By Miriam Raftery
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October 25, 2012 (La Mesa)—Six candidates vying for two seats on the Grossmont Union High School District Board addressed topics ranging from budgets to bond money expenditures (reportedly the topic of a Grand Jury investigation) and from technology to integrity. The forum October 22 was sponsored by East County Magazine and moderated by Donna Barlett-May the League of Women Voters.
The fireworks started in opening remarks, when education advocate Bill Weaver assailed incumbent Gary Woods for a problem with “what I see as honesty,” alluding to use of bond monies that has reportedly drawn the scrutiny of San Diego's Grand Jury.
Weaver faulted Woods for stating that Prop H and Prop U allocated $1 billion for improvements--including a new high school in Alpine, but that upgrades would cost $1.5 billion.“This makes no sense. Shouldn’t there be $75 million to build the high school as budgeted?” Weaver asked, noting that the bond language mandated the new high school as a top priority and that lesser priority projects have been completed.
Weaver also poked holes in Woods’ argument that the high school shouldn’t be built because the district is losing students. “His own Superintendent said they had met that [enrollment] trigger,” Weaver noted.
All candidates except Woods have voiced support for the new high school in Alpine—some in stronger terms than others.
Other candidates used their opening statements to discuss their qualifications and goals.
Jim Stieringer cited his experience on the Grossmont Healthcare District board and as La Mesa City Treasurer. He said the District has an obligation to live up to the requirements in Propositions H and U, then noted that he used half of his ballot statement to advocate for the Alpine High School. “If elected, I will look to see if enough money is left to do exactly that,” he said.
Barbara Stevens, a technical writer, said she’s running as a concerned parent whose daughter is a graduate of Helix, a charter high in the district. “There is always controversy and there doesn’t seem to be much movement forward,” she said, citing bond projects and redistricting as two examples.
Woods said he will continue to “fight for what’s best” and cited his teaching experience in public school and a religious institution, adding, “We live in the best country on God’s green earth.”
Miller, 19 and a junior at San Diego State University, said he is running to bring “more student representation” onto the board. “I will fight to lower dropout rates, and raise graduation rates.” He wants to expand AP and honors courses, but added, “We can’t ignore at risk students…I will fight every day to make sure that teachers and students have what they need.”
Priscilla Schreiber, the other incumbent up for reelection, said she represents both a “mother’s voice and a business voice” having served on the board for 12 years and obtained her Masters in Governance. Often an outspoken critic of colleagues who recruited her to run, she noted, “That came with a price, but I will not serve at the will of the majority.”
All questions came from the audience in writing and were screened by the League of Women Voters.
Candidates’ priorities were made clear when each was asked to name the most important issue facing the district.
“Overcrowding,” said Weaver, who has championed a new high school for Alpine. He noted that almost 1200 students now have to arise at 5:30 a.m. to take a bus from Alpine to other schools, resulting in student fatigue and endangerment of students on the highways.
“Resources,” said Stevens. “The middle class gets ignored.”
“Training,” Woods replied, noting that “each student learns differently” and “technology makes learning fun.” He sees a need to prepare students for college while also offering pathways for career tech.
“Support,” said Miller, adding that students need support from the entire community. “It’s motivation that will shape students to shape the future and change the world.”
“Parents who are not concerned,” Stieringer said, noting that some kids come from homes where there are few books or resources, as well as parents who are not supportive.
“Sacramento has failed our students,” said Schreiber, adding that the district has $58 million in unfunded mandates.
Asked their views on Propositions 30 and 38, which would increase funding for education in California, four candidates said they opposed both measures: Woods, Schreiber, Stieringer and Stevens.
Woods called the propositions “smoke and mirrors.”
Stevens echoed that sentiment, stating that “Sacramento always finds a way to take the money.”
Stieringer noted that if Prop 30 fails, the Governor has said the school year will be cut from 180 to 160 days. “They frankly do not care about education,” he said.
Schreiber acknowledged that “It’s tough to sit on a board and have to keep cutting,” and further said that if one of the propositions passes “it could work.” But she voiced doubt that politicians in Sacramento could “keep their hands out of the cookie jar.”
Weaver criticized school board members and candidates who would oppose bonds to stem the cuts in education funding. “Our schools are in a funding crisis,” he said. He supports Prop 30 which while imperfect, he believes is crucial to prevent class sizes from rising to an “intolerable” level among other problems. While he prefers Prop 30, he said if it doesn’t pass, he hopes Prop 38 does.
Miller supports Prop 30 but not 38. “This money will help students and help education,” he said. “We need to bite the bullet and fork over a little bit to help students…any new money coming in in any way would help to better our schools.”
The next question asked candidates if they foresee furlough days.
“We already have one of the shortest school years in the western world,” said Woods, noting that class sizes have also risen. “One of the only options is to cut the school y ear; we can’t ask teachers to work two weeks and not pay you.”
Miller said he opposes furlough days. “We can look at the budget and find better ways to save money.”
Schreiber called the idea “deplorable” but added it’s important to work with staff and teachers. “We’ve cut to the bone, but we need to make sure we have money in the classrooms.” She added that she has asked to see a district budget for each campus site.
Weaver said he’s against furloughs but that “there’s no funding…Cutting two weeks out of the school year will hurt the entire education system and reverberate for years to come.” He added, “I can’t believe a school trustee could be against the propositions.”
Stieringer blamed Sacramento for stiffing schools and leaving few options for school district trustees. “If we have to stop paying, we stop paying. If we have to cut the school year, we will do that.”
Stevens noted, “I’d rather give money to teachers…but taxpayers deserve their money too. There’s a balance,” she said, adding, “We won’t have any money if all the businesses leave.”
Next, candidates were asked if they would support an open forum and websites for parents to have more communication with trustees.
Miller said he supports any kind of public forum where parents can get involved and watch what is being done, noting that he believes in transparency. “We need to elect people who aren’t going to be corrupt, who actually care about what they will fight for.”
Schreiber said the district has a parent portal with information on attendance records and grades. Parents can attend board meetings to voice concerns, she added, noting that on parent nights in past years, a problem has been that only a handful of parents show up.
“Communication is very important and this district hasn’t done that very well at all,” said Weaver. He faulted the board for ignoring recommendations by the Bond Advisory Commission and the Boundary Committee regarding the Alpine High School. “Enrollment decline is a big fallacy,” he said, citing a study by the district’s demographer which found that enrollment is actually predicted to increase over the next several years.
Stieringer quoted Thoreau, citing as his goal, “Simplify.” He added, “I think we have too many meetings” and said more forums are unnecessary, but that board members should be open to parents.
Stevens observed, “Anytime the board can communication with taxpayers, that’s good. But meetings are constrictive, that can be an intimidating format.” She mentioned “phones, websites, and Facebook…Let’s use them.”
Woods wants to streamline websites but noted that studies show that parental involvement is key, so “more communication is better.”
The next question asked candidates if they consider charter schools an advantage or disadvantage for the district.
All six candidates praised the district’s two charter schools, Helix and Steele Canyon.
“I’m very proud of our charter schools,” said Schreiber.
Weaver noted that while charters have been less successful in some other places, “These two are high level.” Charters provide independence to adjust programs and class size, as well as to “get parents involved and very engaged.” He cited River View in Lakeside as an example of a charter that has among the highest test scores in the state.
Stieringer gave a history lesson, noting that public school districts were authorized by the Legislature in 1991 to establish charters. He recalled that a former board member suggested that all schools in the district go charter. He acknowledged that the district’s two charters are “very successful” and that Helix excels in sports, but noted that charters have also “taken enrollment away” along with Average Daily Attendance money from the remaining schools in the district.
Stevens, whose daughter went to Helix, said she was impressed that the attitude there was “everybody goes to college here.” She noted that charters’ success revolves around a school having a common goal, something she’d like to see all schools have.
Woods called charters “laboratories of education” that allow “creativity to come back into education.” He said he is concerned that if an Alpine High School were built it would “take students out of charter schools” and “devastate” Steel Canyon.
Miller said he served in Academic League and was impressed by students at Helix. “I’m all for charter schools.”
Another audience question asked if candidates approved spending bond money on daycare for students at Grossmont.
Weaver said spending bond monies on projects other than Alpine’s High School has put students at risk. “Chuck Taylor had a grandson who died on the way to school,” he said, recalling one of several accidents that has claimed the lives of students commuting from Alpine.
Stieringer and Stevens questioned use of bond funds for day care. Woods clarified that Prop U and H money can only be spent on construction or renovation—not daycare services.
Miller voiced support for day care facilities noting that having day care at school could help a pregnant student remain in school. But he added that the district needs to look at priorities.
Schreiber clarified that bond money was only spent on the building and added that the struggled initially with the idea of offering daycare for student mothers, but added, “It’s way better than the alternative.”
Candidates were then asked if they would support renegotiating the Superintendent’s salary to balance the budget.
Stieringer and Stevens said they didn’t think that would solve the district’s budget problem. Woods praised the Superintendent but added, “’I’m hoping he will make some concession and show some leadership.” Miller agreed that perhaps the Superintendent “and board members” could “give up something.”
Schreiber said the Superintendent’s pay is at the lower end of what most Superintendents earn but added that she wants to see money directed back into classrooms. She then criticized the “glossy binder of performing arts centers” that staff proposed be built with bond funds. “I never saw a budget,” she said. Schreiber voiced concerns over often lavish projects that have been funded with bond monies, adding, “I have concerns with tagging everything as career tech.”
Weaver remarked that “There is a leadership problem in the Grossmont Union High School District, from the board to the Superintendent.” He added that a new Citizens Bond Oversight Committee is “now really starting to look at things.” Weaver believes the district “needs to bring new students in to the district but cited fears that the $73 million approved by voters for a new high school in Alpine won’t be approved. “This Board majority is going to blow it off.”
Candidates were asked their campaign budgets and largest contributors.
Stevens said she’s received no contributions and budgeted only a small sum for signs.
Woods said he’s received about $6,000 but that he couldn’t remember who his largest donors are. Later he mentioned the Lincoln Club. Miller said he had support from local political clubs and purchased a few hundred signs. Schreiber cited a precise figure--$8,182, and listed Lincoln Club among her largest donors. Weaver said he had raised a couple thousand dollars thus far. Stieringer stated he has not sought or received any donations, but has put about $9,000 of his own money into his campaign.
The next question asked what each candidate believes the district is best at, and what is the district’s greatest weakness.
Woods praised the district’s graduation rates and career tech programs, noting that “many work best with our hands.” He cited El Capitan’s new agricultural program as a positive example.
Miller offered faint praise, noting merely that most board members seemed to want the district to do better. He believes not having a student representative with a vote on the board is a key weakness.
“Our strength is our teacher collaborations,” said Schreiber. As for the district’s major weakness, she added, “I don’t think we’re an effective governance team.”
Weaver cited career tech as a strength, along with high-level academic students such as Miller. As for the biggest weakness, he listed “Transparency” adding that Prop H and Prop U called for a 12th high school in the opening paragraph. He faulted the board for not “keeping your word—honesty,” then alluded to the Grand Jury investigation.”Our money is not being spent the way it should.”
Stieringer said the 77% graduation rate is “good but it should be a lot better.” As for the district’s greatest strength, he cited its illustrious graduates including three astronauts, sports stars, and a heart transplant surgeon.
Stevens believes the “reputation of students, rigor of the curriculum, dedicated teachers and involved parents” are among the district’s assets. The biggest weakness is that “not all campuses shine as brightly.” She also wants to see improved communications and transparency.
In closing remarks, Weaver made a pitch for the new high school as a means of boosting the district’s bottom line. He noted that the district “needs more money, so we need to attract students.” Six schools in the district have stable enrollment or have grown, he noted, while only two or three had substantial declines. “The Boundary Study showed that we could recapture a significant number of students and they chose to ignore it,” he said of the Board majority.
Schreiber closed by saying that “Our responsibility is to set direction.” But she added, “When I remind them to follow our policy…I am marginalized.” She listed several criticisms of the Board majority including disenfranchising families who wanted a community garden, which she described as “a vendetta by one board member and his protégés.” She also faulted the board for “circumventing the Alpine High School with no vote”, lacking an annual review of the Superintendent, and more.
Miller said simply, “We just need to do what’s right for students and teachers.” He called for fiscal responsibility and a more equitable focus on all schools. “Every student deserves equal attention and support,” he concluded.
Woods said that in the past four years, test scores and grades have improved, student participation in career tech has rise. He also noted that the district has completed new sports fields and other modernizations (though Woods opposed the bond measures that funded those upgrades.) He responded to Weaver’s criticism that the board majority has been “attacked for breaking our promise” and insisted that the bond requires enrollment of 2,345 students as a trigger, which Wodos insisted has not been met. “We’ve lost 2,000 students – that’s the size of a high school,” he insisted (a projection that’s at odds with the district demographer’s calculations and projections.)
Stevens concluded that she wants to “do the right thing as far as redistricting. We should allow people to have a say.” She pledged to increase communication, encourage more community involvement and “do the right thing for all students.” She added, “Bond projects should not become make work projects for contractors” and voiced discomfort at seeing contractors turn out in support of building projects on campuses.
Stieringer cited his experience on the healthcare board bringing improving to Grossmont Hospital. “The building we’re in now was built largel due to some of the th ings I was able to do,” said Stieringer, for whom the auditorium on the Grossmont Healthcare site was named. He took credit for implementing a lawsuit that resulted in a $5 million settlement over a lease dispute with Sharp.
Stieringer also pledged to apply his experience elsewhere to I “try to solve conflicts among board members”—a tall order indeed given this ever-contentious board.
Also see our Fact Check on claims made by candidates in the GUHSD race.