After acrimonious meetings, local lawmaker says it’s time for state to step in at Salem-Keizer School Board

Rep. Paul Evans in his office. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Calling leaders of the Salem-Keizer School Board “an embarrassment,” Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, is proposing to change state law to expand the board with the governor appointing the new members.

Evans’ dramatic move was in reaction to the board’s split decision earlier this month to rein in public comments.

The new policy, approved 4-3, allows the chair to cut off comments deemed “obscene, derogatory, name-calling, racist, threatening” or that criticize district employees by name. The limits followed sometimes heated criticism from citizens during board meetings about its handling of racial justice issues.

Evans outlined his intent in a letter to Satya Chandragiri, the school board chair.

DOCUMENT: Evans’ letter.

A new political action committee, Marion+Polk First, swiftly formed, involving politically connected individuals intent on pushing back on Evans’ efforts.

School board members are now elected locally and serve unpaid four-year terms. Evans’ plan would double the size of the board, adding seven members who would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

Evans, whose district includes parts of south and west Salem, said in his Dec. 14 letter that Chandragiri and his allies were wrong in how they were handling public criticism.

“Your actions manifest the exact fears and frustrations long held by members of historically disadvantaged and underrepresented people: your ‘policy’ giving license to ignore all and/or any that dare to disagree with you speaks to your own sense of entitlement and importance,” wrote Evans.

Evans also noted the state’s large footprint in the district. Specifically, he pointed to the state’s ownership of a large amount of non-taxable property in the district, as well as the presence of multiple correctional institutions and the Oregon State Hospital. Evans also called on Chandragiri to resign.

Chandragiri, who was elected chair in July by the other school board members, said that he welcomes disagreement and the new board policy is about creating a more civil atmosphere.

“I want all our community to have hope and a pathway of reconciliation and rebuilding trust in our community,” he said.

In an interview, Evans said he is proposing the legislation because of what he characterized as Chandragiri’s increasing combativeness with students and community members.

Chandragiri, who said he just recently heard about Marion+Polk First, disputed Evans. He said the new policy has been misunderstood and he’s reached out to Evans, who he called an “honorable man,” in hopes of coming to an understanding.

“Our goal is to never, never silence anyone,” he said.

He said the new board policy is intended to create a more civil environment where people can ask hard questions “without walking on eggshells.” He pointed out that board meetings often go on for six hours to accommodate public comment.

Chandragiri added that he regularly meets with citizens outside of meetings, sometimes for hours.

“My doors are always open to every group,” said Chandragiri.

Evans took particular issue with Chandragiri’s previous remarks comparing the task of running public meetings to being the victim of domestic violence. During the meeting when it approved the new board policy, Chandragiri remarked that he felt like he was “walking into a domestic violence relationship every time I sit in this board meeting.” He added that the board’s ability to “bring up or even entertain an alternative point of view was completely stifled.”

“Even on the worst days, it is a gift to be in public service,” said Evans. “It is not ever a burden and it is not ever anything that equates to the pain and suffering of domestic violence.”

Chandragiri stood by his comments. He said that his mother experienced domestic violence as a child. As a psychiatrist, he said, he’s worked with many people in abusive situations. People have been stifled from speaking during board meetings because they feared being threatened or doxxed, he said.

“Words can heal, words can harm,” he said.

Evans said he’s also heard concerns from staff, teachers and others that the board is driven by right-wing ideology. He pointed to how board member Marty Heyen, who has been supported by Oregon Right to Life and whose husband, Jeff Heyen, is the head of the local GOP. 

Over the summer, Marty Heyen faced calls to resign because of her alleged ties to far-right groups.

Chandragiri rejected that characterization. He said the board is taking an unprecedented look at disparities in discipline along racial lines, as well as the achievement gap. He added that board members have been focused on equity and nearly all of its votes have been unanimous.

Evans said he’s willing to meet with Chandragiri but hasn’t arranged a time yet. He said his proposal won’t be among his legislative priorities but hopes to spur discussion.

“I’m more than willing to find alternatives,” he said. “The only thing that can’t continue is the status quo.”

Records from the state Elections Division show that two days after Evans wrote his letter, “Marion+Polk First” was formed as a political action committee.

The committee’s website says it seeks to promote prosperity and opportunity in Marion and Polk counties. It also includes a page aimed at Evans’ proposal, saying it would mean a “radical takeover” over the district and would allow Gov. Kate Brown to install “cronies” on the board.

The state records show Marion+Polk First is led by Reagan Knopp, the political director of Oregon Right to Life; Debora Nearman, who lists herself as a personal coach and who is the wife of state Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence; and Dylan Frederick, the director of marketing and communications at Salem-based Public Affairs Counsel.

Marion+Polk First responded to requests for an interview with a statement from David Kilada, of consulting company Intisar Strategies that the group will work to prevent Evans “or any politicians from disenfranchising the people of these communities.” He did not respond to a follow-up question about how the committee was formed.

So far, the committee has raised less than $500, state records show.