Once upon a time school board elections were a sleepy affair. Mostly the problem was finding candidates willing to serve in a position marked by long hours, boring meetings, and no pay.
That time has passed for the Salem-Keizer School District. Recent elections have been marked by competing slates of candidates: progressive and conservative. This makes what used to be a nonpartisan election highly political.
Politics definitely was on display at today's forum for school board candidates vying for three positions in the May 16 Special District Election. The forum was jointly sponsored by the Salem City Club, Salem Chamber of Commerce, and the Keizer Chamber of Commerce.
Five of the six candidates took part in the forum.
From left to right in the photo above, Larry Scruggs is running against Krissy Hudson; Kelly Strawn is running against Satya Chandragiri; and Casity Troutt is running against the missing Cynthia Richardson, who reportedly had a conflict and couldn't attend.
Well, even though Richardson wasn't at the forum, she featured in an exchange that definitely grabbed my attention -- since much of the discussion up to that point had been full of platitudes.
No big surprise: all of the candidates think they're well qualified to be on the school board, want schools to be safe, support parental involvement in their children's education, favor openness and transparency, want to improve student learning; and such.
The headline of the forum came when each of the candidates was able to ask a question of their opponent. Troutt was told by the moderator that she couldn't ask a question because her opponent, Richardson, was absent.
Troutt is part of the conservative slate, along with Chandragiri and Hudson. The progressive slate is Richardson, Strawn, and Scruggs.
This helps explain why, when it came time for Chandragiri to ask a question of Strawn, he acted as a surrogate for Troutt. Chandragiri's question was whether Strawn would call out Richardson for not protecting victims of sexual assault.
Wow! That was a shocker of a question. I had no idea what Chandragiri was talking about.
Strawn said that he wanted to keep students safe, adding that he hasn't talked with Richardson but that it's bad to turn a personal issue into something political by an entire slate. Meaning, the conservative slate of Troutt, Chandragiri, and Hudson.
When the forum was over and the City Club president was making some routine remarks, I fired up my iPhone to search for "Cynthia Richardson school board sexual assault." What popped up was an April 27 post in the Oregon Catalyst by Patrick Kirsch: My 8-year old was sexually assaulted. Cynthia Richardson refused to help.
It's short, so I'll copy in the entire post by Kirsch.
I’m a parent, veteran, and resident of Salem. I don’t like to be involved in politics, but I can’t stay silent about the May 16th election.
I was shocked last week when I opened my voter pamphlet and saw that Cynthia Richardson has the audacity to run for the Salem-Keizer School Board. I know Cynthia as the head of the Salem-Keizer Office of Student Equity, Access, and Advancement. In that role she refused to stand up for a student in her district at the time she was most needed.
Last fall, my 8 year-old daughter was sexually assaulted at a Salem-Keizer school. I went through all the steps I could with the district to try to keep her safe. I was frustrated that they refused to do more than move the other student—who had assaulted my daughter more than once in the same day—to another classroom. I was told I was “lucky” to get that much.
I asked for staff to do something—anything—to acknowledge to my 8-year-old that this was wrong and that they were sorry they couldn’t protect her. She got nothing.
I reached out to the one person who I thought would be able to get something done—Cynthia Richarson, who heads a significant department and is supposedly there to help students have a safe and supportive learning environment. I thought surely because my daughter is biracial that Cynthia would care. She did not.
Over two phone calls with Cynthia Richardson where I asked her to get involved in the next steps in caring for and protecting my daughter she did nothing. Instead, the first thing she asked was why my daughter didn’t scream. As if it was my 8-year-old’s fault that nothing was done to protect her!
What is incredible is I was told by a school psychologist that even in cases of rape of students the district policy is to not move the offender from the school.
Cynthia Richardson has had the responsibility of leading the Salem-Keizer School District for years. Yet under her leadership the district seems uninterested in standing up for victims of sexual assault and even less interested in listening to parents.
If Cynthia Richardson can’t keep students safe, we can’t trust her to serve us on the school board.
Here's my take on what Kirsch said. Naturally I detest the idea of sexual assault. But I'm a political junkie, and some things seem out of place about Kirsch's post.
First, the Oregon Catalyst is a well-known conservative blog. It's "About" page says:
Oregon Catalyst started in 2005 as [a] place for conservative Oregonians to gather and share news, commentary, and gossip. Today, it is the largest Conservative political blog in Oregon.
So I find it curious that Hirsch starts off by saying that he doesn't like to be involved in politics, yet chose to write a post about his daughter's sexual assault for the largest conservative political blog in Oregon.
I'll assume that he really did learn about Richardson's school board candidacy through the voter's pamphlet.
OK. Then what made him choose to tell his story via the Oregon Catalyst, a highly political blog? Why not contact a journalist at the Statesman Journal or Salem Reporter? This makes me wonder whether Hirsch isn't the non-political person he claims to be, given his decision to write a guest opinion for the Oregon Catalyst.
I also am skeptical that if a sexual assault truly did occur, school officials (including Richardson) were as uncaring as Hirsch claims. We're only getting one side of the story here. This afternoon I emailed Richardson's campaign asking if they had a response to the Oregon Catalyst post. Haven't heard from them yet.
Now, it might be that Hirsch was so disturbed by learning about Richardson's candidacy that he is now trying to harm her chances of being elected. However, the question remains: why did Hirsch choose a conservative political blog to tell his story?
I heard from someone who also attended today's forum that Hirsch was the person who tried to ask a question from the audience after the Q&A portion of the meeting was over, and was told that time was up by the moderator.
What's unclear at this point is whether Hirsch just is an upset parent who wants to hold Richardson accountable for what he views as a dereliction of duty, or if he's being used by the conservative slate of candidates to cast aspersions upon Richardson's candidacy -- knowing that she's likely bound by school confidentiality requirements to not say much, if anything, about the sexual assault allegation.
I suspect both things are true. Hirsch is an upset parent who is being used for political purposes.
In other forum news, you won't be surprised to learn that all of the conservative candidates are anti-abortion and are proud to be getting the support of Oregon Right to Life. Which is one reason, among many, why I continue to advise that you vote for the progressive slate of candidates. (By the way, Larry Scruggs is better looking and younger looking than his photo.)