Budget cited as key challenge; District faces $15 million deficit
By Miriam Raftery
October 31, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) – Grossmont Union High School District's Board of Trustees has long had a reputation as a lightning rod for controversy. In the past, the Board was dominated by religious right wing interests; meetings often drew huge crowds and protests over moves such as teacher lay-offs and a failed proposal to turn the entire district charter.
More moderating forces have prevailed recently, though the “nonpartisan” board remains controlled by a majority of conservative Republicans. The board could shift further to the right, however, if efforts by a conservative minister, Robert “Bob” Divine, to elect himself and his son, Robert Brian Divine, prevail.
Six candidates—three incumbents (Dick Hoy, Robert Shield, Jim Kelly)and three challengers (Robert Divine, Robert Divine II, and Dolores Riggins)—are running for six seats. (Two other incumbents, conservatives Priscilla Schreiber and Dr. Gary Woods, a seminary teacher, are not up for reelection.)
The Grossmont Education Association (GEA), teacher’s union in the District, has endorsed incumbents Richard “Dick” Hoy and Robert Shield –but pointedly did not endorse the third incumbent, Jim Kelly.
Divine has poured siginficant sums into the final weeks of the race, but did not respond to media requests for interviews, nor did he attend a candidates’ forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
According to La Mesa Patch.com in an October 29 article, Divine, Sr. loaned himself $4,500 earlier this month, bringing his total expenses in the race to $12,000. Kelly raised $1,600, mostly from the Hamann construction family and family trusts, while Hoy and Shield together received nonmonetary donations of $21,711 from the GEA PAC. Riggins and and Robert Brian Divine, the junior Divine family candidate, did not file financial reports with the Registrar of Voters, thus presumably spent less than $1,000.
Hoy, a registered independent, has been praised by many educators as a moderating voice of reason on the board. Currently vice president of the Board, he has served on it since 2006. Hoy is a teacher nick-named “Mr. Wonderful” by students. He has taught for 31 years at Santana High School and previously taught at Lemon Grove Junior High, winning many awards and honors. He was named Santee Teacher of the Year, won the Golden Apple for outstanding teachers, a Golden G for exemplary service to the District, and a Golden Oak award for PTA service. He has financial experience as a former income tax preparer and realtor. Hoy also services as coordinator for the District’s Academic League and Decathalon—as well as an announcer at high school football games.
“We have some of the finest high schools in the county and we are working to make them even better,” said Hoy in a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. “I believe our public schools are essential and that every child, whether they are going to college or not, deserves equal opportunities.” Hoy has pushed hard for vocational educational career training programs as well as college preparatory programs, and he applauds the Prop U bond measure that enabled the District to modernize campus buildings, particularly science labs. He supports sound fiscal policies with focus on educational achievement and accountability.
Hoy’s endorsements include Supervisor Dianne Jacob, sharon Jones, president of the San Diego County Board of Education, GUHSD board trustees Priscilla Schreiber and Robert Shield, the San Diego Union-Tribune, California School Employees Association, Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, and Doug Deane, director of the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce.
Board trustee Shield, a middle school teacher, is endorsed by the San Diego Republican Party, California Pro-Life-Council, San Diego Union-Tribune, board members Jim Hoy and Jim Kelly, and Bill Baber, vice president of the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. “My goal has been to move the Grossmont District ahead and lose the ugliness that has been part of its history,” he said at the candidates’ forum. “My goal was to make school board meetings boring—they were too exciting.” He cites improvements in schools even amid shrinking budgets and pledges to "keep our Grossmont Schools moving ahead."
Though considered by many to be a protégé of Kelly, Shield has shown independence on some fronts. For example, after the board drew criticism for stacking a committee to name Alpine’s planned new high school with conservative political operatives pushing to name the school after former president Ronald Reagan, Shield disbanded the committee and pledged to seek broader community input on a name.
Kelly has served 18 years on the school board and 10 on the County Board of Education. His is also president of his own realty and insurance companies. During his past tenure as board president he drew criticism for being divisive and combative—a stance he staunchly defends. “You can’t think about consequences. If things are right, sometimes you have to be alone,” he said at the candidates’ forum. Under his leadership, the Board narrowly averted a teacher’s strike, with 800 teachers picketing in the parking lot, and drew criticism for policies that teachers’ claimed squelched free speech.
Kelly serves on the San Diego Republican Party Central Committee and executive committee. Asked in the forum about his views on balancing political views against needs of children, he replied, “You can’t separate personal views or religious views in a vacuum…Be careful of those who pretend to be apolitical.” He said Grossmont “used to have the best reputation for its schools and we are working hard to get that back.”
The two Divines did not attend the LWV candidate forum and failed to respond to candidate questionnaires or interview requests from the Union-Tribune and East County Magazine. Nor did either fill out information at Smart Voter.org. An online search turned up no website on either Divine's candidacy.
Robert Divine Sr. did attend a Lakeside candidates’ forum, where candidates gave brief introductions but did not field questions from the audience or a moderator. He described himself as the “middle generation” in a three-generation family of coaches and teachers in the district. “I was quarterback at Monte Vistas; our guards were Divine and Godly,” he quipped.
His literature states that he wants to turn the entire district into a charter district—a proposal that was previously proposed by San Diego Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring when he served on the GUHSD board. After investigative news reports revealed his backers included big alcohol, big tobacco, anti-labor and right-wing religious groups, conservatives on the board rebelled and voted to reject the plan. Divine, a Methodist preacher, said he is also a former Naval commander and Viet Nam veteran who worked in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration.
Dolores Riggins is a pharmacist and mother from the Helix Charter High School. Earlier this year, the GUHSD board threatened to revoke the Helix Charter following conviction of four teachers for sexual misconduct with students. Helix has high academic achievements and exemplary test scores, however. “Citizens need to step up and be part of the answer,” Riggins said in the candidate forum, where she called for more focus on “curriculum leading toward college education.”
Riggins' platform calls for more input from parents and teachers in policy decisions, invoving each school in distribution and use of budget funds, and improving the quality of education for all students in the District, according to her statement at SmartVoter.org.
At the LWV forum, candidates present were asked if budget cuts have gone too far.
Hoy said unfunded mandates from the state and federal government have aggravated funding shortages, as have falling property tax revenues. “We need to focus on our state legislature so they prioritize education,” he said. “It’s supposed to be the number one priority.” He added, “If we have to cut $15 million…it’s gong to hurt. The City of San Diego is talking about eliminating athletics and arts,” he said, adding that those programs keep kids motivated to stay in school. “We are operating awfully close to bare bones.”
Kelly faulted the state Legislature for “massive cuts, $15 million more this year and probably more the next year.” Asked his approach to solving the budget crisis, he quipped,”A good start would be throwing some of our legislators in jail. They betrayed the public trust…Can we make cuts without hurting children? Hell, no. We already spent much of our reserves….Get rid of the spend-a-holics.”
Shield noted that state funding per student has dropped by more than $200 a piece. “Cuts have gone too far,” he said bluntly, but added that he does not support tax increase to solve the problem.
Riggins wants to “find ways to cut within the budget, not cut programs, but find ways to conserve.”
Asked how to recruit the best teachers, Shield said that “excellence attracts excellence” and noted that the budget situation has caused layoffs. He express concern that young teachers “played like a yo-yo” with lay-offs may leave. “We need to stabilize the situation. It’s magnificent to see a good teacher in the classroom,” he said.
Riggins noted that her mother was a teacher. “You want to have respect and be supported. People above you should have your back and be there for you; as a teacher you want them to believe in you.”
Kelly noted that three of five board members are teachers, and he is married to a Santee teacher. While good pay and benefits are important, he added that a passion for connecting to students is, too. “Give them a love for the subject and see their eyes light up.”
Kelly said it’s impossible to lower the student-teacher ratio, which has been raised during the budget crunch. “It can’t be done. Those things cause money,” he said bluntly.
Hoy said the only way would be to implement a quarter system. “We can’t afford more teachers and we’re not asking for fewer students,” he noted.
Riggins said she would have to look at the budget if elected to see if there are things that could be cut; Shield said he remains “wide open to creative ideas.”
All encouraged input from the business community. Hoy and Shields praised Taylor Guitar as a role model for sponsoring concerts that raised $70,000 for vocational education this year.
All candidates expressed support for building Alpine High School. As for the naming controversy, Riggins same naming a school should be “the business of people who live in that community” and that the board should merely provide oversight.
Hoy, who has been in the district through other naming of schools since 1958, noted that schools were named after geographic features, not people, per the district’s own rules. “Let’s look at how we decided in the past and do it that way, because it hasn’t created controversies,” he said.
But Kelly said, “I’m a fan of Ronald Reagan. He was president two terms and Governor two terms.” He added that the board will look to the community for direction.
Shield noted that the board has backed off initial plans and is revisiting the naming issue to get more community input after hearing “diverse and passionate opinions.”
Asked about meeting education needs of East County’s growing immigrant community, including Iraqi Chaldeans, Hoy said, “It is not easy, and it is expensive. To their credit, these immigrants coming in want to learn English. But our community colleges are overwhelmed. People forget that we (in the GUHSD) have 50,000 adult education students. We are making a stellar effort to help people integrate into the community and become productive adults.”
Kelly noted that 69 languages are spoken in San Diego County and gave accolades to teachers.
Riggins said there is “no way students will advance without English” and suggested that the District identify leaders in immigrant communities and work with them to help entire families learn English.
Candidates were asked their views on charter schools.
Hoy noted that he is proud of the District’s charters (Helix and Grossmont Middle College High School) for doing well, but noted, “They are not etter than all the others. Valhalla is at the top in test scores,” he noted.
Hoy also issued a serious warning. “In 2014, all our schools will be failures because with No Child Left Behind, all must be 100% above average or all will be failures.” He likened the rule to requiring a community to eliminate 100% of crime, or fire all the police –an unrealistic and unattainable goal.
Kelly said he supports charters, public and private schools.
Shield agreed with Hoy and said he doesn’t want schools driven by API scores.
Riggins observed, “If a charter is performing better, let’s find out why and incorporate into the system.” S he called for elimination of the federal No Child Left Behind program.
Another question noted that the district spends significant sums on at-risk and career tech students, then asked what more could be done for honors and advanced placement students.
Kelly noted that “Sometimes we do not do enough to help successful kids” noting that a lot of resources are expended to help special education and English as second language students.
Riggins said that in addition to working with at-risk kids, “we can’t ignore over achievers, super achievers. We have a need for more programs to stimulate them to becoming great leaders that society needs. We can’t have them become bored with school and lose their love of learning.”
Shield observed, “Every child has a right, and this weighs on me. What we offer will either open doors, or limit opportunities…Every student is already paying a price due to budget cuts. Class sizes are bigger, and when the ratio of student to teacher goes up, opportunities go down.”
Hoy said he agreed with all three candidates. He noted that he taught the first Advanced Placement (AP) class at Granite Hills. “We do a fantastic job in our schools…We are a good district and we have quality education,” he said, but added that if state budget cuts continue, he fears, “I’m afraid we won’t be able to say that in the future.”
Candidates were asked how to make sure that online learning courses have the rigor of traditional classroom teaching.
Hoy said that classroom teachers “must be involved in monitoring and developing programs. We don’t want computer classes to be easier.” Riggins called online courses “just another way of learning.” Shield said efforts are being made to provide teacher oversight and monitoring of students. Kelly said he is for online learning if some students learn better that way than in traditional settings.
In closing statements, Shield said Grossmont is “a district to be proud of. It’s better than three or four years ago, which is nothing short of miraculous. Teachers have stepped up,” he added noting that the district has increased to 20,000 students and currently has 2,500 employees. “ It’s less than perfect, but I am proud to serve in an excellent district.”
Riggins, the only non incumbent at the forum, said she started out in the San Diego school districts and appreciates the Grossmont District as better for her children. “I’m very glad my children had an opportunity to go through it,” she said, adding that she should be elected because “It’s a good thing to have new fresh voices, as long as they are reasonable and rational.”
Kelly said he is “super proud of East County” and pledged to work hard to restore the District’s reputation.
Hoy invited the public to come out to the District’s schools and see the new buildings and those renovated with Prop U bond monies. “They should make you proud,” he said, “especially the science buildings.” H e promised, “I pledge you that I will put kids first.”