The deadline to run for school board in the May 16 special election is Thursday, March 16.
As of a week before the deadline, there are at least 70 school board seats open across the state with no one slated to run.
That includes seats on school district boards, community college boards and education service district boards.
School boards have an important role in running a school district: They set policy, pass the budget, and supervise the superintendent. But seats across the state remain wide open.
Several districts only have one wide open race, but a handful of districts have multiple seats open with zero candidates. Several races only have one candidate filing.
That’s not unusual. The Oregon School Boards Association keeps track of past elections, and in 2021, there were 28 races with zero candidates, about 4% of races. Around 55% of races only had one candidate.
OSBA will not have numbers for this election cycle until after the filing deadline, and a lot can change in the next week. Election officials say some candidates file at the last minute.
Sonja McKenzie is on the board for the Parkrose School district in Portland and the president of OSBA.
In Parkrose, two seats are open without any candidates filed. Appointed board members in those seats intend to file before Thursday.
Brenda Rivas was appointed to the Parkrose school board in July 2022. She intends to file her application to run Monday.
“I’ve enjoyed being on the school board and it’s an important role and I want to continue giving back,” Rivas said.
But there may also be more zero-candidate races this year than two years ago. Philomath, Marcola, Forest Grove, Corbett, Sheridan and Jefferson County schools all have two or three seats open without anyone filed to run in them.
McKenzie said she’s heard from long-time board members who are ready to move on, or whose priorities have changed. But she also recognizes the tense environment school boards have been in recently, and thinks that may contribute to school districts with multiple open seats.
“We’ve been through a really difficult time the last few years as board members,” McKenzie said.
“We’ve had to make really challenging decisions that were not always celebrated in community that’s made that job a little harder [...] some of those vacancies may be a result of that,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said that may be the case in places where there are multiple open seats. At the same time, school boards have an important job and empty seats mean less representation and school board business getting done.
“It’s just not good in terms of what the school board is able to do,” McKenzie said. “That’s really important — that impacts the district in what they can do, in their operations, it’s really important that we find folks that have the capacity and time and interest to do that work. It is a time commitment.”
Vacant positions will be filed by the current school board through an appointment process. Though appointed candidates are not elected, sometimes they end up running in future elections, like the two board members in Parkrose.
“It’s a great opportunity to get oriented to the role,” McKenzie said.
Eva-Jeanette Rawlins is another appointed Parkrose board member who intends to run for her seat. She said being on the board has allowed her to use her power to advocate for students, families and staff.
“Parkrose is a small district, and is often overlooked and underrepresented in statewide conversations about education, and I have made it my goal to change that,” Rawlins said in an email to OPB. She mentioned the environmental impacts on a planned warehouse near Parkrose High School
“It would be unthinkable in many Portland neighborhoods, but unfortunately, it’s just a historical reality for communities like Parkrose. I’m sick of how undervalued our kids are when it comes to these kinds of decisions, and I see it as my responsibility as a board member to prove to them that we will fight for their fundamental right to breathe clean air.”
Not every school district is facing vacant seats. Competitive races include all four races in North Clackamas, where each has more than one candidate filed, as well as Newberg and Medford. One race in Medford has four candidates vying for one position. In Newberg, school board policies have drawn attention that may have translated to more candidates filing.
The state school boards association offers resources to folks interested in running, a website with resources and frequently asked questions about running for school board.
To anyone interested in running, Derrick Sterling, supervisor of elections for Linn County, said make sure you’re qualified to run for office and call your local board of elections if you’re unsure. There will also be a filing fee — in Linn County, it’s $10.
It’s not just school board races that are without candidates either.
“There’s also a number of fire and water districts that have not had filings come in either,” Sterling said.
The filing deadline is 5 p.m. March 16.
For anyone interested in running for school board, McKenzie encourages people to spend time in school board meetings and get involved in community events.
“Creating a great website is wonderful, but be out in the community, talk to people, and let them know who you are,” McKenzie said.
Talking to people is good preparation for the public speaking required of a board member. McKenzie said it’s also a good skill in developing your “why” — why you want to run and serve on a school board.
Seven years ago, McKenzie’s why was her son, who worked on a youth campaign when he was a freshman in high school.
“He was my inspiration for running,” she said. “To see him talking to school boards, he went to City Hall, spoke about youth advocacy — I was so motivated and inspired by that.”