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In search of diversity

Dave Valenzuela, superintendent of the Three Rivers School District, praised his school board for supporting his efforts to enforce an equity, diversity and inclusion policy. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Report commissioned by Education Department details ‘lived experiences’ of K-12 superintendents of color, recommends use of search firms and school board members step up support

Three Rivers School District Superintendent Dave Valenzuela has fond memories of his childhood years in Oregon and attending public schools in the district he now leads. But being part of a Hispanic family in the Beaver State wasn’t always easy.

“Growing up here in Southern Oregon and experiencing some of the biases that my father experienced was never something that was wildly oppressive or terrible,” he said. “It was there, it was present. So, it’s something that has resonated with me.”

That’s because people did not always identify Valenzuela as having Mexican heritage because of his “light” skin complexion, but he said his last name “certainly speaks” to his identity. Whatever the case, Valenzuela is not bothered by what people think — he is just more aware of their perceptions.

“It hadn't really crossed my mind before this study took place,” Valenzuela said.

He was referring to a study commissioned and funded by numerous groups, including the Oregon Department of Education, that produced a report called, “Exploring the Lived Experiences of Superintendents of Color in Oregon.”

The document, produced by the Portland-based Education Northwest, was released by the Oregon School Board Association at the beginning of the year.

The study centered around Education Northwest’s interviews with 16 individuals who are or had been school superintendents in Oregon. The interview topics ranged from relationships with their respective school boards to threats to personal safety.

Sabrina Prud’homme, a member of the Ashland Public Schools Board of Directors, praised Education Northwest for developing the study.

“I’m really grateful to the researchers at Education Northwest for kicking off this research process and providing lots of fruitful information, not only for boards, but for superintendents … (and) anyone who reads the research,” she said.

Intentional recruitment

On the hiring front, one of the report’s recommendations was for school boards to bring on a talent acquisition firm to “intentionally recruit and hire superintendents of color.”

Doug Nelson, an Oregon-based consultant for McPherson & Jacobson, a Nebraska-based firm specializing in the recruitment of educational leaders nationwide, helped Grants Pass conduct its recent superintendent search.

A week ago, Grants Pass School District 7 named Tim Sweeney, a former Butte Falls administrator and Eagle Point history teacher, to succeed Kirk Kolb as superintendent. Both men are white.

Nelson said he does not see candidates’ ethnicity listed when he looks at their applications in a database.

“It’s our job to find candidates that will match what the school district (and the school board) desires. That will vary from school district to school district,” Nelson said. “It is important for both women and persons of color. We do have that lens.”

He pointed to data on the McPherson & Jacobson website that says over five years, almost one-fourth of the firm’s applicants have been ethnically diverse, and over a decade, one-third of the boards it has represented have placed ethnically diverse candidates.

The ODE-commissioned “Superintendents of Color in Oregon” report noted that firms can be trained to “facilitate conversations with candidates and school boards about how systemic racism impacts the candidates they bring forward.”

“This is an interesting piece of information for us to consider at this time,” Nelson said.

Board member thoughts on recruitment

Debbie Brownell, a member of the Grants Pass Board of Education, emailed with the newspaper about superintendent recruitment while her district was conducting a nationwide search.

“My personal thinking includes an underlying belief that knowledge, hope and love, (underscores) the relationships needed for the success of District 7,” Brownell wrote. “Communication skills, respect and integrity of character cannot be judged by gender or skin tone.”

She did not think there had been an “overt or implicit bias” in the past three superintendent selections and noted that, just a few months ago, the Southern Oregon Educational Services District conducted an implicit bias workshop, which she attended. That is on top of numerous school board member trainings, both in-person and online.

“Just being on the board has been, and continues to be, an incredible educational experience,” Brownell wrote. “It is all a training, of sorts, in what to look for in a superintendent.”

Prud’homme, of the Ashland school board, posed a rhetorical question when asked about the district’s last superintendent search, which resulted in the appointment of Samuel Bogdanove.

“Were we looking for any (superintendents of color) and would we have been pleased to have any? Absolutely,” Prud’homme said, noting the make-up of the five-member board, three of whom are people of color. “When we think about the conditions that can be attractive to applicants of color, having a board that is majority members of color can create an environment and circumstances that are inviting to superintendents and administrators of color.”

Prud’homme said that although conditions could be seen as ripe for a superintendent of color in Ashland, that doesn’t always mean an applicant of color will apply for the job.

“You can have the conditions, but let’s not forget, we were in a global pandemic where the entire world had been shut down,” she said. “You didn’t have a lot of people making moves.”

Ashland school board member Victor Chang, who joined Prud’homme in a virtual interview with the newspaper, followed up on this point to answer the question of why the Ashland school board did not hire a superintendent of color.

“There were a lot of unique, really extenuating circumstances two years ago,” he said. “We can create a welcoming environment, and that’s one piece of the bigger puzzle.”

But the district and location might not end up being “the best fit” for the candidate, he noted.

On the whole, Chang believes, the Ashland School District is an “inviting place” for all kinds of people of color, including superintendents.

“Despite our predominantly white population, I think this is a community that supports work around equity and diversity,” he said.

The report says school board members influence the “stability” of superintendents and can “make it difficult to advance equitable practices that ultimately benefit students.”

The document suggests school boards look to “strengthen capacity for advancing equity and support school boards and superintendents in their efforts to advance equity.”

Valenzuela praised the Three Rivers board, saying it has been supportive of his efforts to enforce an equity, diversity and inclusion policy to make sure “every single student feels included.”

“They get a lot of pressure from our community, but their courage allows me to be courageous as superintendent,” Valenzuela said.

If the board did not support those equity efforts, he would not feel supported in his leadership position, he added.

Valenzuela admitted he had not yet thought about ways his relationship with the board could be “elevated.”

“But it’s something worth considering,” he said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.