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Changing the School Governance Model
School boards with zones compared to those without

Oregon has over 190 public school districts. Some of them are very large with thousands of kids and multiple schools, and some of them have less than 100 kids total for K-12 education. However, they all have one thing in common. They are all governed by locally elected officials that serve on the school board of directors. School board members are responsible for setting and approving school district policy, managing the superintendent, and most importantly they approve the district operating budget and manage grants, bond, and other special funds received by the district.

Currently under ORS 332.122, Nominations of directors is conducted as follows:

(1) in common school districts and union high school districts the directors may be nominated in one of the following methods or a combination thereof:
(a) At large by position number by the electors of the district.
(b)By zone by electors of zones, if zoning is approved by the electors under ORS 332.128 (Establishing zones for purpose of nominating directors).

What this means it that school board members may be selected for a seat by the collective voters of the district or the district may decide to create zones and each position on the board is represented by a zone within the district. The decision to have zones or members elected by the entire voting district is a determination made by the voters in the district, not the school board or the state.

Today, in Oregon, over 80% of the school district boards of directors are elected by the entire voting population of the district, they are NOT zone based. This list includes some of the largest schools in the state like Hillsboro School District with over 20,000 students and some of the smallest like Condon School District with less than 150 students. These school districts have decided that they prefer that the Board be elected from the voters at large, not from zones.

However, Representative Sarah Gelser (D-Corvallis) wants to change that model. This week the Senate will introduce SB 793 sponsored by Senator Gelser. It would require that all school district boards be made up of members from zones. It removes local control no matter how large or small the district. Only one of the three school districts in Senate District 8 is represented by a zone, Greater Albany Public School District 8j. So why is she trying to force 80-% of the school boards in the state to change how they elect the Board of Directors?

School Board seats are non-partisan positions voted on during a Special District election so the strategy of creating political supermajorities on school boards is not in play. However, in a legislative session where equity is one of the major focuses, it begs the question is Senator Gelser introducing SB793 as a tool to drive diversity on School Boards?



Forcing all districts to become zone based, instead a representative of the district as a whole, may have unintended consequences. Filling school board seats is no easy task. School board elections are often uncontested or even filled with write in candidates. Zones have the potential to make this even more challenging.

For example, Central School district in Polk County with around 3,500 kids, serves students from Independence, Monmouth and the surrounding areas. The board is made up of seven members from seven zones. In May of 2019, the last Special District Election for Central School District, there were four vacancies on the board. Three of the seats were won by write in candidates. In each of those three zones, the winning candidates received 14%, 8% and 4% of the eligible votes for their respective zones. The fourth zone was won by an unopposed candidate. In other words, no one really wanted to serve on the school board. Central School District is not the exception to the rule. Would there have been more candidates if there were not zones?

So what problem is Senator Gelser trying to solve by changing the rules now, this legislative session? Over half of the total school board seats in the state are up for grabs at the May 18, 2021 Special Districts election. Those election winners will then be on their respective boards for 4 years. The next major statewide school board election will not take place until 2023, so what is the purpose behind SB793? Maybe she will share that information with everyone once the bill is scheduled for a hearing.

--Staff Reports

Post Date: 2021-03-01 10:38:39Last Update: 2021-03-01 10:48:07

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