Dr. Satya Chandragiri is frustrated with the other members of the Salem-Keizer School Board (SKSD), so much so that he held a press conference at the Salem capital mall on Sept. 29 in order to call attention to what he perceives as a lack of proper engagement with the public, incompetence and an unwillingness to fulfill the roles to which they were elected.
Making matters even worse, he said, none of the other board members have responded to his emails or questions, prompting his decision to go directly to the public.
Chandragiri began his press conference by referring to an Aug. 9 incident following a school board meeting at Miller Elementary School in Salem, in which local activist Mike Slagle claims to have been verbally assaulted by a group of opposing activists after the meeting ended.
“Many watched when [Slagle] was jumped by a mob of 15-20 people, abuses hurled based on perceived skin color and nationality right in the school parking lot,” said Chandragiri, who attended the Aug. 9 meeting as a board member but did not directly witness the altercation.
Chandragiri objects to the way the board and the district handled it, saying the investigation they conducted was “false,” and it both reached incorrect conclusions and made poor recommendations, one of which was to close school board meetings to the public.
At the direction of Superintendent Christy Perry, SKSD started the investigation into Slagle’s complaint the next day, Aug. 10, led by Chris Baldridge, the district’s safety and risk management director. Baldridge submitted his report to the board Sept. 14, which included accounts of his interviews with eyewitnesses. He concluded that verbal insults and taunts during the meeting led to the altercation outside, and that two local activist groups with opposing views were more-or-less equally responsible: Salem-Keizer We Stand Together (SKWST) and Latinos Unidos Siempre (LUS).
Chandragiri said the report, as he understands it, recommends actions which can’t be taken.
“The report said there was this group [LUS] of about 15-20 people who were involved and they want the district to go into mediation between them and [Slagle], but the group says they didn’t send any members, the district says they don’t know for sure which group did what, and nobody knows who is who – how are you going to mediate with someone you haven’t even identified?” asked Chandragiri.
Although Baldridge’s summary only identifies Slagle as “the complainant,” he told the board he believed Slagle was not just a parent making a complaint, but rather a founding member of SKWST who was himself involved in escalating the situation. Slagle’s connection with SKWST was later confirmed by reporting from Rachel Alexander at Salem Reporter, who quoted him saying the district’s investigation was biased against his group and in favor of LUS.
Latinos Unidos Siempre is a youth-oriented political action group which, according to their website, seeks to “empower youth to take leadership roles” in the community and advocate for the “educational, cultural, social and political development of Latino (and all) youth.”
On the other side of the contentious cultural issues is SKWST, another political action group who believes the district is too focused on what they call “identity politics and social activism” rather than developing academic and cognitive skills.
Chandragiri says both groups have been appearing regularly at school board meetings for the past year and a half, but they aren’t the only people who come to the meetings and that this kind of contentious environment is common in his experience. He doesn’t think the board was justified in closing the meetings to the public.
“I’ve had meetings which had groups representing differing views that was peaceful, and I’ve had meetings where they barricaded the doors and set up an illegal barbecue outside,” he said. “I never cancelled public meetings over it, that’s just part of the job in my view.”
Chandragiri chaired the school board through several months during the COVID school closures, and said there are plenty of rules and mechanisms the board has which they could use to keep public meetings under control instead of closing them to the public.
“How am I supposed to be doing my fiduciary duty as a publicly elected official if I’m not allowing the public to engage directly with me?” he said.
Chandragiri said he wrote an email to Superintendent Chris Perry and the other board members after the Baldridge report was released with some questions about how the investigation was conducted and who was responsible for escalating the situation, and he says he never received any direct answer to any of them.
Perry wrote a letter to the community on Sept. 9, shortly before the Baldridge report was submitted to the board, which summarized the findings by saying the youth who attended were not responsible for initiating the conflict, and that it was adults present with “differing ideologies” who were responsible for the violence, and ultimately for the board’s decision to close to the public.
“It is also clear that public comment has become a public forum for political agendas rather than a way for the board to hear concerns, constructive criticism, ideas and information, and has continually escalated into threats and disrupted meetings,” wrote Perry.
Perry’s letter and Baldridge’s report both implied the root cause of the escalation was a back-and-forth which occurred during the Aug. 9 meeting over the school board’s recent vote to ban concealed carry permit holders from bringing firearms on campus. This was one of the questions Chandragiri asked board members via email which went unanswered. In his view, that’s not what happened. He believes in vigorous public debate and feels the board has a responsibility to listen to the public about these issues.
He wants the board to explain why they absolved the youth of responsibility and blamed the adults who attended, and he thinks the “differing ideologies” narrative oversimplifies the issue, amounting to an attempt by the board to shift their responsibilities on to the public.
“The buck stops with the school board,” he said. “Casting blame does not solve problems, action solves problems. We must stop ghosting parents, families and fellow board members and start acting like responsible adult public servants.”
Chandragiri said the board is focused on tangential issues rather than the central problem of serving the educational needs of children in the district, and sees the board as becoming over-politicized.
“In my view, board members should leave their politics at the door,” he said. “We’re here to serve children and focus on their needs.
“We all can have our own personal political views or party, but that has nothing to do with coming to school board.”
He also has a message for the public, and specifically the youth activists whom he perceives as being behind much of the rise in heated rhetoric over recent months – and contrary to the Baldridge report, a primary instigator of the Aug. 9 disturbance.
“Every white person who comes to a public school board meeting is not a white supremacist, fascist or racist,” he said. “That’s like calling someone a pedophile just because a child hugged them.”
He said the heated rhetoric over the last two years has become dangerous and slanderous.
“Who has been recruiting, inciting and funding our children and youth from vulnerable communities and placing them on the front line?” he asked rhetorically during his Sept. 29 conference as a vague reference to LUS, although he never identified the group by name.
Chandragiri isn’t just coming to the public with criticisms and complaints about the board’s conduct, however. He has a plan to bring things back into alignment and he’s willing to come and visit any family in the district who wants to engage with him about it.
Firstly, he says the board’s focus needs to shift immediately back to safety, high quality learning, and authentic family engagement. Secondly, he says students and parents must be heard and that the public in-person meetings should reconvene. Thirdly, he wants the board to “stop blaming, labeling and doxing the parents and families.” Finally, he wants the board to ask the youth activists to take responsibility for their actions and to be more respectful in general.
“We can lift up vulnerable communities and also hold ourselves and everyone accountable,” he said. “Civil rights is for all. White children and families also have civil rights.”