Salem-Keizer school board seeks to fill board vacancy amid goal setting, community tensions

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Oct. 22, 2022 1 p.m.

Following a board member’s unexpected resignation last week, the Salem-Keizer school board is accepting applications for an open seat. The vacancy comes amid community tensions, as one of the state’s largest school districts tries to set goals and find a new superintendent.

The opening is for Danielle Bethell’s seat, Zone 6 representing Keizer. Bethell, who is also a Marion County Commissioner, resigned via email while replying to a board colleague about a meeting she had missed.


“However, effective immediately I resign as Director for Zone 6 of the Salem Keizer School Board,” Bethell wrote in the Oct. 10 reply, CC’ing board chair Ashley Carson Cottingham and Supt. Christy Perry.

Applications for the Zone 6 position are open now until Oct. 31.

Carson Cottingham said the board has a lot to do this year — at the top of the list is replacing Perry, who was Oregon Superintendent of the Year last year. Back in July, Perry announced her plan to retire from the district at the end of this school year.

“We have the huge job of hiring the superintendent, so it’s critical we get someone in that seat as soon as possible,” Carson Cottingham said.

The board also recently set several goals for the year. With student assessment data for the district showing a steep drop last year, Carson Cottingham said improving academic performance is a top priority for the board.

“I think everyone is concerned with some of the state data that’s come out recently,” Carson Cottingham said.

At the district’s next board meeting Tuesday, the board will be doing a “deep dive” into the assessment data, setting benchmarks for the district to meet.

The board will hold that meeting without an in-person audience, after Supt. Perry announced last month that board meetings will be only available to the public virtually due to safety concerns.


Similar to board meetings around the state and country, Salem-Keizer’s meetings have become contentious, as disagreements over school operations have escalated into threats.

“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,” Perry wrote in her Sept. 9 message.

Several community groups have spoken out during public meetings and have continued to call into meetings from outside now that meetings are closed. Comments have related to having school resource officers in schools, the district’s ban on concealed weapons on campus, and resources and materials related to marginalized communities.

In her letter to the community, Perry said the district’s Safety and Risk Management Services staff investigated the events of an Aug. 9 board meeting. During the public comment section of the meeting, several attendees yelled as others gave public comment.

“The results of that investigation have made it clear that adults from differing ideologies engaged in negative, aggressive, and unacceptable behavior, knowing it would result in conflict, and that the youth who were present did not initiate any conflict,” Perry wrote.

Several board members have become targets of various groups and individuals, referenced directly and indirectly during public comment and on social media. One group is collecting signatures in a recall effort for three board members, including Carson Cottingham.

Satya Chandragiri is among the school board members who is not facing recall. He said he was sad Bethell resigned but wasn’t surprised.

“Harmful attacks on our board directors … mindlessly attacking people, attacking their children, children getting threats of death, and all kinds of nastiness,” Chandragiri said. “Eventually, it will take a toll on a human being.”

While Chandragiri said shouting and threats should not be allowed in school board meetings, he called his board colleagues out publicly and asked the district to re-open board meetings to the public. He said members of the public have been targeted because “they are perceived to be from the white community or have different views.”

“I see a pattern of refusal of our school board and district leadership to take equal action to other misbehaviors at school board meetings,” Chandragiri shared in a statement late last month.

Perry and Carson Cottingham also cited safety concerns for the board’s two student advisors.

It’s not clear when school board meetings will allow the public in person again. But Carson Cottingham said she and the board will continue to focus on its goals, which include improving student academics, board governance, student mental health, school safety policies, and engagement with parents and the broader school community.