School board responds to months of criticism

The latest Salem-Keizer School Board meeting took place on Tuesday, Oct. 13.

The Salem-Keizer School Board has experienced a large amount of criticism during the public comment portion of board meetings over the last three months.

Hundreds of citizens have been calling into board meetings accusing multiple board members of racism and calling for the removal of Student Resource Officers (SROs) from schools.

In the majority of board meetings since June, the board has endured the verbal abuse, and then moved onto other agenda items.

But at the meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, the elephant in the room was finally addressed.

Before the meeting, board chairperson Satya Chandragiri sent an email to all board members. The email was in regards to a revision to public comment guidelines during board meetings.

Chandragiri made it clear that he wanted to carry out these revised guidelines during subsequent board meetings, saying that they are “consistent with our information on our website and align with the intent of our safe and welcoming school proclamation.”

“Starting October 2020, we may take written comments or videos first, or we may move back and forth between call-in, written, and video comment. This gives people who submit comment in different forms an opportunity to have their voices heard,” Chandragiri said in a portion of the email.

Chandragiri also pleaded with callers, asking them to ensure that the comments are civil, respectful and do not lead to a situation of vitriolic communication, threats or intimidation towards each other or cause any safety concerns in our community for our students, educators, staff, school board members or their families.

Chandragiri’s actions during the previous board meeting in September drew the ire of fellow board member Sheronne Blasi, who publicly criticized him for cutting off callers during public comment. Blasi also shared her displeasure with Chandragiri’s statements in her email response.

“I would have expected you to have discussed this matter with the board before implementing a change to how the board takes public comment. Given the disrespectful treatment by you at our last board meeting towards our students and families of color, I find these comments and intentions to be more concerning,” Blasi said. “Your decision around public comment (again without discussing this with the board as a whole) violates everything that our equity lens stands for. We agreed to view board decisions through an equity lens in order to look at the potential impact to students and families that are marginalized.”

Chandragiri read the full statement during the meeting and asked Paul Dakopolos — an attorney representing the school district — how it fits in with district policies — Chandragiri also asked for the feedback of the other board members.

“I think the thing the board needs to be careful of is if you open up your board meeting for public comments, you have to take all of them, whether you like them or not,” Dakopolos said in response. “Now there are some limitations to that. You do not need to accept comments that are obscene, derogatory, name-calling, racist, threatening or direct criticism of named employees.”

“It’s your job, Chair Chandragiri, to make sure things are fair, open and thorough, but also efficient, timely and orderly.”

While Blasi and director Jesse Lippold shared some of their concerns about the potential guidelines, directors Marty Heyen and Kathy Goss both shared their frustrations with public comments over the last few months — both Heyen and Goss have been the targets of name-calling and have been asked to resign by numerous people.

“Someone can tell me, entirely and anytime, if they want to correct my behavior in some way. I don’t mind that. We’re a diverse place. But that doesn’t mean it has to be said the way it has been said, and I think a lot of us don’t appreciate the name-calling that has been going on. I think the longer we put up with that, the more we will have,” Goss said.

“There have been a lot of words that have been hurtful and untrue. That’s not why we’re here. We’re here because we care about the kids… I know there are some boards that don’t take any comment at all, and I don’t agree with that, but maybe there was a reason they got to that place,” Heyen added.

Blasi stated that she appreciated that the board was taking the time to discuss this issue further, but she also continued to share how she believes changing the policy could lead to greater issues.

“My concern with this revised policy is that it’s gong to give the board the ability to silence those voices at any time we choose to,” Blasi said. “If we would just listen to the community, I think we would have an opportunity to walk this back a little bit. The community is concerned that this board is not acting in their best interest.”

Chandragiri suggested that he should follow the revised guidelines for the evening’s public comment time, but moving forward, the board can work together and change the guidelines the way they see fit. The board agreed with an 5-2 majority, with Blasi and Lippold being the only dissenters.

Chandragiri said that he hopes by the next meeting, there will be a first reading of how public comments will be received moving forward.

While the public comments were a bit more tame during this meeting, the overall message displeasure with the board was still there in nearly every call.

“The groups that some of you are associated with do have ties to white supremacy and white nationalism and they do engage in hate and violence. They do not view all people with respect and dignity, and you, as school board members, should,” one caller said.

A student caller added: “Our school board has done nothing but use their words to hurt BIPOC students in our district… It’s clear that our school board doesn’t care about us.”

Later in the meeting, Lippold introduced a first reading of a policy amendment proposal that would allow a student advisor to the school board — the student advisor would act as a liaison between the board and the student advisory committee.

Lippold is hoping that this amendment will provide a better opportunity for students to have their voices heard.

“A lot of times, students feel like they don’t have an input or a say in things,” Lippold said. “It’s about us acting in an equitable way to show that our kids’ voices matter.”