SKPS board member makes pitch for zone voting

Technical difficulties sidelined a planned conversation about changing the election of school district directors Tuesday, March 9.

Connection errors interrupted the meeting and, once the virtual meeting was re-established, members of the Salem-Keizer Public School Board of Directors tabled the issue until a special session could be held Wednesday after press time. 

On Tuesday, March 8, Director Jesse Lippold Peone, the current representative for Zone 5, told attendees of a virtual NAACP forum that he intends to propose an amendment that would elect school board directors by zone rather than the current at-large system. At-large voting in the Salem-Keizer School District means that candidates must live in the zones they represent, but are voted on by all eligible voters in the district. Lippold was representing only himself during the meeting, not the entire school board at the forum.

Lippold Peone told attendees that at-large voting leaves the district at risk for structural racism.

“Right now, a person can live in east Salem and never campaign there,” Lippold Peone said. At-large voting is also creating outsized campaign costs for an unpaid, nonpartisan position. “Campaign costs have grown to $63,000 for one candidate. It creates huge barriers when one candidate might have more name recognition or more money.”

If the board approves a change to zone-based voting at its next meeting, it could change how school board directors are selected as soon as the May 2021 cycle.

County Clerk Bill Burgess, who oversees Marion County Elections and offered insight into how soon changes could be made, saw no problem with the timeline if the election method is changed.

“If it happened next week, we would have time to adjust ballots for military members before they are printed and mailed in early April,” Burgess said. If the change were made in a later meeting, it likely would not take effect for two years. 

About 145,000 registered Marion County are eligible to take part in school board elections. Zone-based voting would lead about 20,000 voters in each area of the school district deciding who represents them on the school board.

“When we have BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities live in specific areas it leads to less effective representation of those areas,” Lippold Peone said.

Levi Herrera-Lopez, who ran against Lippold Peone for the school board seat in 2017, also spoke about his experiences during the forum.

Voting by zone would “lead to less influence from special interest groups,” Herrera-Lopez said. “To reach a significant amount of the registered voters, you need at least $10,000 to pay for mailers. That’s where special interests come in (when they pay for expenses like mailers).”

Zone voting is expected to reduce the financial barriers that keep some members of the community from running for elected office.

Voters in smaller zones would also stand a better chance of holding their school board directors accountable for the decisions they make and the votes they cast, Herrera-Lopez added. 

In past school board meetings, challenges to zone voting were raised based on the need to redistrict once 2020 Census results are available.

Lippold Peone called the argument “a red herring” and said he couldn’t think of any reasonable argument against the change.

The Salem-Keizer NAACP is supporting the change to zone voting.