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El elefante in the board room

Last week's news that longtime school board member Mike Steele is stepping down came at an awkward time. In six weeks, voters will chose two people to serve on the panel Steele will soon leave. But because he's not abandoning his post until after the May 15 election, voters won't be able to fill Steele's seat. That job will fall to the remaining board members.

We'll take Steele at his word that he didn't delay his announcement so he could have a a say in picking his successor. Rather than second-guess his curious sense of timing, we'll encourage his fellow board members and district officials to use the vacancy to launch a targeted recruiting effort aimed at a particular population.

Though no one likes to talk about it much, there's a disconcerting disparity between the makeup of the student body in the Forest Grove School District (40 percent Latino) and the all-white school board.

Why is that gap troubling? Because a school board works best when its members understand the experiences of all the students and parents in the district. And, as much as some might like to pretend that we live in a color-blind society, there's no denying that Latino students and their parents have specific challenges (and opportunities) that are shaped by their backgrounds.

What's the answer? The 'A' word. Or, maybe it's the 'AA' word.

We're aware that in recent years affirmative action has fallen out of favor with some people - but we argue that this opening offers a chance to demonstrate how it can work.

Affirmative action isn't about quotas. It's not about preferential treatment. All it requires is an effort to ensure that members of an under-represented group don't face any barriers of bias and know that a welcome mat has been laid out for them.

Toward that end, the district and the current board should meet with Latino community members, including their own cadre of district employees. They should ask if there are any particular reasons that no Latino candidates are on the May ballot (or have been on any recent school board ballot).

Do they feel intimidated by the political process? Are they worried about the time committment of being a board member? Are they worried about being pegged as the 'Latino' board member? It may be that there are no specific barriers to Latino representation on the school board, but no one will know unless people start asking.

Then, education advocates need to take the second step: they should encourage members of the Latino community to apply for board openings. That's not to say they should promise them a post, or imply that they'll get 'extra points' because of their ethnicity (though we'd argue it is a factor that should be noted).

We'd love to see a Latino school board member. But if the board were to pass over a Latino candidate in order to pick a better-qualified applicant, that would be fine with us.

In fact, in Forest Grove, that would be progress.