Mark Johnson announced Friday morning he will resign from the Hood River County School Board, effective April 25, the board’s next meeting date.
Calls came Wednesday night for Johnson’s resignation from the board of the Hood River County School District, following allegations he made a racially-charged comment about a Hispanic member of the Oregon Legislature, corroborated by witnesses according to a media report. An emergency school board meeting that had been scheduled for next week has been cancelled.
Johnson was on vacation in Hawaii and was not present Wednesday. By phone Friday, Johnson re-asserted his statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive that he had no recollection of making the statement. When asked about the corroboration, he said, “I’m not going to get into it at this time.” In an emailed statement Friday, Johnson said, “I will be submitting my resignation at the next regularly scheduled meeting of the board of directors. I will be making a full public statement at that time.”
“This is heartbreaking,” said board member Julia Garcia Ramirez, who had requested the emergency meeting. “Mark has been a good mentor for me; it hurts me to hear that he has made such racist comment — I am truly offended by it.”
Johnson, who left his Oregon House District 52 post in November for the job of executive director of Oregon Business and Industry (OBI), was fired this week, according to reports from The Oregonian/OregonLive. Johnson had come under fire for job performance but a statement he is accused of making in an OBI staff meeting seemed to seal his fate with the organization. According to The Oregonian/OregonLive, “Joel Fischer alleged that Johnson denigrated Rep. Diego Hernandez and his ‘chain-migration homeboys from the hood.’” Two other people corroborated Fischer’s accusation, according to The Oregonian.
“The events of the last 48 hours have been completely unexpected and unsettling for me and my family,” Johnson said in the email. “The controversy surrounding my position at OBI and allegations about racially insensitive comments made by me have also created distraction within Hood River County School District. These allegations are completely contrary to my record as a board member and to my body of work on issues of public education and equity as a member of the Oregon Legislature. But I fully understand how the perception can become the reality. I have always sought to do what's best for kids in my public service to the school district or the people of the state of Oregon. Because of this, I believe that it’s in the best interest of the school board and the school district to step down from my position on the board.
The district had announced Thursday it would hold an emergency meeting next week for “deliberation of allegations against Mark Johnson,” after three board members asked vice chair Chrissy Reitz to schedule the meeting.
In the Oregonian/OregonLive article, Johnson said he didn’t believe he had used the racially charged language, and issued a statement apologizing "for any insensitive comments I may have made.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, three teachers, including union leader Kelvin Calkins, called for Johnson to step down.
“I am angry and offended. He’s the chairman of the school board,” said Eric Cohn. “As a citizen and as a person who has put a lot of time and effort, personally, professionally and financially to this district, I think this needs to be dealt with quickly and fairly and I’m sure it will.”
Johnson’s resignation brings to a close a 20-year stint in public service that began with coaching and serving on the District budget committee in 1998, and his election to School Board in 2005. He was first elected to the Oregon House as a Republican in 2010.
Ramirez said in an email, “In the interactions I've had with Mark as fellow board member, he has never shown any antipathy with me. I don’t know him as a racist person. However, I do not justify his alleged comment and/or action.”
“It was painful as an educator in this district to read this, given the fact that he is a representative of the district and the community,” said teacher Ted Kramer in Wednesday’s meeting. “His views can’t be left to appear to represent the people of this district.” Kramer said there is a risk of that happening “if this is left to lie and fester.”
Calkins said, “These comments unequivocally do not reflect the feelings of the community, and have no place in civil society.” Calkins, the long-time president of the 280-member Hood River Education Association, called on Johnson to step down.
“Fifty percent of the student population in this district are unfairly represented by this. His statements do not represent the views of our association or the rest of our great staff or other members of the board, or our community,” Calkins said.
“We also have grave concerns about the future, given these comments, on something so critical for the students of this district,” Calkins said, referring to the Local Option Levy on the May 15 Primary ballot.
Superintendent Dan Goldman said, “I am saddened about the allegation, and I’d be very saddened to learn that was something that had actually occurred. It also does not reflect on Mark as a total person. My experience with Mark is he has been a champion for students of all backgrounds and expanding opportunities for kids, and it is not totally in line with the character I know as Mark. It is also not the way our board thinks about our children and our mission, which is about all kids. So I know it weighs heavily on the board and heavily on district staff, and it’s a very unfortunate event.”
Goldman said responding to the Johnson allegation had dominated his day on Thursday.
“The board has received a number of emails and phone calls from other members of the community calling for action, that they don’t want to tolerate that kind of derogatory remarks against people of any class, and I think there was a groundswell,” Goldman said. “I think it was the comments and ways other people communicate with board members, and I believe the board feels there is a responsibility, so they’re trying to have some discourse.
“As an educator, if those kind of comments are true and that is really what has been said, there should be no tolerance in an educational community for that. We are about teaching children tolerance and about equity and opportunity. We’re not about racism and intolerance. There is no room for that kind of thing, in my opinion, in a school district.”