My View as Vice-Chair  

The Eugene 4J School Board and recent allegations of racism

By Gordon Lafer

I was surprised to see Eugene Weekly’s most recent story on the Eugene School District 4J Board (“Signal Ignites 4J Board Meeting,” Feb. 3). Most importantly, I want to respond to charges of racist mistreatment made by board member Laural O’Rourke, and recounted in this story, against Board Chair Maya Rabasa and myself.  

I was originally one of the strongest supporters of board member O’Rourke — because of her intelligence and commitment, the expertise she brought from her work at Lane County and the invaluable insights she brings based on her life experience as a Black woman growing up in Eugene. We agreed on many issues, and we worked together to achieve common goals. 

I have also learned from board member O’Rourke, and had my eyes opened to some of the myriad and subtle ways that racism plays out, that weren’t all obvious to me from the beginning. There were times when I thought that some things she labeled racist were actually just the same kinds of hostility that I had also faced as a new member. But then I saw that while I was criticized, I was not condescended to; I faced opposition, but was not treated as if I were ignorant. So for me, as a white man, the right response to charges of racism is to take them in, give them time, and consider whether in fact they might be true even if it doesn’t necessarily appear so at first blush. 

All of this has led me to mostly remain quiet in the face of increasingly harsh attacks by board member O’Rourke against the three other Board members of color — Chair Maya Rabasa, Michelle Hsu and Keerti Hasija Kaufmann — as well as myself and district leaders. 

But I’m at the point where I can’t do that anymore. I’m not going to spend time defending myself, but I do want to set the record straight about Rabasa. 

Maya Rabasa is the single-most qualified person I know or can imagine to be on this board.  She is a former teacher, has three kids in the 4J system, and has spent literally thousands of hours as a volunteer in 4J classrooms — far more than any other member of the board, ever.  

As a board member and now chair, she works harder and puts in more hours than any other member and any other chair I know of — not just carrying out her official responsibilities but going way above and beyond any normal duties to constantly visit schools, meet with students and staff, and always make herself available to all stakeholder groups who have questions or face personal challenges dealing with the school district. This information is critical to our decision making.   

Her “Heart of the District” reports given at each board meeting that highlight the exemplary work of a different school district employee — is a testament to how much time and effort she puts in to understanding all the nooks and crannies of how our schools actually operate — in detail, on the ground. And that’s exactly the kind of knowledge that is critical to being able to make smart budget or policy decisions. Rabasa has been an unparalleled leader in acquiring that kind of concrete knowledge and sharing it with the rest of the board and the public. 

To have her be accused of being a racist, a fascist or compared to the Nazis is shocking, outrageous and offensive. To hear such a person accused of being controlling, condescending or censorious of voices of color is ludicrous and insulting. There has been zero evidence for any of O’Rourke’s accusations leveled against Maya Rabasa.   

I welcome any opinion and any disagreement about any budget, policy or any other kind of board decision. But there should be no place for these kinds of groundless, personal, toxic public attacks in our board.  

Above all, the board needs to focus on the work we were elected to do – improving services for students and the quality of education in our schools – rather than interpersonal battles.  I’m grateful to have Maya Rabasa leading the board in keeping focused on what matters. 

Gordon Lafer is co-director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Center and is vice chair of the Eugene District 4J School Board.