Candidates outline ideas at school board forum
on October 1, 2010
The six candidates running for the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Education appeared before voters Wednesday night at a forum that was as much an economics lesson as a political gathering.
Financial issues, from budget woes to charter school funding, dominated the discussion, held on an uncomfortably warm evening in the cafeteria at Pinole Valley High School. The three incumbents seeking re-election to the five-member board said they stand behind their record of balancing the budget without cutting essential school services. The three challengers said more needs to be done.
“The big issue in California today —and there is one big overriding issue— is money,” said current board president Madeline Kronenberg, who is up for re-election. “The children in Newark get $26,000 apiece from the state of New Jersey. The children of California get less than $5,000, and we’re expected to do the same job and to compete on the same playing field.”
School board member Charles Ramsey also touted the current board’s accomplishments. He said the district has come a long way since 1990, when the district ran out of money under a former superintendent.
“This is not like the days of Walter Marks when budgets were running amok and we went bankrupt,” Ramsey said. “Just today I saw San Jose Unified. Guess what? They’re off for the entire week because they cut their instructional days from 180 to 175. We kept our instructional time because we’ve been fiscally responsible.”
Charles Cowens, a challenger who chaired the school district’s Community Budget Advisory Committee for five years, said the board needs to be more transparent about the budgeting process. He also said balancing the budget is the board’s duty, and not necessarily something to be lauded.
“The decisions the board makes are very difficult and you always have to give some respect to the people on the board for having to make those decisions, whether you agree with them or not,” he said. “But one thing to keep in mind is that balancing the budget is not a big accomplishment.”
Candidate Jason Freeman, a teacher, acknowledged that the current board has done a good job of making the budget available to the public through board committees and the Internet. But he said the language and amount of material in the budget still makes it inaccessible for most people.
“The budget is very large and complex,” he said. “If you’re a parent who has multiple children and multiple jobs, you cannot commit the time necessary to learn every detail of that budget, and you shouldn’t be asked to.”
Charter schools also sparked discussion. The district is home to five tuition-free public charter schools: Leadership Public High, West County Community High, Manzanita Charter School, Making Waves Academy, and the Richmond College Prep Schools, made up of a preschool and K-5 program.
Candidate Elaine Merriweather, a longtime teacher, said charter schools divert crucial resources from traditional public schools, which she said deserve more attention and financial support.
“Why can’t all of our schools be great schools that everyone would want to go to?” Merriweather asked. “It’s going to take some work. It’s going to take someone who’s going to stand up, speak up, and do the hard work of making our schools great schools.”
School board member Audrey Miles said it’s not that easy.
“There is a lack of funding in public schools and we continue to have a deficit because we’re constantly fighting a battle with the budget,” she said. “It really, truly upsets me that we’re comparing apples and oranges.”
Despite the disagreements and the heat, panel members remained cordial. Audience members who braved the stuffy conditions said they appreciated the opportunity to hear from the candidates.
“Over all, I’m glad I came,” said Katherine Acosta, a special education teacher at Lincoln Elementary. “Now I feel like I have a better sense of what everybody, including the incumbents and the new candidates, stand for and who I want to support.”
Christina Slamon, who regularly attends school board meetings, said she’ll vote for the incumbents based on their record —and a desire not to repeat history.
“They’ve made some very tough decisions but it has kept us from going back into bankruptcy,” she said. “We’ve already been through that once and we don’t want to go through it again.”
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