Mark Johnson has separated himself from a racist comment attributed to him, and separated himself officially from the Hood River County School District Board of Directors, on which he has served since 2005.
Johnson resigned his post at the start of the school board meeting Wednesday at Cascade Locks School. His wife, Melodi, was in attendance.
“We’re losing a major asset,” Board Member Rich Truax said as the board wrapped up its business on Wednesday.
Johnson, who had announced April 12 he planned to resign, left his Oregon House District 52 post in November for the job of executive director of Oregon Business and Industry (OBI), and was fired in early April, according to reports from The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Johnson had come under fire for job performance, but a racist statement he is accused of making in an OBI staff meeting seemed to seal his fate with the organization.
“It is with deep personal regret that I have decided to resign from the Hood River County School District Board of Directors,” Johnson said in a statement he read at the start of the session. In his statement, Johnson pointed to his support for programs benefiting Hispanics while serving on the school board and Oregon Legislature.
Rather than step aside, Johnson said his resignation would be effective at the end of the meeting, and he presided over the rest of the meeting, during which school board members and Superintendent Dan Goldman praised him for his work and dedication to the community while serving on the board since 2005.
These included Julia Garcia Ramirez, the lone Hispanic board member, who called Johnson “a mentor and a friend I have looked up to,” but added, “I hope you can reflect on what has happened and learn from this.”
According to The Oregonian/OregonLive, “(OBI staff member) 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.
In his remarks Wednesday, Johnson made reference to the comment attributed to him, but framed his departure in “the controversy surrounding my departure from Oregon Business and Industry” and spoke at length about the “sacrifice” involved in being a board member and legislator.
Ramirez said, “I thank you for all your years of service, and I can imagine how difficult this is.
“But it does not take away from the pain a recent comment can cause,” Ramirez said, adding that the appearance that the comment came from a local educational leader is of great concern, particularly in light of what she called “increasing racism, starting with our racist president.”
She cited derogatory remarks of Donald Trump she heard people repeating while traveling home from a recent visit to Mexico, her native country.
“We cannot let this kind of language happen. It is contagious and it is a big problem and it is rising.
“Our children deserve better,” Ramirez said.
Johnson has said he has no recollection of the statement that led to his firing, but has not denied it. Following Wednesday’s meeting, he was asked again if he denied making the comment and said, “It’s there in the paper.
“I’m not going to comment further,” referring the printed copy of his statement to the board.
Speaking as a parent, community member and board member, Vice Chair Chrissy Reitz thanked Johnson for his service, saying, “You had a hand in making our schools and our district better.
“I’ve looked to you a lot for advice and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me over the years.”
Truax pointed to Johnson’s service on the district budget committee before becoming a board member and then legislator.
“You have been a huge resource for us,” Truax said, pointing to Johnson’s work on equity polities, third grade reading proficiency goals, the Oregon Promise legislation (ensuring community college access for all students) and “your attention to financial stewardship of the district.”
In his statement on April 12, Johnson said in an email, “The events of the last 48 hours have been completely unexpected and unsettling for me and my family. 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.”
Johnson said Wednesday, “It’s clear to me that it’s in the best interest of the school district at this time for me to move on …
“I grew up here. I attended Hood River County schools from the first grade through high school. My kids all attended and appreciated the rich culture of Pine Grove Elementary and went on to graduate from Hood River Valley High. My service on this board has been a personal investment in our community — especially the children our schools serve. Throughout my time as a board member, I have always relied on one guiding principle to help me make decisions: What’s best for kids?”
Listening sessions, and a board opening
Hood River County School District continues its budget listening sessions on Monday, April 30 at Hood River Middle School and Tuesday, May 1 at Hood River Valley High School (Spanish only).
Both sessions begin at 5:30 p.m. Two potential budgets will be proposed, based on the passage of the Local Option vote in May. All are welcome.
Hood River County School District Board of Directors will interview applicants for the open Position 6 seat at the May 9 meeting. Learn more at the District website, hoodriver.k12.or.us.
The deadline to apply is May 3 at 4 p.m.
The term expires June 30, 2019. To be considered for appointment, applicants must be registered voters and residents of the Position 6 attendance area.
For a position zone map, go to hoodriver.k12.or.us/Page/245.
Mark Johnson’s resignation statement
It is with deep personal regret that I have decided to resign from the Hood River County School District Board of Directors. My resignation will be effective at the end of this meeting. I grew up here. I attended Hood River County schools from the first grade through high school. My kids all attended and appreciated the rich culture of Pine Grove Elementary and went on to graduate from Hood River Valley High. My service on this board has been a personal investment in our community — especially the children our schools serve. Throughout my time as a board member, I have always relied on one guiding principle to help me make decisions: What’s best for kids? Because of the controversy surrounding my departure from Oregon Business and Industry, it’s clear to me that it’s in the best interest of the school district at this time for me to move on.
I have been part of this board since 2005, including serving multiple times as its chair. In that time I’ve enthusiastically supported numerous policies designed to close the achievement gap for our Hispanic students — from district-sponsored all-day kindergarten, to summer school programs, to culturally appropriate literacy programs. Most recently, as board chair, I supported board action that established a district equity policy for all students regardless of legal status.
As a state legislator representing our community I sponsored legislation that provides tuition equity for undocumented students to make access to higher education affordable for them. I supported a law allowing undocumented residents to obtain drivers cards, so they can drive legally by passing an exam and obtaining insurance. Following the 2013 Legislative session, I was given an award by CAUSA, Oregon’s immigrant rights organization, for my work on that legislation and for my support for the immigrant community.
One of the great joys of my life has been participating in numerous mission trip opportunities through our church to Guatemala and Mexico, where I have been able to use my construction skills to provide better housing and education facilities for needy residents. These trips instilled in me a sincere and life-long appreciation for the warmth and vitality of the Latino culture.
Throughout my time on the school board and in the legislature, I’ve been known for my work in supporting the Hispanic community. That’s what makes it so difficult for me to accept the recent allegations that I made a racially insensitive comment in a private meeting. Such comments don’t reflect who I am, what I believe or the commitment I’ve shown to the issues in my public and personal life. I simply don’t recall having made the comments attributed to me. Its hard to believe I did as they don’t reflect my core values or my manner of speaking. However, because I’m not in a position to dispute that I made them, I have apologized for them and truly regret any pain they may have caused.
My family and I have served this community in good faith. As school board members yourselves, you know that public service requires sacrifice. I especially want to thank my wife, Melodi, for allowing me to serve all these years, and for her patient understanding when I had to miss family birthdays and other activities because of board service.
Stepping away from my commitment to the education of our children is painful. But I’m proud of some of the achievements that I have been able to be part of. Even though our district has high percentages of students who live in poverty and for whom English is a second language, we consistently have some of the best academic outcomes in the state. I’m proud that my school board experience allowed me to have a positive impact on shaping education policy in Salem while serving in the legislature. The bills that led to state-sponsored all-day kindergarten, comprehensive educator evaluations, the Oregon Promise, Measure 98 implementation and the required transfer of community college credits were all improved because I was able to provide the perspective of a local school board member.
Those who serve as school board members, here in Hood River and around the state, are deeply caring volunteers who do this work to make a difference in the lives of the next generation. I thank each of my colleagues, past and present, for your service and your friendship and I hope you can appreciate how sorry I am to leave the board under these circumstances.
I hope the circumstances of my departure from this school board and the OBI will be viewed in the full context of my life in Hood River and my service to this state, and that I will have the opportunity to serve the community in other ways in the future.