PENDLETON — Change is coming to the Pendleton School Board.
With incumbents Gary George, Debbie McBee and Steve Umbarger all retiring at the end of June, nearly half of the board will change hands after the May 18 election. A wide field of candidates entered their names to fill the open seats, and for the first time in decades, each election will be contested.
All three races are at-large, meaning any voter living in the Pendleton School District will get a chance to weigh in on each race.
Over a series of interviews, the candidates not only shared their thoughts on how Pendleton schools have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also how they plan to address long-standing issues, such as school funding and student equity.
Beth Harrison and Rodney Thompson are at different stages of their involvement with the Pendleton School District, but each thinks their experiences will make them a good fit for the school board.
Harrison, who is vying with Thompson to replace Umbarger for the Position 1 seat, was born on an Army base in South Korea but grew up in Utah. After graduating with a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina, Harrison put her career aside to focus on raising her family in Pendleton.
She has seven children, five of whom still attend Pendleton schools, and Harrison spends some of her non-parenting time volunteering in the classroom and with various community organizations.
“I really enjoy children and the opportunities I’ve had to interact with them and I hope that that perspective could be useful,” she said.
Thompson is a veteran and a retired locksmith, and although his children have long since graduated out of Pendleton schools, he thinks his experience working for a foreign exchange program for 20 years gives him some unique insights as he helped connect children from around the world with Eastern Oregon high schools.
With the Pendleton School District beginning to resume full-day classes after a yearlong COVID-19 shutdown, Thompson anticipated that many of the students struggled with the time out of the classroom and needed to make up for lost time.
He recalled the year his childhood school in Douglas County opened late because Interstate 5 construction made the school building inaccessible. Despite starting the school year in October, Thompson said the school made up for it by holding classes six days a week and every day that wasn’t a holiday.
“I’m probably the only person I’ve ever talked to (who) went to school the day after Thanksgiving,” he said.
Like many of the other candidates, Harrison praised the district for how they were able to adapt to the pandemic, noting that Pendleton’s reopening plans were more workable than some of the others she’s seen.
This is the first time either Preston Eagleheart or Joey GrosJacques have run for the Pendleton School Board, but both have already built up a record of public service.
GrosJacques grew up in Pilot Rock, and he “fell in love” with education after he started serving on its school board in 2015. Getting hired to help lead Blue Mountain Community College’s TRiO Student Support Services program spurred a move to Pendleton and cut short his term in Pilot Rock.
But GrosJacques is ready to get back in the saddle in Pendleton, where he hopes to use the same “students first” mindset that he does at BMCC.
An enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Eagleheart is the managing director of Cayuse Government Services, a tribal enterprise that provides technology services for city, tribal and state governments.
Beyond his work, Eagleheart touted his experience as a member of the Oregon Native American Chamber Board of Directors and the Oregon STEM Investment Council, a group charged with working with the state to double the percentage of fourth and eighth graders who are proficient in math and science, and doubling the number of students who earn post-secondary degrees in STEM fields.
When either Eagleheart or GrosJacques takes office to fill the Position 4 seat held by George, they’ll have to deal with a budget that’ll be affected by legislative negotiations at a state level and is still missing the $300,000 in local revenue from a previous levy, which was voted down by Pendleton residents in May 2020.
“There’s a lot of unknowns moving into this next fiscal year,” Eagleheart said. “And really understanding where these dollars are allocated to is going to be very important.”
For his part, GrosJacques said he’s tracking the ongoing negotiations in Salem, noting the Oregon School Boards Association feels like the state’s education budget proposal is still insufficient.
Eagleheart was arrested on DUII charges in 2002 and 2003. Eagleheart said those incidents were the result of bad decisions he made in his 20s, and he felt lucky that he didn’t hurt himself or others at the time. He said he’s taken steps to move past those mistakes, and Oregon court records show he hasn’t faced criminal charges since 2003.
A third candidate, Chris Garrigues, will be listed on the ballot, but he’s no longer seeking the seat.
At a Monday, April 19, school board meeting, McBee announced that Garrigues had been hired as a math teacher at Pendleton High School. Because state law prohibits district employees serving on the same school board where they work, Garrigues’ campaign is effectively over.
“I have heard nothing but good things about Joey and Preston,” he wrote in an email. “The school district will benefit to have either of their voices representing the community.”
In the race to succeed McBee for Position 7, both candidates pointed to their life experiences as inspirations for their campaigns.
Like many students in the Pendleton School District, Briana Spencer said she spent her childhood dealing with issues like poverty, the foster system and providing care for younger family members.
An enrolled member of the CTUIR and an activist who helped organize local Black Lives Matter protests over summer 2020, Spencer said a willingness to engage in public service should be a shared responsibility.
“I’m running to continue that fight of improving and providing a quality and equitable education for all students and to continue ... an upward path of providing an education that will ensure children have a bright future and (a) fighting chance in society,” she said.
Gregg grew up in Wilsonville near Portland, and he felt like the quality education he received helped propel him toward future success. Although he chose a career in law, Gregg said he’s the child of an educator and a police officer, and they helped instill a sense of public service in him.
With two of his three children now moving through the Pendleton school system and his wife working as the ASPIRE coordinator at Pendleton High School, Gregg felt ready to contribute at the board level.
One of the most persistent aspects of the Pendleton School District is an achievement gap between American Indian and white students. Whether it’s math or English scores, graduation rates or attendance, American Indian students tend to perform lower than their peers in Pendleton.
Spencer said part of the solution could lie in a better understanding of tribal customs and traditions surrounding funerals and exercising treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather.
But Spencer said the district could also play a more active role by regularly attending meetings for the Nixyaawii School Board, the CTUIR Education and Training Committee or the Tribes’ Head Start Policy Council.
Gregg said the board would need to ask the superintendent why there’s a gap, and then set benchmarks to address the issue.
“If a particular approach isn’t working, then I think we shouldn’t be hesitant to revisit that approach and figure out, ‘OK, we’ve tried this, that hasn’t helped close this gap,’” he said.
Spencer has experience serving on a school board, having previously served a term on the Nixyaawii School Board. She was recently elected again to the board after spending some time away, and if she wins the seat on the Pendleton School Board, she will have to choose which one to serve on in accordance with state law.