school in the district. And the district’s contract with its 2,000 teachers expires in 2021.

The seven board members will ultimately decide how the extra state money is spent, oversee more than $620 million in construction and advise the district as it negotiates new pay scales and benefits for employees.

Newly-elected Salem-Keizer board member Danielle Bethell looks over her oath of office before being sworn in at a July 16, 2019 meeting (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

They’ll also be the public face of a district with the highest number of Spanish-speaking and migrant students in Oregon at a time when federal immigration enforcement is ramping up and Latino students regularly share directly with the board fears for their and their families’ safety.

In contrast to deep research on student test scores and curriculum, there have been relatively few studies of what makes for an effective school board.

But the few researchers who study school boards, as well as professional organizations, agree the dynamics among board members can significantly impact student achievement.

On effective boards, members stay unified on common goals, are knowledgeable about how the district runs and are willing to look beyond their own pet issues to see what’s needed, said Tom Alsbury, a national researcher on school boards and professor of education at Northwest University.

When boards are split by partisan or ideological conflict, that dysfunction can trickle down to administrators and eventually to teachers in the classroom. Superintendents tend to stay for shorter periods of time, and student test scores actually drop, he said.

With two newcomers on the board, Salem-Keizer’s elected school leaders face significant challenges – both in working to raise student achievement and address social needs, and in bringing a group of seven very different people together to do that.

How the board works

The role of a school board member in Salem-Keizer is narrower than in most other districts in Oregon due to decade-old local policies.

The local board’s primary task is to hire and supervise a superintendent. But most Oregon school boards also review and adopt district policies setting broad choices about how kids will be educated, Green said.

Salem-Keizer does not. Board members didn’t vote on the district’s new dress code and don’t approve curriculum or vote on the myriad policies the district is required to have on everything from attendance to student behavior and discipline.

Instead, they set student achievement goals for the district and job expectations for the superintendent. So long as the board judges the superintendent is operating within those rules, she’s free to act as necessary to hit student achievement goals.

That system can create tension between newer board members, who often run with ambitions or promises of addressing narrow school issues, and more established board members and administrators, who want to keep the board focused on higher-level issues like student achievement and budgets.

“The new board especially tends to get into the day-to-day running of the district and that is not our role at all,” said Kathy Goss, a retired teacher elected to the board in 2017 who served as board chair last year.

School board Chair Marty Heyen takes her seat after being sworn in for a second term at the Salem-Keizer board's July 16, 2019 meeting. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Board chair Marty Heyen, a retired IT worker who won re-election to a second term in May, described the dynamic as telling the district “what goal we want to reach” but leaving the “how” up to staff.

That system, called “policy governance,” was put in place in 2006 at the suggestion of then Superintendent Sandy Husk.

Husk used the same approach in her prior job in Tennessee and said it helped her boost student performance. That’s because school employees could respond quickly to student needs by, for example, changing the reading program without the extra and sometimes contentious step of consulting the board.

It also created a “sense of urgency” among staff and administrators who felt more accountable for the results among students, she said.

In his eight years on the Salem-Keizer board, Green said he appreciated the structure, which prevented board members from getting bogged down in issues like whether ripped jeans should be allowed at school.

“It really kept us focused on the bigger picture items,” Green said.

The system also means the seven board members lack direct control over many of the issues the public brings to their attention, from cutting the newspaper class at West Salem High School to the taste and nutritional value of school lunches.

Alec Palm, West Salem sophomore and Titan Spectator managing editor, urges a school district budget committee to reconsider cutting the student newspaper class at a May 7, 2019 meeting. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

They can ask district staff to look into issues or ask for board briefings from the superintendent. Board members could in theory make themselves responsible for other issues like suicide prevention, the issue new board member and psychiatrist Satya Chandragiri campaigned on most heavily.

Husk said that in practice, boards rarely find that’s the best approach.

“As soon as they say they do, then they’re accountable in terms of kids,” Husk said.

This year’s new board members have an appetite for making change, but Chandragiri and Danielle Bethell both said they’re working to learn about their role relative to the district. Neither has held elective office before, though both have been in public-facing positions: Bethell as current director of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce and Chandragiri as chief medical officer at the Eastern Oregon Psychiatric Center, the now-shuttered state psychiatric hospital.

At the board’s first meeting in July, Chandragiri asked Perry to schedule a work session on suicide prevention, forthcoming this fall. He said the board has a role in ensuring plans to prevent suicide are well thought out.

“We can be still a policy governance board without actually going and doing the fieldwork,” he said.

Like Chandragiri, newcomer Bethell believes Perry is the expert on how best to achieve district goals.

“I don’t believe it’s the board’s role to tell Christy how to do her job,” Bethell said.

But she also doesn’t view the board’s role as narrowly as Goss, who is focused on a dozen board policies that spell out Perry’s job responsibilities.

Bethell believes there’s room within the board’s role to craft new goals and direct district focus toward areas like behavior. She’d like the board to work together on goal-setting.

“That’s just a model and we as a board identify how we want that to work for us,” she said of the policy governance framework.

Focus on behavior

There’s broad, though not universal, agreement among school board members that student behavior and mental health should be their focus this year.

It’s not a topic they’ve yet discussed as a group, other than agreeing to Chandragiri’s work session on suicide prevention.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Perry will talk to board members about how to be high-functioning and review their governance policies, performance indicators and equity focus. They’ll also get updates on Student Success Act funding and discuss next steps for the year.

Heyen said addressing bullying and suicide were her priorities for the year, and something the board as a whole wants to work on. That focus is in response to the suicides of two Sprague High School students last fall, as well as concerns Heyen and other board member say they’ve heard from parents about behavior and bullying.

Vice chair Jesse Lippold, a real estate agent by profession, agreed with that focus, specifically citing mental health and suicide.

“I think the whole board’s in agreement there. The question is what action do we take,” he said.

Newly-elected board member Satya Chandragiri shakes hands with Paul Dakopolos, Salem-Keizer's attorney, after being sworn in at a July 16, 2019 meeting (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

There’s little in the board’s policies to answer the question. Board members have set specific targets, last updated in 2017 for Perry on student achievement: student scores on state reading and math assessments will increase annually across every group of students in the district, graduation rates will rise and the district’s dropout rate will be lower than the state average.

Social issues are not spelled out, other than an expectation that Salem-Keizer graduates will, among other things, “develop a positive self-concept, respect for others and healthy behavior patterns.”

It’s not a new issue for Salem-Keizer, and the challenges facing the district are common across Oregon. As a board member, Green urged Perry to use extra funds in this year’s budget to hire additional behavioral staff in elementary schools. Perry also added more high school mental health counselors.

READ: As other Oregon districts face budget cuts, Salem-Keizer will add counseling and behavior staff

Though it’s harder to quantify their impact, most board members see social and emotional issues as a key part of boosting student academic performance.

“It’s not that they are mutually exclusive. We all want our children to show up to classes, do well and graduate and get the best out of the school,” Chandragiri said. “If that is our objective, we also have to look at safety and health.”

But within a broad agreement on the topic, board members have different ideas of what issues are at the root of the problem, and how best to address them.

Sheronne Blasi, director of statewide veteran services at the state Department of Veterans Affairs and last year’s school board vice chair, pointed to staffing levels for counselors and behavior specialists.

“We as a state don’t have all the resources we need to address behavioral health and we see that across the board,” she said.

Goss spoke about behavior and respect. She said the district needs to continue addressing students’ trauma and challenges but also set clear expectations for what’s acceptable.

“There’s no striking an adult. We’ve got to get that clear. And we’ve got to get really clear policy on where the kid goes and what happens,” she said.

READ: Salem-Keizer teachers face repeated injuries at the hands of students, documents show

Paul Kyllo, a former teacher and union representative who often disagrees publicly with Perry and his fellow board members, agreed that more counselors in schools and training would be helpful.

But he said he’s concerned about too narrow a focus on suicide and mental health from the board.

“It’s a tragedy to lose any one life, but we have kids that are making life choices now that could lead them to early death,” he said.

From reckless driving to the recent slate of shootings in northeast Salem, he said there are many other problems the board could focus on to improve student health and safety.

Kyllo said he doesn’t necessarily think it’s the board’s role to address social issues but feels if the board wants to tackle those problems, it should take a broader lens.

One example he cited is the impact of immigration enforcement on students whose parents may not have legal authorization to be in the U.S., saying some students come to school with bags of personal possessions in case their parents are taken by immigration enforcement while they’re at school.

“How is that okay for kids? I don’t see us doing anything about that,” he said.

Bethell said student behavior in the classroom is the top issue she hears about when talking to parents and educators.

She believes behavioral needs are the driving force behind bullying, and would like to see the board facilitate “conversations with buildings and community around how do we overcome some of these behaviors.”

“I hope that we can focus on that as a priority,” she said.

Perry said she’s hopeful the board will learn what the district is already doing and in turn share that with the community.

Relationships and politics

While issues drive local elections, Alsbury said his research has shown the relationships between board members and how they handle conflict are often more important in determining student performance in local schools.

Alsbury consults with boards that are in conflict - either with each other or their superintendents - and said important factors are how board members use power and how willing they are to set aside disagreement.

“Things that boards don’t ever have a chance to talk about, we find to be the most important variables in effective boards,” he said.

The Salem-Keizer board has at times been challenged on those fronts, less over partisan beliefs than differences in personality and ambition.

Kyllo has been the most vocal dissenter, often publicly criticizing Perry and at times other board members about the steps to decisions. He voted against approving the 2019-20 budget because he didn’t believe the board had allowed enough time for public testimony after a few sparsely-attended meetings.

Board member Paul Kyllo speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony for construction at Judson Middle School on June 14, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

He also voted against contracts for new assistant superintendents Kraig Sproles and Linda Meyers, saying Perry and other administrators weren’t upfront with the board.

“It wasn’t as transparent and it wasn’t quite as up front as it could have been. I don’t feel I can support it,” he said. (Other board members said they felt the process was transparent.)

He said his aim is not to be obnoxious or mean, though it wouldn’t surprise him if other board members describe him that way. He said his focus is accountability and transparency in how the district operates.

“I hold her to a higher standard because I think she’s qualified capable and competent,” he said of Perry.

Kyllo served as board chair before Goss took over last year. Goss and Blasi didn’t mention Kyllo by name, but said one of their goals as a leadership team was to foster respect in the boardroom and make the public feel welcome.

Green said he felt the board was successful last year in making meetings more welcoming by setting clear expectations for all members.

Still, any conflict wasn’t apparent enough to undermine the broad public trust apparent when Salem-Keizer voters last year approved the largest school bond package in state history - nearly $620 million - to expand or retrofit nearly every school in the district.

Most board members insist they worked together well last year, though Lippold said strong personalities, including his own, sometimes got in the way.

“If we’re being brutally honest with ourselves, I think we could have done a better job of working as a team,” Lippold said. “Some people could take that as rubber stamping and that’s not what I mean at all. I just think being clear and communicative.”

Salem-Keizer School Board Director rallies with teachers for increased state school funding at a Feb. 18, 2019 march. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Videos of meetings last year show public conflict between board members during meetings was rare and brief.

Levi Herrera-Lopez, who chaired the district’s budget committee last year, said he saw more overt conflict in meetings two years ago, with board members “being rude to each other, politely rude” though it was hard to tell the underlying issue. He didn’t see those dynamics during this year’s budget meetings, he said.

Though the office is nonpartisan, this year’s board is majority conservative, with three members - Goss, Chandragiri and Heyen, the chair - having run for state office unsuccessfully as Republicans.

That’s of concern to both Blasi, the lone liberal left on the board, and Goss, a staunch conservative who said one party dominating any public body isn’t good.

“You don’t get good conversations or really a lot of good ideas if everyone is thinking the same way,” she said. “If you’re all on one side it opens you up to big mistakes.”

She said she’ll challenge her fellow conservatives if she feels they’re not working in the best interests of kids.

Goss and Blasi are ideologically far apart. Goss was the sole vote on the board last year against a resolution supporting the Student Success Act, a $2 billion state business tax and education spending package, because of concerns over the amount that would be funneled into public pension debt. Blasi was a supporter who frequently spoke in meetings about the need for more education funding.

But both said they worked together well as board leaders last year, meeting regularly on Fridays after Blasi got off work to talk about board issues and staying in touch during the week. It was something Perry praised them for.

“Anything I brought to them, any issues they worried about, they did it together,” she said. “Their different viewpoints is what made them strong.”

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry presents her 2019-20 budget plan to the district's budget committee on April 23, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Heyen said those who disagree with her politically shouldn’t be concerned, and described her relationships with her board colleagues as positive. She said she expects a board to be fiscally conservative, since it’s working with taxpayer money, but there’s no conservative agenda on the board to change the district’s sex education program (which is mandated by state standards) or otherwise raise partisan issues.

“I want to make sure everybody has their voices heard and that we all feel we’re going in the right direction for their kids,” she said.

Green said he believes every member of the current board is there for the right reason: to focus on kids.

“In my discussions with Marty, she had the best outcomes for the students always at the main heart of her decision making,” he said.

In his two terms on the board, he didn’t see decisions being made because of partisan politics.

Kyllo, who’s politically independent and often voices concerns coming from employee unions, agreed.

“She has potential to be a good leader of the board as I think she is more open-minded than some perceive her to be,” he said of Heyen.

Equity and immigrant students

Leaders of several Salem organizations serving Latinos are concerned about the board’s current makeup and what it could mean for immigrant and Latino students.

The board’s decision last fall to stay silent on Measure 105 remains a sticking point and for some, an example of how a board with no Latino members has dismissed student concerns, said Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, director of Latinos Unidos Siempre. The group has regularly organized Latino students to speak at board meetings. The measure would have allowed local law enforcement agencies in Oregon to enforce federal immigration laws.

READ: Salem Keizer school board won't take position on immigration ballot measure

Blasi wanted to the board to oppose the ballot measure, but other board members didn’t want to consider the matter, she said. Other public bodies, including the Salem City Council and the Corvallis School Board, publicly opposed the measure.

“The board's unwillingness to even bring the draft resolution to the board room has done damage across the district and made many of our students feel as though we don't support their safety and that of their families,” Blasi wrote in response to questions from Salem Reporter.

Those members included Heyen, who said telling people how to vote on ballot measures is outside the role of a school board.

Green and Chuck Lee, the senior members on the board at the time, also felt taking a public position would divide the board without helping students. Green said he did ask the district to look at whether it could have stronger policies on when immigration officers would be allowed in schools.

Salem-Keizer does have a policy saying immigration officers can’t enter a school or question a student without a warrant. Heyen pointed to that policy as sufficient to address student concerns and suggested students may not be aware of it.

“I hope we can somehow get the information out there so that they understand when they’re in the school, they’re safe. I don’t want kids to be worried about their safety because that takes away from their ability to learn,” she said.

Students organized by Latinos Unidos Siempre urged the new Salem-Keizer School Board to address the mental health needs of immigrant students and stop policies that disproportionately punish students of color at a July 2019 meeting. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

But Hernández-Lomelí said it’s difficult to trust the policy without a public stance supporting immigrant students and families.

“It makes us doubt whether the school board or any other staff in the school district will truly stand up against ICE if ICE was to show up,” she said.

Lippold, the new vice chair, said he understands the concern and wants to push the board to better use its “equity lens” as a framework for making decisions. By policy, the board is supposed to consider the effect of decisions on historically marginalized groups and work to improve their performance, rather than simply treating all students the same.

“It’s supposed to be a culture and a way of thinking,” Lippold said, not merely a rubber stamp on a process.

Blasi listed a continued push to make sure all students and families feel heard by the board as one of her top priorities for the year, specifically naming “low-income students, students of color, LGBTQ students, and any student that feels marginalized or unsafe” as groups she wants to reach out to. She said she’ll advocate for the board to use the equity lens in decisionmaking.

Herrera-Lopez, who is also executive director of Mano a Mano, said how this board follows the equity policy will test its commitment to all students.

“The equity lens could be way stronger but if anything’s taken away it would weaken it to irrelevance,” he said. “I’m really not sure where this board is going to be.”

What's next

For all the challenges they face, board members are eager to start working together on Tuesday.

All spoke about the seriousness of their task - guiding the education of 40,000 local students - and said they’re eager to see what each can contribute.

“We are seven very unique different individuals with different life experiences,” Heyen said. “We might not always agree but everyone on that board, we’re there for the kids, the parents and families and the teachers.”

An early task will be setting specific goals around student behavior and social needs, and figuring out how they’ll hold Perry accountable for them.

Emails between board members over the summer, obtained by Salem Reporter through a public records request, show largely friendly interactions: Chandragiri inviting others to get to know him better over tea, Bethell asking Perry to explain how the district communicates with families, Heyen (a night owl) resigning herself to 7:30 a.m. planning meetings.

The current Salem-Keizer School Board at their first meeting together in July 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Lippold said he’s confident the board can be effective if members work across their differences. He plans to model that by always keeping in mind how he can improve, he said.

“If we’re all united, we can accomplish a lot of good,” he said.

Heyen wants community members to know she and the rest of the board are invested in every student.

“Every student is important to us and we care about them and want the best for them,” she said.

Even with her concerns, Blasi is hopeful the board members will work together well this year, and she hopes to see an engaged public pushing them.

She said the board was effective last year because “the community has come out and reminded us of their expectations.”

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.