School Board Election Candidates Forum
by: Annie Lu
On the evening of Tuesday, October 2nd, the Pacific Highlands Ranch Clubhouse was packed with residents of the area, listening to the 2018 San Dieguito Union High School District School Board candidates present their positions. An event run by the organization San Diego Asian-Americans For Equality, the forum doubled as a way for residents to gain a clear idea of candidates’ stances and policies, and an opportunity for the local Asian-American community to engage in local affairs. The forum was moderated by Ying Yang, a CCA parent and member of the School Site Council.
Last year, the SDUHSD officially changed from at-large elections to a system by areas, splitting the district into five regions. For Area 5, encompassing Carmel Valley and Pacific Highlands Ranch, the school board candidates are Kristin Gibson, Cheryl James-Ward, and Lea Wolf. The event began with introductory statements from all the candidates, then a question-and-answer session in which each candidate was given three minutes to respond to each question, before finally allowing time for audience questions and comments. Following is a briefing of the October 2nd meeting through the words of the candidates themselves.
Currently president of the Del Mar Union School District Board, Mrs. Gibson has taught in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District and is now a faculty member in SDSU’s School of Teacher Education and contributor to the Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education.
Her campaign priority: reforming the board of trustees, agreeing on procedural norms, and forming trusting relationships with stakeholders and constituents. In her eyes, these procedural issues come before tackling issues related to student well-being, fiscal responsibility, and technology—those would come naturally after the board refocused their attention on a good environment for learning.
On school safety: Mrs. Gibson advocates for limited access to guns and providing social-emotional learning programs within schools. She also advocates for perimeter fencing on more open campuses and training staff for the event of an active shooter. As a child, she attended Sandy Hook Elementary, and was also a graduate student at SDSU when one of her friends was killed in a shooting there.
On money: Given that the district’s funding formula is from 25 years ago, Mrs. Gibson believes it is outdated. She stated that 85-90% of any school district’s costs go towards employees, which means there are no good options to cut costs without prioritizing the quality of students’ educations. Gibson cited her experience at DMUSD, first joining the board during the recession and helping to make cuts that allowed the budget to be more efficient and organized.
Principal of E3 Civic High in the downtown Central Library, Dr. James-Ward leads what she espouses to be one of the most innovative schools in the nation, a 21st century high school focused on design thinking and project-based learning. Other items on Dr. James-Ward’s resume include being a math teacher, dean of students, vice principal, supervisor, and tenured professor at SDSU, along with being a former software engineer for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Her campaign priorities: Dr. James-Ward pledges to focus on safer schools, including mental health support and drug prevention, technology and innovation, fiscal transparency and solvency, and opportunities for students to think critically and collaboratively. In terms of technology and innovation, James-Ward criticized the district for not already having a technology plan, especially considering by the time many students will be in the workforce, the economy will have evolved drastically. She also brought up the idea of an internship office or workforce coordinator for students. Her biggest goal would be to catch the education system up to the 21st century, embracing technology for a future world we can’t even yet imagine.
On school safety: Dr. James-Ward mentioned military technology that could let schools know when weapons are brought on campus, though she feels fencing would be too restrictive and thus dangerous, contrary to Mrs. Gibson’s belief. James-Ward explained how she greets every scholar each morning (she said “scholar;” earlier, she said “kiddos”), and is about 50% of the way to knowing every student’s name. Through fist bumps and hellos, she believes kids knowing you are invested in them contributes to a vital connectedness throughout campus that helps students feels engaged and included. On disciplinary action, she advocates for something called restorative justice—justice focused on repairing the harms of wrongdoing rather than punishing the initial act.
On money: Dr. James-Ward also painted a dismal picture of the district’s current spending habits. As a district, we receive relatively little state funding under the Local Control Funding Formula, and SDUHSD teacher salaries—and pensions—are relatively high. James-Ward warns that if the district continues to borrow money from the state, we will eventually enter state receivership, in which the state sends an official to run the district, rendering the school board merely advisory. Her proposed solution is a financial audit of the district’s spending, along with creating one-year, five-year, and ten-year spending plans.
Former software engineer and entrepreneur with a focus on social issues, Lea Wolf has ample experience running leadership programs. She also believes her own diversity, having been a New Yorker before residing in Carmel Valley, and her Israeli-Russian heritage, offer her a truly global perspective on issues. Mrs. Wolf cites her daughter, a junior at CCA this year, as her primary inspiration to impact the community.
Her campaign priorities: On leadership, or rather the lack thereof, Wolf believes our current board needs an injection of vision, fiscal responsibility, and attention to students’ well being. The other core component of her platform centers on student wellness, which she believes schools currently fail to address.
On wellness: Given her extensive research and experience with bullying, she believes she knows how to teach students what it means to stand up for oneself. Wolf was the candidate to first bring up the topic of restorative justice; she maintained students should be able to fail and make “innocent mistakes,” then have teachers and counselors “give guidance and pass leadership to them.”
On money: Mrs. Wolf’s depiction of the current state of district spending was perhaps the most apocalyptic of all. Just as she lampooned schools for neglecting social-emotional learning, she explained how the district ostensibly had $6.5 million in surplus in 2016, a surplus which evaporated after a unilateral board vote to raise salaries by 12.5-30%, increasing class sizes in the same contract. Her acrimony was palpable as she explained how the district’s spending is wasteful and reckless, while money frequently goes to special interest groups such as unions. Actions such as these sacrifice the quality of kids’ education, since large class sizes damage connectedness and ability to learn, she maintains.
Guest: Mrs. Sanchez
CCA’s very own Mrs. Sanchez had been standing in the audience at the back of the cluttered clubhouse, and she raised her hand during a lull in Mrs. Wolf’s responses to interrupt. Defending her honor, Mrs. Sanchez said it was positively insulting to claim teachers had a 30% pay raise, not to mention class size problems aren’t as inflated as Mrs. Wolf made them sound. In speaking with her and other teachers, then consulting the San Dieguito Faculty Association master contract (2015-2018), I learned the actual salary schedule resulting from the aforementioned contract. After a period of nine years with no raise, due to the financial recession, teachers were given a 7% pay raise one year, then 5.5% the next, culminating in a 12.5% increase following nine years of stagnation. The public document is linked below for the most avid of fact checkers.
Uniquely positioned as a parent of the district along with a teacher, Mrs. Sanchez also discussed the social-emotional learning programs already implemented at CCA. From Wellness Week to the current weekly programs, Sanchez believes we have already made an important step forward in discussing pressure and safety.
I doubt many members of our community, students and parents alike, have much familiarity with district school board elections—nor do many constituents find them important. Mrs. Gibson began her first speech of the night with a quote from Maya Angelou, who had been her professor at Wake Forest University: “Education is the single best way to make the world a better place.” However contentious or commonplace, the future of the school board is also the future of education, and, by the transitive property, affects the future of our world.
Election day is on November 6th, just over a month from now. If you are a fan of democracy in the slightest, it is my most sincere recommendation that you exercise your rights in the easiest and most direct way possible: use your voice—use your vote.