The candidates vying for seats on the West Contra Costa Unified School Board passionately debated questions about charter schools, nutritious lunches, school safety and educational inclusion at a forum Tuesday.
Held at Helms Middle School in San Pablo, the forum featured 11 candidates contending for three open seats. The winning candidates will serve terms of two years, instead of the normal four years, leaving all five seats open in 2020. At that time, the school district will switch from the current at-large elections, which are based on countywide popular vote, to a regional system.
It was the second of three forums jointly hosted by the district and the League of Women Voters of West Contra Costa County, and it proceeded in much the same way as previous forums. The candidates gave short introductions, answered questions in turn, and finished with brief closing statements.
All three incumbents—board president Valerie Cuevas, Elizabeth Block, and Madeline Kronenberg—introduced themselves by reflecting, briefly or otherwise, on the accomplishments they helped achieve while on the board. Topics included a school staff pay raise, an ongoing policy to improve the school climate, and improvements to teacher retention.
Articulating a wide variety of perspectives and experiences, Consuelo Lara, Michael Gonzales, Patricio Dujan, Carlos Taboada, Tiffany Grimsley, Stephanie Hernandez-Javis, Anthony Caro, and Vanessa Calloway also introduced themselves and spoke of their goals.
Lara, alongside Cuevas and Kronenberg, has been endorsed by a coalition of labor unions, including the United Teachers of Richmond, Teamsters 856, and the Richmond Police Officers Association, among others. Gonzales and Taboada were offered ten and five thousand dollars respectively in “seed” funding by garnering the most votes from a panel organized by Education Matters, though Taboada declined the offer.
After introductions, candidates were asked a theoretical question about how they would respond if a charter school organization, Rocketship Public Schools, reapplied for approval of Rocketship San Pablo Elementary. The school’s charter petition was rejected previously by the school board, the Contra Costa County Board of Education and, earlier this month, by the California State Board of Education.
The proposal was controversial because of the widespread growth of charter schools in recent years and the potential for the proposed school to replace an existing institution. There was also the worry about an anticipated decrease in public school enrollment and the loss of district funds. Concerns, financial and otherwise, were also raised by the California board about other Rocketship schools, and some California board members suggested that, with Rocketship San Pablo, the organization may have been attempting to expand beyond its capacity.
Almost all of the candidates said they would review a potential application, if only because of a legal obligation, but that approval would require improvements and strong community support.
Some candidates expressed dismay with the inability of the board, as a democratically-elected body, to appropriately handle charter schools. Kronenberg, who has served three terms on the board, criticized the Charter School Act of 1992 by pointing out that it prevents the board from taking economic impact into consideration when denying a charter petition.
Gonzales, a first-time candidate, said he would like to “ensure that the state lives up to its responsibility” in rectifying flaws with the now 26-year-old legislation. In particular, he said he would advocate for more local control.
“I think the local school board should have the final power to deny charter schools,” Gonzales said.
Carlos Taboada, a 21-year veteran of the West Contra Costa school system who previously ran in 2016, directly advocated for stopping “the unregulated expansion of charter schools.”
“We should do what we are not allowed to do and look at the economic impact of Rocketship and all charters,” Taboada said. “… We should stand up for the democracy of our democratically elected board.”
The second question the candidates were asked to address was whether they would approve budget increases to support a nutritious, organic, locally-sourced, non-GMO meal program. The question was asked with positive associations between school behavior, focus and proper nutrition in mind.
Nearly all of the candidates answered that they would approve of the switch, but many argued other issues needed to be considered before making a change. Caro, director of Citizens Power Network, began by asking two kids in the audience if they consistently ate school lunches. When the kids shook their heads indicating they didn’t, he argued that the appeal of the food, and other factors like having to choose between eating lunch and playing during recess, needed to be considered.
“If they’re focusing on their empty stomachs instead of what’s going on in the classroom, how do you expect them to learn?” Caro said.
Cueves said improving nutrition is a “no-brainer,” but the reality is that the district needs more resources even to maintain its current programs.
Block, the only candidate to say outright that she didn’t support changing the lunch program, stressed the importance of focusing on other, more worrying aspects of the school system before altering the food offerings.
“I think we really need to do the most important work first, and we’re not doing it,” Block said, adding that, “we have to do better with teaching and learning. We just have to.”
These responses were followed by the third question: “What is your vision for creating a safe campus for students?”
Lara, once a teacher at Helms middle school, said that, “the short answer to that question is you ask the students to participate.”
Caro seemed to agree, and he gave examples of students he had worked with who helped devise solutions to problems like prostitution through research.
“They’re more than capable,” Caro said. “We just need to sit down with them.”
The final question, which came scrawled on a notecard from a member of the public, asked the candidates how they would ensure that all students are being served, in particular historically underserved minorities and those for whom English is a second language.
Calloway, one of the candidates, argued for empowering teachers with professional development and coaching.
So, too, did another candidate, Grimsley. She advocated for the benefits of giving teachers and staff implicit bias training.
“Most people don’t recognize their implicit bias, and when you’re a teacher with implicit bias, you inadvertently negatively impact students with those biases,” Grimsley said.
The next forum will be held Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 6 p.m. at DeJean Middle School in Richmond. The general election is Nov. 6.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Carlos Taboada received five thousand dollars in funding from Education Matters. In fact, Taboada was offered the funding, but ultimately declined it.