Some differences emerge on issues related to racial equity and climate education
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
Candidates for the Ashland School District Board have more in common than not, but still offer a distinct choice for voters during Tuesday’s election.
Russell Phillips and Dan Ruby are running for Position 2, while Toria Clason and Russell Hatch are running for position 5.
The seats are currently held by incumbent directors Sabrina Prud’homme and Victor Chang, respectively, who chose not to seek re-election.
All four candidates are political newcomers with kids in the district and a desire to help Ashland emerge from the shadows of COVID, wildfires and the housing crisis. Though largely in agreement on these and other issues, the candidates still bring unique perspectives and goals to the table.
Phillips first moved to Ashland in 1999 to attend Southern Oregon University and is currently CEO and president of DomeGuys International, a local firm specializing in construction of geodesic domes. He has two students attending Helman Elementary School and was a member of the district’s Rebalancing Committee. He also was arrested on various charges over the course of a few months in 2002. His discussion with Ashland.news about that record appears below.
Ruby works for Rogue Community Health as senior director of strategic partnership, and has a background in STEM education and community outreach at institutions like ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum and University of Nevada. He has two teenagers attending Ashland schools.
Clason is a stay-at-home mom and active volunteer in school programs, having served as a board member for the Parent Teacher Organization and a committee representative for the Talented and Gifted program. She has five children attending school in the district.
Hatch is a coach at and owner of Ashland Hero Academy, a martial arts school, and also offers self-defense instruction at Ashland Middle School. He has three children in the district and has been a school volunteer and PTA member.
Largely in agreement
All four candidates spoke on a variety of topics during a candidate forum April 23 organized by the Ashland branch of the American Association of University Women.
One point on which they were in unison was the need for affordability in town, for both students and teachers. All four said families and teachers were being priced out of Ashland and, though it is not the official responsibility of the school board to address housing costs, they should still engage with community partners who can act on the issue.
Phillips spoke of his own experience buying a house in Medford years ago when he would rather live in Ashland because they could not afford local housing prices. He said they eventually saved enough money to buy a home in Ashland, where he preferred to raise his kids.
“If we can offer services like pre-K, summer school and childcare with partners like the YMCA and city of Ashland, we can ease the burden of affordability and bring families back to Ashland,” said Phillips.
They also agreed on an urgent need to address mental health concerns and learning gaps produced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ruby said the district has access to many community resources and would benefit from partnerships with organizations such as La Clinica healthcare center in Medford.
“The behavioral health needs of our students are high and increasing,” he said.
When asked if students should be given opportunities for input in administration-level decision making, the candidates gave their resounding support. Clason said giving students a seat at the table would allow them to have more skin in the game and feel more invested in administrative outcomes.
“The best way to solve these problems and come to agreements and solutions is with buy-ins with both sides,” she said.
Candidates likewise agreed that it is not the time to consider adding charter schools or new choice schools due to the impact these would have on district resources, likely diverting funding and staff when the district cannot afford to lose either. Hatch said it is more important for the district to focus on providing equitable access for students to existing schools.
“It’s not something that’s feasible at this time,” he said of adding new schools.
Starting to differ
Candidates began to differ on issues related to racial equity and climate education, though not to wide degrees.
When asked if they would promote Black History Month and the teaching of U.S. slavery, Phillips, Ruby and Hatch said they fully support bringing these topics before students.
“It’s really important for our future generations to have as complete a picture of the world as possible,” said Hatch.
Clason said the events of history should not be hidden from students, but the way these difficult topics are taught should take grade levels into account.
“I think they should be taught at age-appropriate levels to include hard and emotionally charged discussions,” she said.
Candidates also varied in how they would represent racial minorities if elected. All four candidates are white, while outgoing directors Prud’homme and Chang are currently the only people of color on the board.
Phillips said he would approach the matter like his business and, if he finds himself out of his depth, find experts who can advise him. Ruby said he has similarly turned to consultants in the past, and said his personal responsibility on the issue of racial equity would be “just shutting up.”
Clason said she was “very well-connected in the Ashland community” and said these relationships will help her promote cultural diversity. Hatch said the board must be “vigilant” on this topic and should partner with community groups that are already doing a good job promoting racial equity in Ashland.
When asked about teaching climate change in schools, Phillips said climate change has become a fact of life and will be an even more pressing matter for children, and should be a part of their curriculum. Ruby called climate change “the defining science issue of our lifetime” and said a proposed statewide curriculum on climate change would be a helpful resource for teachers.
Clason said she was “not a huge fan of states dumping more things on our teachers” and she would want to evaluate any new curriculum before incorporating it into the district. Hatch said the proposed statewide curriculum would not entail an entire course, but would be added to existing classes about science, and that teaching climate change is important because of how much it is going to affect childrens’ lives.
When asked about book bans and the district’s Reconsideration Committee that reviews book complaints, Phillips said he agrees with the committee’s standards for review and that hiding information from kids just encourages them to find it through unhealthy channels. Ruby said he opposes book bans “full stop” and that Google search results can be far worse than anything in a school library.
Clason said she values “age appropriateness and parents being informed” when it comes to the information students are exposed to. Hatch said it should be “extremely difficult to limit access to knowledge,” while any policy to ban books in schools should have strong community support.
Ready to serve
When each candidate was asked why they should be elected, they said they are ready to work hard and lean on their experiences and their passion for Ashland.
“While we are doing a good job already, I know there is room for growth and I will listen to our students, staff and parents and employ strategies to address the issues through a lens of equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Phillips.
“It’s a lot of work to do school board stuff, but I have 20 years of experience as an educator and as an administrator, and I’m ready to do that work,” said Ruby.
“I care about kids and education and I know my life was really enriched by the education I received,” said Clason. “I’m a listener and a connector of people and I can bring people together for common goals.”
“I’m very invested in the state of our schools,” said Hatch. “Seeking a position on the school board should be a commitment to doing the work needed to build on our district’s strengths and build that success for all our future generations.”
Phillips talks about his criminal record
Ashland School Board candidate Russell Phillips doesn’t try to hide his criminal history or the difficulties of his 20s.
Phillips was convicted of fourth-degree assault, a class A misdemeanor, in 2002 in Jackson County Circuit Court. At the time of his arrest that January he was 20 years old.
Phillips received 15 months of probation, including domestic violence counseling, while additional charges of menacing, harassment, second-degree criminal mischief and interfering with making a police report were dismissed.
“I’ve made bad decisions in the past and it’s unfortunate and I’m not proud of it,” Phillips told Ashland.News.
Details of the event were not immediately accessible in court records, and Phillips did not elaborate on the assault. He said the incident happened during “dark days” that involved alcohol abuse.
Five months after his assault arrest, Phillips was arrested in Jackson County for DUII. He entered a diversion program and, after completing the program in 2003, the charge was dismissed.
His only other criminal case in Oregon was a felony charge of first-degree theft in 2000 in Deschutes County. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor as part of a plea bargain and Phillips agreed to pay $1,221 in restitution to Sears as well as a year of probation and 40 hours of community service.
Phillips said he has since turned his life around and learned hard lessons from his experiences. He’s had no new arrests and has become the owner of a successful business.
“I think that it’s important to realize that that experience can be valuable and turn it into a positive thing,” he said.
Phillips said his own encounters with mental health and substance abuse counseling during this time allow him to understand the need for mental health services within the Ashland School District. He and fellow candidates agree that counseling is an urgent need as students struggle to process the events of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s so important that we tackle that right now and I’m super motivated because of what I’ve been through,” said Phillips.
He said he hopes his past does not overshadow other issues during the election, and that problems like the need for mental health services, and the closing of learning gaps, will be the focus.
May 15 update: Corrected year in which Russell Phillips was arrested.