DMUSD forum offers insights from six board hopefuls

All six Del Mar Union School District candidates came together for a candidate forum on Oct. 15 at Del Mar Hills Academy, offering voters a chance to hear their perspectives on a wide range of topics.

The forum hosted by the Del Mar Hills PTA North Coastal Council of PTAs and the American Association of University Women featured candidates Scott Wooden, Chris Tyler, Doug Rafner, Gee Wah Mok, Libby Hellmann and Katherine Fitzpatrick who are hoping to fill three available board seats.

Candidates were asked questions generated by the audience.

Fitzpatrick is a lifelong Del Mar resident (an alum of Del Mar Heights) and a teacher—she is the parent of two young children soon to attend DMUSD schools, with a third child due this December.

She said she believes she can bring a lot to the table with her perspective as a classroom teacher and school counselor. Her priorities include promoting proactive approach to community engagement and increasing transparency, the formation of bond facilities task force and continuing to implement innovative curriculum that reflects the way students learn today, putting every funding dollar to its best use.

She said she would like to see a dual immersion class brought back to the district and is very optimistic about Prop MM, particularly as the Heights hasn’t changed much since her days at the school, “We need to make improvements because these schools are a reflection of our property values and our community,” she said.

Tyler is a six-year resident of the district with two children enrolled in the schools. Both of his parents were public school teachers and he learned the value of education from them. He said he believes that teachers and staff create a “second home” for students and that it’s important that DMUSD schools instill a feeling of love and caring.

With 25 years of experience in the IT field, Tyler said he has managed several large-scale projects that took huge collaborative efforts—he believes that skill to collaborate to solve issues is one board piece that matters most. As a trustee he said he would work to gain trust and understanding by ensuring everyone in the community feels heard and listened to.

Tyler said his priorities are fiscal responsibility, maintaining the district’s educational excellence, and transparency.

“Passing the bond won’t correct transparency issues,” Tyler said, noting it is important for the board to stay engaged with all stakeholders to make sure they are truly doing their bidding.

Mok, an attorney and Pacific Highlands Ranch resident, is a parent to a 4-year-old with another child due in December.

Mok said he decided to get involved in the school district because he has a passion for both community service and education—he said his parents instilled in him a lifelong love of learning and has been inspired and impressed by the work students are doing integrating real-world applications, as outlined by District Design 2022. He would like to see the district continue to innovate in the classroom.

Mok said his priorities would be improving communication, being open with the community about the way money is being spent and maintaining high educational quality. He said as a trustee he would make decisions that prioritize children’s interests first, always making decisions that are fiscally sound.

“I would treat the community’s money like it’s my own… and I’m very frugal with my money,” Mok said.

Wooden has been a school board member for eight years and has served as both board president and clerk. He moved his family to Carmel Valley for the “superior” school district and his two children attended Del Mar schools.

Wooden said he is committed to maintaining the district’s excellence and during his time on the board said he has restored fiscal responsibility and the board’s budgetary decisions follow clearly established goals and objectives.

“Your support will maintain this effective governance and avoid single issue boards which do not serve every student but rather their school or their child,” Wooden said. “This could cause the district to revert to the micromanagement by the board, an absence of long-range plans, budget-busting programs that do not serve all and fiscal irresponsibility which would undermine what is otherwise one of the finest elementary school districts in the state.”

Wooden said his priorities would be the increasing communication and community involvement, implementation of the facilities master plan with the passing of MM, continuing proper governance on the board and maintaining a balanced budget while building adequate reserves for the future.

Rafner has been on the DMUSD board for eight years and president for five years. A parent of three children who have gone through the district, he initially ran for the board because he thought that the district needed change.

During his time on the board he said he has seen innovations such as District Design 2022, the creation of modern learning studios and STEAM + . He said he has demonstrated fiscal responsibility by weathering the hardest financial times without affecting curriculum and over the past five years has overseen a balanced budget while building a 21 percent reserve.

His priorities would be to continue to improve the curriculum and properly implementing Prop MM funds and rolling out the facilities master plan in a way that addresses everyone’s views.

“I’m just not done doing what we’ve been doing,” Rafner said. “I think the district is headed in a very positive direction.”

Hellmann has lived in the district for over a decade and has three children currently attending Del Mar schools. She said she has been an active volunteer and has served on the executive boards of the Del Mar Hills PTA and Del Mar Schools Education Foundation.

Hellmann said her priorities include promoting district unity and restoring confidence in the board, the proper disbursement of Prop MM funds with priorities driven by the facilities task force, and gathering meaningful public input. Transparency is also an important priority to her—she said she is a big proponent of recording all board meetings, which the district does not do.

Hellmann said more than one single issue has drawn her to run for the board, “I will advocate for all students regardless of where they reside,” Hellmann said.

Running mates

The candidates were asked about their decisions to campaign with running mates. Running mates Tyler and Hellmann said they were driven by their shared concerns, beliefs and willingness to work together to make a great district even better.

Hellmann said the board’s actions over the past six months regarding the facilities master plan, Del Mar Schools Education Foundation funding choices and the school safety resolution led her to believe that: “fresh eyes are needed on the board to look at the problems with a solutions-driven lens and I believe that Mr. Tyler and myself will do that.”

Mok, Wooden and Rafner are also running mates despite being very diverse politically, Wooden said.

“We may agree to disagree on some issues and I think that’s perfectly okay, as long as we’re doing things through the lens of what is in the best interest of children,” Mok said.

Fitzpatrick is running solo.

“This is my first political campaign and maybe I’m blissfully naïve but I didn’t even know about running mates,” Fitzpatrick said. “The reason I’m involving myself in this is because I care about kids, I care about my own kids and I care about every single child in Del Mar.”

The Del Mar California Teachers Association has endorsed Rafner, Tyler and Fitzpatrick. While the board is non-partisan, the San Diego County Democratic Party has endorsed Rafner and Mok; the Republican Party of San Diego has endorsed Wooden and Hellmann.

On geography

Candidates were asked whether it is important to have geographic representation across the district on on the board.

Fitzpatrick said that as the district has grown, she believes there is a need to have a voice from each community to keep things fair and balanced. While board members represent the entire district, she said first-hand perspectives from each school community can benefit the board.

Tyler said as much as it is feasibly possible it’s good to have geographic representation across the board but as voters elect officials they should elect board members officials they can trust and that they can have engagement and open dialogue with—a quality he believes that he can bring to the board.

Mok said he believes that geographic representation on the board is “critical” as each area has its own diverse needs, such as his own area of Pacific Highlands Ranch. He said it is important to have diversity of opinions on the board.

Wooden said as much as possible it’s nice to have geographic representation but what’s more important is that board members are able to make decisions for all students and not just what’s best for their school or their child. He said depending on the way the election goes, there could be four board members that live within walking distance from each other’s homes and that’s an issue to consider.

Rafner took an alternative view from the other candidates, saying that the California School Boards Association calls for board members to have a “helicopter’s perspective” of the district.

“I don’t know that geographic perspective is the way to go on a school board,” Rafner said. “I represent all of the students in the school district, I don’t represent one geographic area. When I’m making a decision, my decision is for the benefit of all the students and not just the students that are in my area.”

Hellmann agreed with Rafner.

“Diverse opinions are great no matter what geographic area you represent. You should choose the best candidates for this job that you believe can truly collaborate and find solutions to the problems that are presented to them,” Hellmann said. “This is a non-partisan position and should be non-geographic as well, you should represent students no matter where they live.”

MM and the facilities master plan

All candidates said they supported Measure MM, the $186 general obligation bond on the ballot that will provide funding to improve all district schools as well as a ninth district school in Pacific Highlands Ranch, a reconstruction of Del Mar Heights and a remodel of Del Mar Hills Academy.

The candidates were asked about the controversial process earlier in the year for the district’s facilities master plan, which began with a proposal to close Del Mar Hills Academy.

Hellmann and Tyler both said that process was one of the driving reasons why they decided to get involved and run for the board.

“I believe the district’s ever-changing facilities master plan and what was widely perceived to have been a lack of information to the public or at the very least a lack of transparency over the last six months unfortunately polarized this community,” Hellmann said, noting that the reconfiguration proposal took many by surprise and forced hundreds of parents to get involved advocating for a better solution.

Hellmann said she supports MM as it will lessen the burden on the general fund to ensure small class sizes and let every community in the district have their own school.

Tyler said the district missed an opportunity to engage the community in developing its facilities master plan, particularly its taxpayers who will be footing the bill—and that is something he would strive to repair.

“If we are fortunate to get that $186 million, we need to take a hard look at who is on the task force and how we are engaging community in the decisions we make,” Tyler said, stressing transparency so that the community has a clear understanding of the district’s priorities.

Fitzpatrick agreed that there could have been “a lot more transparency” in the initial process.

“It was really bad but good things came out of it,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that she is encouraged to see how the struggles have united the community. “I’m so amazingly proud of everyone who’s pushed for Measure MM…there’s been so much community involvement.”

“I’m not real happy with the process of how it unfolded but I’m happy with the results,” agreed Wooden who said they often have “crickets at board meetings” and a lot of times these issues were discussed without involvement with the community. “Once the community has gotten involved and engaged we embarked on a plan that worked and I think we have a plan in place that meets all the needs of the district… there’s an energy behind the bond that we wouldn’t have had without the process.”

Rafner said he wasn’t sure he would have done things differently as the process did work. Following the superintendent’s advisory council’s recommendation for an eight-school district, they ended up having school board meetings filled to capacity, getting the input they were looking for and resulting in a motivated community to pass a bond when in back in February polling showed the community would narrowly support one.

“I’m glad the community came out because we were able to evolve and that evolution has brought us to where we are today,” Rafner said.

Mok said he fully supports the nine school plan and that he believes every community should have a neighborhood school.

“There was a lot of ups and downs and I think that there could’ve been a lot better communication to start off,” Mok said, adding as a trustee he would hope to be in a position to improve communication to help arrive at solutions that work for all.

As for MM, Mok said he strongly believes in the bond and has been stumping for it regularly with the Yes on MM campaign.

All candidates acknowledged that if the bond does not pass, the district will face significant financial challenges.

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