Racist Controversies Prompt Changes At Two Regional School Boards

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB) and Troy Brynelson (OPB)
July 1, 2020 11:28 p.m.
Members of the Vancouver Public Schools board of directors Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

Members of the Vancouver Public Schools board of directors Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

Molly Solomon / OPB

In efforts to move past recent, racist controversies, two Pacific Northwest school districts shook up their board leadership on Wednesday.

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In Southwest Washington, a board member was forced to resign over comments directed at people protesting racial injustice, while one of Oregon’s largest school district saw a shakeup in board leadership after racist behavior and associations drew public condemnation.

A Newcomer In Vancouver

A month after a school board member resigned over controversial statements about Black Lives Matters protestors, Vancouver Public Schools appointed a replacement Wednesday.

Camara Banfield, a Clark County prosecutor, will fill the seat vacated by Mark Stoker and serve out the remainder of his term, ending December 2021. She said she was “honored,” in a prepared statement.

“I am passionate about making a positive impact for our students with the assistance of our ever-growing diverse community and the other directors of the board,” Banfield said.

Her predecessor, Stoker, resigned June 1 after an uproar. Two days prior, he replied to a tweet concerned about property damage during protests in Seattle by saying “Two words! Fire Hoses!” The comment was slammed for invoking brutal police tactics during the Civil Rights movement and led the district’s top official to broadly condemn racism.

Banfield, a Black woman, joins a school board itself trying to resolve issues of equity.

Before Banfield’s appointment, the school board was entirely Caucasian. Meanwhile, nearly half of Vancouver Public Schools’ 23,400 students identify as people of color, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

And, last year the Washington Attorney General found Vancouver Public Schools disproportionately disciplined disabled students and students of color.

Wendy Smith, board president, said Banfield’s insights professionally and personally will help the district.

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“As we start looking at issues like equity in our schools and issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, I think she’ll have insight that none of us can offer,” she said. “That’s going to be important work. It’s going to take a lot of commitment from everybody involved to make sure it’s done well and done right.”

Changes In Salem-Keizer Board Leadership

The Salem-Keizer school board chose new leaders Wednesday, elevating a chair and vice-chair who have only been on the board for a year.

With a vote of four to three, board members chose psychiatrist Satya Chandragiri to lead the board for the next year.

“Together we can address many major issues ahead of us including budget shortfalls, isolation, how our schools will look like as we reopen,” Chandragiri said.

Satya Chandragiri is the new Salem-Keizer school board chair. It's been a year since he and new vice chair Danielle Bethell took office.

Satya Chandragiri is the new Salem-Keizer school board chair. It's been a year since he and new vice chair Danielle Bethell took office.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

In recent weeks, the board of one of Oregon’s largest districts has dealt with calls for two board members to resign after allegations of racist behavior.

Community members have signed petitions and submitted public comments asking board member Paul Kyllo and previous board chair Marty Heyen to resign. At a board meeting this past spring, Kyllo covered his face with the mask of a Black retired Portland Trail Blazers player for over an hour. Heyen has been accused of being associated with white supremacists and racist groups.

District superintendent Christy Perry recently called the board out for not listening to student concerns and asked board members to commit to anti-racism as a guiding principle. She also advocated for board member Sheronne Blasi to take over the board chair position from Marty Heyen. Blasi received three votes for the chair position and one for vice-chair

“We need to heal, this is fundamental to ensure our school is a safe space for learning and healing,” Chandragiri said. “I condemn racism. It’s wrong, it’ll damage our health, education, safety and our entire nation. There should be no room for any hate or discrimination.”

The board picked fellow newcomer Danielle Bethell as vice-chair. Bethell is running for Marion County Commission.

Bethell became emotional as she talked about recent events.

“I never thought in my life I would be among a community that it is in such disarray, Bethell said. “Difficult times and difficult decisions need really thoughtful, reflective leadership.”

Both Chandragiri and Bethell will serve one-year terms.

“We need unity, we need understanding, and we need respect, and we need to all show up,” Bethell said.

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