Seven candidates are vying for two positions on the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) Board of Education this election cycle. In a public forum at Lovonya DeJean Middle School on Monday, the candidates discussed school teacher retention and student performance, funding, the recent forensic audit of the district’s bond program and the growth of charter schools.
This year’s candidates are Don Gosney, Antonio Alvarez Medrano, Tom Panas, Mister Phillips, Miriam Stephanie Sequeira, Carlos Taboada and Ayana Kirkland Young.
Over the past two years, WCCUSD California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance scores and college entrance exam scores have lagged behind both county and state averages. Candidates agreed that providing greater support to teachers, both in the classroom and through better compensation, would bolster student scores and performance.
Medrano, Panas, Sequeira, Taboada and Young said it was important to listen to the needs of teachers.
“We have caring teachers eager to give personal attention to students,” said Taboada, a former WCCUSD teacher and parent. “We want competitive salaries and benefits, and small class sizes.”
Medrano, a former teacher and WCCUSD school board trustee from 2008-2012, said the district often trains teachers “and then they end up leaving us.”
Gosney, co-director of The Ivy League Connection scholarship program and retired senior general foreman and union president, said it could be difficult to find the funds to better compensate teachers, but that finding ways to “attract teachers and get them to stick around” is key to improving student performance and test scores.
Phillips said he believes low test scores are a result of low morale and expectations for students throughout the district. Better compensation for teachers would improve the school climate and classroom experience for students, he said.
“We cannot expect a high level, or an extremely high level, of service from people who are disaffected,” said Phillips, an attorney, Richmond High School alumnus and WCCUSD parent.
Voters will decide whether or not to continue a parcel tax for the school system, Measure T, on the Nov. 8 ballot. All candidates discussed the need to continue the tax, which brings nearly $10 million to the school system each year.
“If we don’t pay for our students, who’s going to do it?” said Young, an attorney, Pinole High School alumna and WCCUSD parent. She added that the district “cannot afford to cut any other funding.”
While Sequeira said funds could possibly be “moved around” to make up for funds lost if Measure T is not passed, other candidates said programs would have to be cut.
Medrano, Panas and Phillips said the district would have to prioritize spending for programs, and that programs such as arts and sports could suffer.
“It’s going to be a really hard and difficult, painful process,” said Panas, a retired chief financial officer and certified public accountant, parent of two WCCUSD graduates and district volunteer.
Candidates voiced opposing positions on the recent financial forensic audit of the district’s bond program.
Medrano, Phillips and Sequeira stood in support of the audit as an important step toward transparency to the community.
“This district has been known to lose trust in the community,” said Sequeira, a WCCUSD parent and district volunteer. The audit, she added, allowed a glimpse behind “closed doors.”
Panas said the audit provided the system with a clear set of recommendations to improve practices and internal controls in the district.
“I haven’t really seen any recommendations that came out of the forensic audit that I didn’t agree with,” he said.
Gosney, Taboada and Young opposed the audit. Taboada and Young said the approximately $1 million spent on the audit could have been used for other purposes, such as programs or teacher salaries.
Gosney called the audit report “flawed” and “incomplete,” adding that the auditors “didn’t even talk to some of the key people.”
Both the number of charter schools in the district and their enrollment have grown over the past few years. There are currently 12 charter schools in the district, with 11 of them in Richmond alone.
“The reason there’s a demand for them is our district hasn’t given our kids what they need, point blank,” said Phillips.
The public forum was the first of three hosted by WCCUSD and the West Contra Costa League of Women Voters. The next forums will be hosted at Pinole Middle School on October 13 at 6:30 p.m. and at Korematsu Middle School on October 24 at 6:30 p.m.