Charter schools and district finances dominated the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) school board candidates forum held earlier this month at the Hilltop Community Church.
Peter Chau of WCCUSD’s Citizens Bond Oversight Committee moderated the question-and-answer style forum, which was organized by the Fairmede-Hilltop Neighborhood Council. Candidates Don Gosney, Antonio Medrano, Carlos Taboada and Ayana Kirkland Young attended. Candidates Tom Panas, Mister Phillips and Miriam Sequeira did not.
The candidates in attendance uniformly supported Measure T, which renews a 7.2 cent parcel tax on property owners for every square foot of building they own. This tax funds core academic programs including science, reading and math, and according to an April 2015 resolution from the district’s Community Budget Advisory Committee, brought in about $9.8 million in the last two years.
“This is an either/or situation,” said Gosney. “We either vote to tax ourselves to help educate our kids or we can vote to spend money on more jails.”
Young, Medrano and Taboado concurred. Medrano said the measure will “reduce class sizes” and “keep libraries open.” Taboada said he felt the resulting funds should be spent on counselors, programs and people who have “day-to-day contact with students.”
The subject of charter schools—which are less regulated by districts and receive public funding but may also receive private funding—sparked heated discussion at the forum.
All candidates raised concerns about powerful private interests influencing the school system and all candidates criticized charter schools’ use of public funds.
WCCUSD did not share parcel tax revenues with charter schools until this year, when a lawsuit filed by the California Charter Schools Association was settled, giving charters equal access to the funds.
Young said that parcel tax money going to charter schools “creates lack in the traditional public schools.” Taboada said that as a homeowner he “resents” that some of his taxes go to “venture capitalists” and “educational industries that are unaccountable.”
Taboada also criticized charter schools for failing to put students’ needs above “the needs of philanthropic organizations that may shower us with money but also tie our hands.”
“Every year we’re losing about 200 students to the charter system and they take that money with them,” Medrano said.
Gosney recalled the 2014 election, when “special interests came to town” and spent hundreds of thousands on the school board election. That year, the California Charter Schools Association, the pro-charter school PAC Education Matters and Education Matters founders Stephen and Susan Chamberlin spent more than $350,000 to support school board candidates Valerie Cuevas and Liz Block and attempt to defeat openly anti-charter incumbent Madeline Kronenberg.
They “didn’t even seem to care that it appeared that they were trying to buy the election,” Gosney said.
Young said that if the district prioritized allocating adequate resources to every school under its jurisdiction, “this whole charter school fight is going to fade away.”
On the subject of the district’s finances, Gosney and Taboada agreed that a new bond measure is necessary.
“We need another billion dollars. There’s no way in the world we can come up with that kind of private money,” Gosney said. “The only way to do it is to throw more bond measures at you and see if you’re willing to pay for it.”
Young said she was reluctant to bring about another bond measure and instead plans to turn to the private sector for funds.
“The charter schools can go and get private money,” she said. “Well, why can’t we?”
Chau also asked candidates to talk about “closing the achievement gap,” particularly with African-American students.
“It is a crime for a student—Latino, African-American, Asian—to be in high school and still can’t write a decent paragraph,” said Medrano, who pointed out that funds from the state of California are available now through the Local Control Funding Formula for providing low-income and disabled students with tutoring and other forms of support.
Taboada said that the achievement gap is a problem “that invites a lot of pseudo-solutions” and “false solutions.” He said his solution is to “let teachers tailor their instruction to the students in front of them.”
Panas did not respond to an inquiry about his absence from the forum. Philips said that he was unable to attend the forum due to professional obligations.
Sequeira said she did not attend because the forum was held at the same time as a regular meeting of the school district’s Local Control Accountability Plan’s Parent Committee, of which she is a member.
“Whether I were to get elected or not, I am still a parent of the district and needed to make sure I was actively participating in where decisions are being made,” she said.
Candidates have approximately five weeks to campaign before the November 8 general election.