Fighting for Representation

Laural O’Rourke and Harry Sanger vie for a spot on the 4J school board

In a time when a pandemic has called attention to access to education, equity for people of color and more diversity in schools, every position available on Eugene School District 4J board is now contested.

In mid-March, 4J board member Anne Marie Levis stepped down from her seat on position two and endorsed Laural O’Rourke. Levis told Eugene Weekly that she was looking for the right person to fill her spot, and realized O’Rourke was the right thing for the school board and could do things Levis couldn’t do. 

Shortly after the announcement, a new candidate, Harry Sanger, decided to run for the position, filing on the last day. 

Sanger says he chose to run after seeing that Levis chose to step down. Now the two candidates will be on the ballot for position two of the board for the May 18 special election.

O’Rourke works with Lane County Human Services, currently managing a program that supports residents displaced by the wildfires and is a parent of 4J students. In addition to Levis’ endorsement, she has received the backing of the Eugene Education Association, former Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy and several current 4J board members, among others. 

Sanger, a project coordinator with Lane Transit District (LTD) and a board member of the River Road Community organization, says he had not yet received endorsements at the time he was interviewed for this article.

One of the central ideas of O’Rourke’s platform is addressing equity, specifically the question of how to get equity into schools when there is no Black or Indigenous voice. O’Rourke says there needs to be other voices on the board who bring their perspectives to the table. People who know the pain of marginalization need to be heard.

“I understand it at the profound level, which they will not, and then it is not just the monolithic white voice, which we have now,” O’Rourke says. 

Another component of building equity is bettering communication between other parents and teachers O’Rourke says. As a mother of three children with Individualized Education Plans (IEP), which help kids with disabilities, she says parents don’t feel listened to when they advocate for the best course of action for their children, and teachers don’t feel like they can speak freely.

O’Rourke adds that part of cultivating different perspectives is having a diverse workforce, which she also advocates for. Growing up in Eugene, O’Rourke says she knows the struggle of being the only Black person in a classroom.

“I never had a teacher who looked like me at school, not once,” she says. “That would have been amazing.” Though O’Rourke acknowledges that there has been progress, it is still a problem. 

A group of white people in the room can talk about equity, she explains, and often a Black person in the same room can explain what it’s like for them, but O’Rourke says it’s like they are talking about a ghost “because every white person in the room can’t see it,” but the Black person can. These issues should be addressed by helping retain teachers of color and having stronger policies against biased treatment, she says.

O’Rourke also wants the district to better prepare kids for graduation and provide better support and resources for those who do not end up attending college. The idea, which she calls “skills before bills,” will help those who want to pursue trade school or other non-collegiate careers. She says a student’s safety time is before they turn 18, when they have to be in school.

“What would be best if someone says, ‘I don’t want to go to college, I want to do something else’? What if they could leave school and go to a local beauty school or welding school?” O’Rourke says. 

Regardless of how the election pans out, O’Rourke wants to continue to advocate for these issues and for students of color.

 “I see daily what it means to be a Black person in this community, and we have a lot of work to do,” she says. “I want to be a part of that work.”

Sanger has some different ideas about representation and what he wants to see change in the district. He says his motivation for running is to be a voice for parents who are frustrated with how schools are operating, he says. As a 4J parent, Sanger says that he’s often thought highly of 4J schools, but was upset with the way the district handled COVID-19 and the return to in-person teaching.

“I understand that in reopening schools we have to follow the guidelines put in place statewide, but I was disappointed that 4J didn’t have a solid plan ready to go,” Sanger says. He adds that he understands both parents that wanted more and parents who wanted less restrictions.

Acknowledging the district did some things well, such as shifting to online learning in a short time frame and the lunch program, Sanger says there seemed to be a lack of support for IEP students.

“Distance learning has a lot of caveats. After a year of doing this we need to figure out a way for individual cases better,” he says, adding that at the end of the day, no parent should be forced to send their kids back to in-person learning. 

Sanger also says he wants to address transparency and accountability in general. He says the 4J board meetings hardly take any comments, maxing out at around 10 speakers and only letting them speak for several minutes. He says LTD tries to accommodate anyone who wants to speak. 

“The way it is now is really limiting,” Sanger says. “We need a way for parents to have direct lines of communication.”

He is also advocating for strategic use of taxpayer money. The district needs to recognize that the past year has been extremely difficult, Sanger says, and there must be enough mental health resources available for students who are struggling. 

“The focus was lost in the last year. They are the future and we owe it to them to provide the best we can with resources we have,” Sanger says.

O’Rourke is also advocating for more mental health resources for students, and wants to set up a peer counseling program. One of the reasons Levis decided to drop out of the race and endorse O’Rourke was their aligned views on mental health in schools.