Local government

Few seats are contested in Malheur County school board elections, vote is May 16

As local school and college boards lose long-time board members who decided against seeking new terms in the May 16 election, Malheur County will see three contested races for seats on boards for the Nyssa and Juntura School Boards and the Treasure Valley Community College Board.

On the college board, longtime directors Cheryl Cruson and Mark Wettstein deciding not to run again. Lindsay Norman is the lone candidate to replace Cruson. Antonio ‘AJ’ Sunseri and Torie Ramirez have filed for Wettstein’s position.

Sunseri, an employee of the Argus Observer, is also running unopposed for a seat on the Ontario School Board. Eddie Melendrez, an Ontario city councilor, did not file for another two-year term on that board.The Nyssa School Board will have one contested seat as Roberto Escobedo, a Nyssa city councilor, looks to unseat Jeremy Peterson for a four-year term. Meanwhile, incumbents Maribel Ramirez and Don Ballou will both run unopposed for another four-year term. 

For the Juntura School Board, Karly Bentz will look to unseat incumbent Emilee McKay, while Ethan Bentz will run unopposed for another term. The Enterprise was unable to reach either candidate. 

Nyssa School Board

Escobedo, a wildland firefighter in his third term as a Nyssa city councilor, has been openly critical of the Nyssa School Board’s handling of the state’s investigation of the district’s Migrant Education Program. Last year the Oregon Department of Education found that 14 district employees, including a district administrator, had families improperly enrolled. Since then, newly-released public records show a state investigation identified 47 past or current district employees from 2016 to 2022 with 112 children enrolled in the migrant program. That included Ramirez, who is running unopposed for another term on the school board.

The documents revealed the state education agency has corresponded with the Oregon Department of Justice about potentially illegal activities within the Migrant Education Program. 

Escobedo said the board’s silence and inaction regarding the investigation is why he is looking to unseat Peterson. 

A former Idaho corrections officer, Escobedo, was arrested and charged with two counts of having sexual contact with an adult inmate in 2013, according to court documents. 

In 2014, Escobedo was found not guilty on one count and the trial ended in a hung jury on the second. Later, court documents show Escobedo pleaded guilty to two counts of arrest and seizures-unnecessary assault by an officer, a misdemeanor. A judge sentenced Escobedo to two years of probation.  

Escobedo said he was innocent of the charges and only took the plea deal because he could no longer afford to pay a lawyer. 

“I ran out of money,” he said. “That’s how our justice system works.” 

While Escobedo maintains his innocence on those 10-year-old charges, he said people should be talking about the “real criminals.” He said many had access to free government services they otherwise could not have received by improperly enrolling in the migrant education program. 

“Let’s talk about those criminals,” he said. “And how the school board hasn’t done anything about it and they’re still sitting there doing nothing about it.” 

Escobedo, who also is running for one of the two open positions on the Hilltop Memorial Cemetery Board, said it is time for a change on the school board. 

An advocate for diversity and inclusion, he cited the contentious March school board meeting where parents demanded the board pull out of a fifth-grade field trip because of Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s use of gender pronouns alienated students in the district. The science museum ultimately accommodated the district’s request to forgo the policy. However, during the March board meeting, district staff mentioned that there were LBGTQI students at every school in the district. 

The meeting and controversy surrounding the field trip made those LGBTQI students uncomfortable, Escobedo said. 

“Yeah, it’s rural Oregon,” Escobedo said. “But guess what? LBGTQI students are here. If you can’t open your eyes to it, then that’s on you.” 

Peterson didn’t respond to the Enterprise’s request for an interview. 

TVCC Board 

Longtime board members Betty Carter and Stephen Crow are running uncontested for another four-year term.

In the lone contested race,  Ramirez, born and raised in Ontario, said she had always thought about running but was never ready until now. She said she joined the TVCC Foundation Board last year and figured it was an excellent way to begin serving. 

Ramirez, a Nyssa resident and a commercial branch manager at DL Evans who has been in banking for 30 years, said she has two sons who attend TVCC. She told the Enterprise that her son hopes to enter the school’s nursing program in the fall. 

Over the years, Ramirez has served on the Nyssa School Board, Saint Alphonsus Community Board and the Western Treasure Valley Rotary Board. 

She said that one of the college’s most significant challenges is sagging enrollment, similar to colleges across the state. 

She said the college is working with industries in the community to understand their needs better and tailor the curriculum to fill labor gaps in those sectors. 

She said one example of that is the school’s collaboration with the health care entities within the region and the college’s efforts to raise money to build the Nursing and Allied Health Professions Center to house the school’s nursing program. 

Ramirez believes the college could do a better job recruiting at the high school level to get students to attend locally.

She said parents should help with such recruiting. Ramirez said TVCC would grow its enrollment by showing parents the value of their kids attending college locally and the savings that come with it. 

Sunseri serves on the Ontario’s city planning commission and is the vice chair of the county’s Democratic committee and belongs to other community organization’s is also a former TVCC student. After graduating from Vale High School, Sunseri attended the community college but did not finish his degree. 

Sunseri said he left in 2018, the same year the college significantly slashed its budget. One such cut, he said, was letting go of the school’s only Spanish teacher. 

The board, Sunseri said, did not prioritize the right cuts by laying off a Spanish teacher. 

He said that cutting out a foreign language runs counter to the requirement for a foreign language to earn a degree.

Sunseri said the drop in enrollment is troubling. He said it was a little bit better this year and he hopes they continue to increase. 

However, he said he said younger people coming out of high school are skipping college. 

“People are unsure about the future now after the pandemic,” he said. He said he would like to see the college improve its website and distance learning offerings. 

Sunseri said making the school accessible for marginalized groups is important. 

“It’s not just about letting everyone in,” Sunseri said. “It’s about encouraging marginalized groups of people to turn their lives around and go to college, which is what community colleges are great for.” 

In other districts, incumbents stepped aside and only a single candidate filed. That included:

•Malheur Education Service District: incumbents Les Linegar and Jill Conant are unopposed for another term, incumbents David Westerberg and Cheri Hung did not seek re-election, and Amy McGourty and Newell George Cleaver are unopposed for their seats.

•Jordan Valley School Board – incumbent Zack Dufferena is unopposed, incumbent Mike Quintero is not running again and Rick Hawker is unopposed to replace him.

There is little change with a host of other local boards as incumbents refiled for positions and

face no opponents. The boards and incumbents running include:

•Adrian Rural Fire Board – Corey Osborn, Fred Bierig and George Martin.

•Annex Rural Fire Board – Jr Hendrickson and Todd Johnson filed for the May election.

•Nyssa Rural Fire Board –Jon Stam, Michael D. McClain and Anthony J Frost

•Ontario Rural Fire District Board, Joseph R Davis and incumbent Dan Tschida have filed

for the May primary. Incumbent Larry J White did not file.

On the Vale Rural Fire Board, incumbents Lonnie Justus and Carl Judy, filed. Incumbent Michael

Recla did not file for the May election and that slot on the Vale Rural Fire Board remains vacant.

For the Hilltop Memorial Cemetery Board, two positions were open for the May election.

Incumbents Kenneth Bittick and Kathy Pratt filed. Roberto Escobedo filed for one of the two open positions.

Jean Brown filed for an open position on the Jordan Valley Cemetery Board. Incumbent Ellen

Reed did not file.

Incumbents running uncontested for special districts and local boards 

Dell-Brogan Cemetery Board: Terrie Maag.

Fairview Cemetery Board: John D. Woods.

Ironside Cemetery Board: Tony Burris.

Owyhee Cemetery Board: Julie Bennett

Valley View Cemetery Board: Kris VanLith

Nyssa Rural Road District #2: Don W. Sappe, David Robbins

Ontario Rural Road District #3: Gary R. Davis

Juntura Rural Road District #4: Samuel Fitzpatrick, Nathan Joyce and Mark L Joyce

Ironside Rural Road District #5: Steve Clark.

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