When Odessa Shannon was campaigning for a school board seat in Maryland, she got a call from a man who said he was with the Ku Klux Klan and told her to drop out of the race. It was 1982, and she was shaken. “It scared the daylights out of me,” she recalled.
But before the evening was over, she decided to push ahead — and became the first black woman elected to public office in Montgomery County.
Thirty-six years later, in a county that has grown far more diverse, she is long gone from the school board but watched this month as history was made again: For the first time, Montgomery’s elected school board is composed of a majority of people of color.
It is a notable change in a school system — the state’s largest — that has been majority-minority for much of two decades. Shannon, now 90, recalls beaming as new board members were sworn in.
“It was an incredible moment,” she said. “It’s progress. This is the epitome of what we were all about — increase the participation, increase the access.”
The change in Montgomery reflects national trends: School boards, though increasingly diverse, have not changed as rapidly as the student bodies they oversee. Across the country, 78 percent of board members are white, while 10 percent are black and 3 percent are Hispanic, according to a recent survey by the National School Boards Association.
All eight members of the new board are women — another first. Its newly selected president, Shebra L. Evans (District 4), is the first African American woman to hold the position.
“It is a milestone,” said board member Jeanette E. Dixon (At Large), a retired principal who is African American and was elected in 2016. The change reflects the diversity and progressiveness of Montgomery, she said, but also comes down to the candidates.
“People listen to what the candidates say and then elect people who they think can do the job and in this case, it’s women and a majority of people of color,” she said.
Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, said Montgomery’s majority-minority board is not commonplace in more affluent areas with large numbers of white voters.
“To have this occur is, I think, significant,” Noguera said, noting that research shows the racial composition of school boards has an effect on suspension rates, special education placements and resources for English language learners.
In Montgomery, the school board is not a precise mirror image of the 162,680-student population. Enrollment in the school system — among the country’s largest — is 31 percent Latino, 28 percent white, 22 percent black and 14 percent Asian.
The board overseeing the system includes four African American members, two white members, a Latina member and a student of South Asian heritage.
Several board members are longtime education advocates. One is a retired attorney, two are retired principals and one is a community college administrator. Some have children in school, and others have children who long ago graduated.
Student member Ananya Tadikonda, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School, said the board’s increasing diversity has influenced conversations at the board table.
“It makes a huge difference only because we live it every day, and that’s an important piece,” she said. “As people of color, we know what the experiences of student of color are.”
Newly elected board member Karla Silvestre (At Large) said she had a keen understanding when a recent committee meeting focused on English language learners — not just because her master’s degree focuses on the issue but because she grew up as a child learning English.
School system data show that white enrollment, which was more than 90 percent in 1971, has declined regularly since then. In 2000, Montgomery’s school system became majority-minority, with white students accounting for less than 50 percent of the student body.
The percentage of Latino students has climbed since the 1980s, and Latino children are the school system’s largest racial or ethnic group.
Diego Uriburu, a longtime leader in the county’s Latino community, lauded the change. The board had not had a Latino member for nearly a decade, since Nancy Navarro, now president of the county council, held a seat.
“I’m happy the board better mirrors what the student population and families look like,” Uriburu said. “But we also need to work with them in ensuring the school system is more equitable for all students. While we celebrate it, we have to get lots of things done.”
Some people caution against drawing too much meaning from the board’s composition.
Progress on issues is not just a matter of race or ethnicity, said Byron Johns, chair of the education committee of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP.
“It’s not your skin color, it’s your life experience and how you bring that to your decisions, and to whose benefit,” he said.
Johns said there are major challenges ahead for the school system involving school boundary changes and related issues of integration and access to programs, and the central question is whether leaders have the “courage of their convictions” to act when needed.
“Does it matter if they are people of color if they are still going to be held hostage to the powers that promoted the inequities that have existed over time?” he asked.
Others point out that the board is not diverse in all ways.
Some in the community said they would have liked to continue having a male member’s perspective on the board.
Others said the economics of the job are limiting. The pay is $25,000 a year — or $29,000 for board president — making the position less feasible for people who would need to provide for a family, said Dixon, the board member. She argues the job is as intensive as being a county council member, which pays more than $136,000 a year.
For school board members, she said, “you have to be well-off in order to serve because it’s not enough for people who have a family to support. You pretty much have to be a retiree with a pension, or be someone who has a spouse who works and can support you while you do the job.”
For now, though, Dixon and others welcomed the changes brought by the election.
Evans, the new board president, singled out Shannon, who won her board seat decades earlier, as she presided at the new board’s first meeting, saying Shannon was one of the women who paved the way.
“We haven’t had a chance to see what kind of history we can make,” Evans said later, “but I’m looking forward to it.”