SANTEE SCHOOL BOARD ELECTION

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By Robin N. Kendall
 
Photo, left to right:  Elena Levens-Craig, Dianne El-Hajj, Sarah Kirk
 
October 6, 2020 (Santee) -- In the growing city of Santee, five candidates are on the ballot for two school board seats (No. 2 and No. 4) in this K-8 grade district. Both incumbents are running for re-election.  Three have completed our candidates’ questionnaire.

Dianne El-Hajj is the incumbent in Seat No. 2 and faces Sarah Kirk and Jeremy Wiley Thomas. More information on El-Hajj and Kirk is listed below. Jeremy Wiley Thomas, a college athlete and student, also appears on the ballot for this seat. Thomas did not reply to our emails. 
 
For Seat No. 4, current board member Elana Levens-Craig faces Jacob Terenzini, a student and entrepreneur. Levens-Craig sent us information about herself and her campaign. Terenzini replied to our email, but declined the invitation to send in information. 
 
Dianne El-Hajj, Incumbent, Santee School District, Seat 2
 
Biography:  Dianne El-Hajj has served on the board since 1992. She is a retired teacher from La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. El-Hajj currently serves on the following Board Advisory Committees: Board/Santee City Council Joint Conference Committee, Budget Advisory Committee, Communication Committee and Wellness Committee. 
 
El-Hajj says she moved to East County from the Midwest when she was 8 years old and graduated from Santana High School. She and her husband opened El-Hajj True Value Hardware store in Santee in 1981 and bought Paytons True Value in Lakeside in 1982. They still own Paytons True Value.
Below are Dianne El-Hajj’s answers to ECM’s questions.
 
1.  What are the most significant current challenges facing education in this community? How can the school board address these challenges?
 
In my opinion, our most immediate challenge at this point in time is providing a balanced, rigorous education to the children of our community. I am deeply concerned about the isolation of our children during this pandemic and the opportunities for child abuse and neglect that are a result of schools being closed. I do support in-classroom learning and our adopted (and continually revised) safety plans include masks, social distancing, increased hand washing, increased common area surface cleaning, health checks for everyone on campus, as well as smaller, consistent cohort classes. However, I recognize that many parents and guardians are not comfortable with their children returning to a classroom for a variety of reasons and I completely respect that. Consequently, I voted to additionally support a yearlong distance learning option. Balancing the needs of our children and the risks of COVID-19 is a battle I wage in my head and my heart every single day. It is the job of our School Board to weigh the risks, accept the challenges, and make decisions that are fair, reasonable and most often difficult.
 
2.  What motivates you to want to serve on the school board? Were there experiences in your education or career that sparked you to do this?
 
I ran for the school board when my children were quite young, and there was a persistent threat to undermine public education. As I became more involved, I realized how important the mission of education is and followed a new career path, becoming an English teacher for the middle school grades. I taught for 20 years in the La Mesa/Spring Valley School District and thoroughly love the teaching profession. I have a deep-seated belief that public education has and continues to be a lynchpin in our democracy.
 
3.  For incumbents, what accomplishments on the board are you most proud of? For challengers, what do you most hope to change?
 
I am proud our District annually promotes to high school students who have received a quality education that prepares them for the next stages of education. I am proud of all of the caring adults who work daily with young children to provide a safe and nurturing environment irregardless of the world they go home to. And I am very proud of the leadership our school board has provided over the years in good times and in bad that steadied and stabilized this organization so the good work could happen inside the classroom walls. While I am only one member on this board, I know my fairness, common sense and candid approach make a difference.
 
In addition to this, our District has a reputation for fiscal responsibility along with high standards. Both of those traits require consistent sacrifice and leadership strong enough to make tough choices. I am very proud of my contribution to those goals.
 
4.  Who has endorsed your candidacy? Please name the most significant endorsements.
 
At this point in time, I have been endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party.
 
5.  What is your vision for education in this community? You might answer this in regards to both short and long-term outcomes.
 
My vision for education in Santee revolves around the word engagement. In the short term, engagement means students are connected either digitally or in person with rigorous curriculum taught by teachers that challenge and inspire them to learn. And families are engaged in their school communities in whatever way they possibly can.
 
Looking forward, my vision is a return to a traditional school for all children.  I know some parents are making a choice to not allow their children to return, but I have learned over many years that we all need one another. Children need each other to develop the social skills of compassion and empathy. They need additional adult role models to inspire them. And we as adults need our school communities to be the hub of our neighborhoods to come together for a common purpose. 
 
I want to see every child achieve his or her maximum potential as a learner, but I most want to see that child become a caring, compassionate citizen.
 
6.  Please discuss your views on how you, if elected, could address the issue of racial inequities in the school district. For example, do you think there is a need for more diversity training?
 
In my community there has been a deep-seated reputation for undertones of racial prejudice. For some reason, many like to deny this history. That solves nothing. I deeply believe that education is the key to change.  Schools provide the platform for that education and the safe haven for children to explore prejudices. But helping children do this requires training and skill. As a District, I believe we need to offer and strongly encourage this training. I am very proud to share that at least 40 of our teachers and administrators participated on their own this summer in a book study of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond. Our leadership team is conducting the same type of learning centered around Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools by Glenn Singleton. These grassroots movements will probably make more difference in the long run than any "off the shelf" training we can offer.
 
Sarah Kirk, challenger for Santee School Board, Seat No. 2
 
Biography:  In her bio, Kirk says, “I have lived in Santee for the last six years with my husband and eight-year-old daughter. I have been a Professor of Psychology for the last 12 years at San Diego County Community Colleges. I have volunteered for the Santee School District at my daughter's school from the very first day she started school. I proudly organize a yearly silent auction for Chet F. Harritt School to help fund the STEAM program.”
 
She adds that she has been a volunteer in the community since she was a teenager, and has a strong commitment to the community and giving back, which drives her to help those in need. She believes her dedication to education, “gives me an unparalleled perspective to current educational issues and community concerns.”
 
Below are Sarah Kirk’s answers to ECM’s questions.
 
1.  What are the most significant current challenges facing education in this community? How can the school board address these challenges? 
 
I believe the most significant current challenges facing our community is honest and open communication about how education will be handled during the pandemic. Families and staff are left questioning what is planned for education in our community. The community is not provided an adequate chance to share their ideas, concerns, or questions. Information is given in a very last-minute fashion, which leads staff and families scrambling to understand it and makes plans to make any transition go smoothly. Families and staff were left questioning whether we would even get a distance learning option and were not given one until I started a petition that collected over 400 community signatures. The district's original plan was to have 25 students per classroom, which did not allow for adequate social distancing given the size of the actual classrooms or your child would have to do a 100% homeschool option without daily access to a credentialed teacher. Going forward, COVID-19 plans and ideas should be shared more readily and in a timelier fashion. Clear guidelines with mandatory masks, decreased class sizes, increased safety protocols, and spacing for in-person education should be clearly defined. Distance learning options should be available for the foreseeable future for those who require them for personal or medical reasons. 
 
2.  What motivates you to want to serve on the school board? Were there experiences in your education or career that sparked you to do this?
 
I was motivated to run for this position by local staff and families during the pandemic. Our district has had a breakdown in communication before the pandemic (like not knowing what classes our children were in until the night before school), but this brought it to light in a larger spectrum. Parents were left scrambling to try and figure out what might happen with their children's education. Our board chose to make plans to deal with COVID-19 in closed session, rather than do them in open session like other districts, which exclude the families and staff from the opportunity to provide input. Our community instead came together on social media to share information that varied based on who they spoke to in the district. With a Professor of Psychology, specializing in development, I know that this lack of effective communication is a disservice to our community and staff. We must provide clear and effective leadership to our families and staff. Staff members were reaching out to me saying they felt unappreciated and undervalued. No staff member should ever feel this way. We want all of our staff members to feel supported so they can reach their full potential while educating our students. As a parent within this district for the past three years, I believe I have a unique perspective that is currently missing on the board. 
 
3.  For incumbents, what accomplishments on the board are you most proud of? For challengers, what do you most hope to change?
 
The issue I most hope to change is to bring timely, clear, correct, and consistent information to all staff and families. I want to see every family feel confident in the education their children are receiving. I want all staff members to be instilled with a sense of pride as they step foot on campus each and every day. We need a serious overhaul in creating a sense of community between the district, staff, and families in our community. I would also like to ensure proper professional development trainings throughout the district, including the superintendent and school board members. The superintendent and school board members were all previously cited by the San Diego Grand Jury in 2017 for failing to attend ongoing professional development and that is inexcusable.
 
4.  Who has endorsed your candidacy?
 
Tamera Otero, School Board Member, Cajon Valley Union School District; Carol Woodhams Skiljan, Retired School Board Member, Encinitas Union School District; and Janet Wohlgemuth, President California County Boards of Education
 
5.  What is your vision for education in this community?
 
In the short-term, I would like to see our district open up channels of communication in a more readily accessible way by starting an online staff and family portal for sharing comments, concerns, and ideas. In the long-term, I would love to see a greater connection between the district and school sites with the community at large. I would love to see local community members be more involved in volunteer opportunities and an increase in school activities centered around giving back and doing acts of service within the community.
 
6.  Please discuss your views on how you, if elected, could address the issue of racial inequities in the school district.
 
If elected, I would like to see a task force on inequalities started at each school site and at the district level. Each site has a unique population with unique issues facing them. By bringing together administrators, staff members, and families, including children, we can acquire insight to the problems facing our district. I believe that change comes from knowledge and these task forces would supply that. I believe we should offer staff a wider variety of trainings to gain better understanding of how to overcome challenges our district faces.
 
Sarah Kirk’s Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/SarahKirkSantee/
 
District 4
 
Elana Levens-Craig is the incumbent for this seat and currently serves as the Clerk of the Board. She has held the seat since 2012. She is the proprietor of Packaging Solutions for Today's Industry, Inc., in El Cajon.  Levens-Craig currently serves on the following Board Advisory Committees: District Advisory Committee (DAC), Facilities/Safety Committee, Legislative Representative, and Special Education Advisory Committee
 
Biography:  Elana Levens-Craig says that Santee is where she raised her family, served as a teacher, educated her children, and started her business. She also stressed that student safety is of utmost importance to her, and that she is committed to fiscal strength, public accountability, and transparency. 
 
Levens-Craig responses to ECM’s questions:
 
1.  What are the most significant current challenges facing education in this community? How can the school board address these challenges? 
 
Adequate funding from the state to provide a high-quality education is a challenge, which is why we spend tax dollars conservatively and responsibly. Additional challenges include addressing the social-emotional needs of our students, especially during this pandemic. We have invested in a curriculum specifically to meet this need, as well as hiring additional counselors. As far as re-opening schools during this pandemic, I would like to see a return to in-person learning with fewer students per classroom and adhering to all CDPH and local health department mandates and suggestions for best practice.
 
2.  What motivates you to want to serve on the school board? Were there experiences in your education or career that sparked you to do this?
 
As a former teacher, I have always had a passion for education. In my years serving at the state level in California State PTA, I developed an appreciation for politics and its necessity in our nation. School board provides a perfect combination of the two, allowing me to serve my community using my strengths and skills. In addition, I love my community and am very active in many organizations including Rotary, Meals on Wheels, Santee Santas, Salvation Army and SMOAC.
 
3.  For incumbents, what accomplishments on the board are you most proud of?
 
As a two-term incumbent, I am extremely proud of our school district for many reasons - record of high academic achievement, 1-to-1 technology since the 2014-15 school year, community input in our latest strategic planning and updated mission and vision, fiscal stability, hiring a great superintendent and board members who work together to make decisions that are best for our students, staff and community.
 
4.  Who has endorsed your candidacy? Please name the most significant endorsements. 
 
I have received an endorsement from the East County Chamber of Commerce and have submitted for endorsement from the Santee Chamber of Commerce. At this point, I have not sought out any further endorsements.
 
5.  What is your vision for education in this community? 
 
My vision is that all children in our district will receive a high-quality education in safe, modern facilities with highly qualified teachers. I envision family and community members actively involved in the educational process. I want to see our students prepared for this global world that we now live in, whether they choose to go straight to a career or on to secondary education. I also hope that all our students will become active citizens in their community. So many of the students who grow up in East County stay in East County, which is why I think investing in education is so important.
 
6.  Please discuss your views on how you, if elected, could address the issue of racial inequities in the school district. 
 
Our school district prides itself on having highly qualified educators. When we review applications, we look for the best candidates, those that we feel will focus on educating our students and making them feel safe and confident at school and in their personal learning journey. We hire many classified and certificated staff directly from our local community. Our leadership team is doing a book study this year on Courageous Conversations about Race. Our board is currently developing an Equity Resolution for future board approval.
 
Elana Levens-Craig’s Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/ElanaForSanteeSchoolBoard2020/
 

Robin Norris Kendall is from La Mesa and graduated from Helix High School and San Diego State University. She has worked as a writer and editor in a variety of fields including health communications, science education, public relations and marketing. Her experiences are in STEM education, higher education PR, recreation marketing, military life and outdoor education. She volunteers for the San Diego Natural History Museum and San Diego Zoo/Safari Park. She is currently working on two books for children. Her passions include natural history, bird watching, dogs and nature travel. She is the mother of two and grandmother of three.

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