Desire for school board diversity fails to draw recruits
"I don't want to be the only one."
"There's not enough support from fellow civic leaders like other school board members and people in the city."
"It will be challenging to have a perspective that's so different from everyone else."
These are the kind of comments local Latino activists have been hearing when they've talked with Latino community members about running for a position on the local school board.
Last May, a handful of racially charged incidents at Forest Grove High School led to a student walkout and sparked community-wide concern about Latino voices not being heard, including on the school board.
Then-freshman Max Kimberly reported that in a class discussion about the walkout, a major theme was how the all-white school board doesn't reflect the community's demographics and "the most important thing is getting a more diverse school board."
But nine months later, there seems to be little enthusiasm.
Eddie Bolaños works at Centro Cultural in Cornelius but on his own time he also advises a student group, United We Stand, which formed in response to the walkout as a way for students countywide to collaborate on racial issues.
Bolaños thinks the political climate has a lot to do with why Latino community members in Forest Grove and Cornelius aren't running for school board seats.
"I think people are afraid to speak up in fear of being shut down," Bolaños said. "People aren't as comfortable as they were in May."
He said recent executive orders from President Donald Trump have the local immigrant community on edge because they seem to target all undocumented immigrants for deportation instead of focusing mainly on those who have committed crimes (beyond entering the country illegally) as the Obama administration did.
Deadline is March 16
Several board positions are up for election this May in the Banks, Gaston and Forest Grove school districts, none of which include any Latino members. About 7 percent of students are Latino in the Banks School District; 12 percent are Latino in Gaston; roughly half in Forest Grove.
But currently, only incumbents have filed for the Banks (Norie Dimeo-Ediger and Raymond Mott) and Forest Grove (John Hayes, Charless Waterman and Lonnie Winkler) school boards with no one yet filing for Gaston's. The filing deadline is Thursday, March 16.
On his own time, Bolaños has been trying to recruit Latinos of all ages — from parents and community leaders to 18-year-old high school students.
Bolaños himself cannot run because he is not a Forest Grove resident. He lives in Hillsboro.
One of the people he contacted, Angie Flores, is a Forest Grove High School senior who organized a small group of students (including herself) to testify in front of the school board last spring about race-related issues. She is also a member of United We Stand.
Flores told the News-Times Bolaños had mentioned the upcoming deadline for the school board election but she had not thought much about it since then.
Adelante Mujeres Education Department Manager Patricia Alvarado has mentioned the school board election to several participants in Adelante's programs, but was met with luke-warm enthusiasm.
Communications Coordinator Megan Eatough said Adelante staff encourage civic engagement among their clients and would provide them with leadership training and support.
But none of them are having much success. "I've been pushing and prodding but so far I've come up empty-handed," said Bolaños.
Bolaños isn't the only one trying to recruit Latinos. After a disappointing 2015 election in which 80 percent of the available school board positions across the state drew only one or zero candidates, the Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) has embarked on its own campaign to recruit more school board candidates from diverse backgrounds.
Anecdotal evidence shows the vast majority of school board members are Anglo, said OSBA communications director Alex Pulaski, even though one-third of Oregon students are non-Anglo.
Pulaski and other OSBA staff members have been reaching out for help from community groups such as nonprofits focusing on racial minorities, as well as civic-engagement organizations such as Parent Teacher Associations and the League of Women Voters.
"Schools' demographics are changing and it's important our societal structures reflect that," said Pulaski. The ratio of minority school board members to students doesn't have to be one-to-one, "but different backgrounds and experiences allow us to understand each other and the things that make us different, as well as our common goals that unify us."
If a Latino school board member happened to grow up in a family of migrant workers, for example, they might be able to provide a unique perspective on the challenges students face as a part of a migrant family.
Pulaski understands the excuses people offer for not running. "But every trail needs a trail blazer," he said, pointing to the Woodburn School Board, which swore in its first Latino member a few years ago — in a district where more than 80 percent of the students are Latino. The board now has two Latino members. "For those paths to begin, someone has to be first," he said.
Pulaski also understands being a school board member is often a thankless job. It's unpaid, the meetings can be long, and school decisions often receive public criticism.
"But we've been trying to emphasize how important the work of a school board member is," said Pulaski. "It is not easy. Despite the challenges, there are rewards and the children need great leadership."