The San Diego Asian Americans for Equality held a San Dieguito Union High School District candidate forum in Pacific Highlands Ranch on Oct. 2. Area 5 candidates Lea Wolf, Cheryl James-Ward and Kristin Gibson spoke on topics such as their campaign priorities, the budget and finances, safety and wellness and the qualities that make an effective board member.
The candidates are seeking to fill the San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) board seat that represents Carmel Valley and Pacific Highlands Ranch.
James-Ward, a principal at e3 Civic High who has 25 years of experience in education, said her top priorities are safer schools; mental health support and drug prevention; fiscal transparency and solvency; and technology and innovation.
James-Ward said a district the size of San Dieguito, with the backgrounds of families and its proximity to Sorrento Valley, should have a technology and innovation plan to help prepare students for the jobs that will exist in the workforce of 2050.
“As we think about educating our kids, we have to prepare them for a world we cannot yet imagine,” James-Ward said.
She said she would like to see San Dieguito innovate with technology, Sorrento Valley internships and more design thinking—developing a curriculum that gives students more opportunities to think critically and creatively, to collaborate with others and to solve real-world complex problems.
Wolf, who comes from a background in technology and has launched several start-up companies focused on resolving social issues, is running on a platform of “empowering students.” Wolf believes in many ways the district is failing students in their social and emotional well-being and has attended board meetings regularly over the past year to speak up on behalf of students.
“The number one key is leadership, leadership, leadership,” said Wolf of her priorities. “Our current board lacks leadership, lacks vision, lacks fiscal responsibility and lacks intention.”
Wolf would like to see the board create more open and honest communication and bring all stakeholders together to “build a sound plan for kids first and foremost,” focusing on students’ wellbeing and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed. She said the district is lacking instruction in life skills for students—she believes it should be integrated into their everyday learning.
Gibson, the current Del Mar Union School District board president and faculty member at SDSU’s School of Teacher Education, agreed with Wolf that her first priority is the “restoration of proper governance in this district.”
“This is a fabulous district but by all accounts they’ve struggled with a dysfunctional board of trustees for some time and it’s really resulted in a negative and unproductive environment,” Gibson said.
Gibson said the board dysfunction has created a “hostile work environment,” has been a distraction from teaching and learning, and has caused the district to struggle to retain and attract high leadership positions.
She said school board members need to come together as a unified team to make decisions that are in the best interest of children.
“Until you have a high-functioning governance team you cannot expect to make any reasonable progress on all these other important priorities that have been discussed such as safety and wellness, special education, 21st century learning, technology initiatives, class size or budget issues,” Gibson said.
On the topic of safety and wellness, Wolf again stressed the importance of instilling students with life skills, teaching them about conflict-resolution, ethics and morals. Wolf said the district’s Say Something anonymous reporting platform with Sandy Hook Promise (expected to be rolled out in January 2019) is great technology but it will not work unless students have clear instruction and guidance on how to make good decisions, particularly in regards to threats made on social media.
“This year, I advocated for kids who were harshly punished by the district,” Wolf said. “These kids really made innocent mistakes. We must institute restorative justice for kids. We need to allow kids to fail and give them guidance on how to solve these issues by giving leadership to them.”
Gibson said she believed safety is any district’s highest priority and she believes SDUHSD needs a multi-faceted approach. She said that approach includes limiting access to guns, providing research-based social and emotional learning programs, and establishing a climate where every kid feels a deep and meaningful connection.
“We need secure school facilities, perimeter fencing on our more open campuses and to make sure all stakeholders know the signs of someone who is a threat to themselves or others and know how to report it properly,” Gibson said.
On the topic of restorative justice, Gibson said she is not an advocate of harsh punishment but also believes that “part of supporting our students is providing them with consequences when behaviors require that.”
James-Ward said as gun safety is an issue on every parent’s mind, the district might consider bringing in technology to help detect when weapons are on campus. She said every school should have one way-in, surveillance cameras and utilize the Raptor system to know all individuals that are on campus.
“In terms of fencing, I’m not a proponent of fencing in schools,” James-Ward said, noting there are instances when kids need to get away and she does not want students to be trapped.
Student connectedness is also an important aspect of student safety and wellness for James-Ward.
“As a principal I greet just about every scholar every morning,” she said, noting she looks at every face, into every eye, sometimes does a fist bump. “Connectedness is the primary thing when we think about safety and wellness because kids need to know that you are invested in them and that you care about them.”
On the topic of the district’s budget, Gibson said most districts struggle with finances, dealing with “crippling” increases in state retirement contributions and budgets that are 85 to 90 percent personnel.
“This is a people-heavy business, so you don’t have many options to cut costs unless you have less teachers and when you have less teachers for the most part you have higher class sizes. So it is a struggle,” Gibson said.
As a SDUHSD trustee, Gibson said she would bring the knowledge gained from her experiences at DMUSD, where during the recession they deficit spent for the first time. She said the board found ways to make cuts that actually improved programs by making the district leaner and more efficient. DMUSD has now had a balanced budget for last six years, she said.
Gibson said when it comes to the budget, it’s important that the board sets priorities and directs district resources with a “laser focus” toward those priorities.
James-Ward concurred with Gibson’s assessment of the budget issues, noting that the increased costs of teacher pensions have a “heavier blow” in SDUHSD as the district has some of the highest teacher salaries.
“If we continue down the road we are with deficit spending, we’re going to end having to borrow money from the state. And when you borrow money from the state you go into something called state receivership. That means the state sends someone in to run the district for you. The superintendent goes away and the board becomes advisory,” James-Ward said. “To prevent that from happening the board has to make some serious decisions.”
James-Ward said she believes there is a “silver lining” with the finances, if the district is open to looking at things differently and being innovative in how they use the money they have. She recommended doing a financial audit of the district spending and getting community feedback to come up with both short-term and long-term strategic plans.
Wolf said she has taken a close look at the financial aspects of the district and how funds are allocated. She referenced how in 2016 the board, “the majority of which are union-controlled,” voted 3-2 for “12.5 percent to 30 percent increase pay raise for everyone unilaterally.” Wolf said the contract also increased class sizes to a potential average of 38 average students and she said many kids experience class sizes of 45-plus.
“These board members who are union-controlled have compromised the well-being and the quality of the education because they fiscally misallocated the funds for their own special interests,” Wolf said. “When the district says they have no money don’t believe them…We have enough money. The way we spend it is reckless, wasteful and goes to special interest groups.”
A teacher in the audience questioned Wolf and said it was not true that she had a 30 percent bonus and argued that the 2016 increases were the first master contract raises in nine years.
(According to Transparent California, the teacher’s salary did increase 32 percent from 2015 to 2016, which can be attributed to an employee salary step increase in addition to the salary increases for all staff.)
Gibson said it was not her understanding that class sizes increased with the last contract but she did agree with Wolf that SDUHSD class sizes are above the county, state and national averages and she would like to see them lower.
“If this community decides that they want smaller class sizes, we need to make that a top priority and need to direct resources with focus toward that end,” Gibson said, noting that there would be budget implications.
James-Ward agreed that the district’s high schools are “quite large” so one thing that could immediately be done is to move students into small schools on the campuses of about 500-600 each. James-Ward said no matter the class size, it’s important that teachers have an understanding of differentiated instruction to allow all students in class to succeed.
Qualities of an effective board member
Wolf said “integrity, accountability and transparency are essential to good leadership,” and that a good board member is one who is compassionate toward students, embraces differences and establishes a purpose and vision. She said to establish vision, leaders must listen to come up with collaborative and creative solutions.
The Republican Party of San Diego County has endorsed James-Ward in Area 5 as well as Melisse Mossy in Area 3 and Mo Muir in Area 1, The San Diego County Democratic Party has endorsed Gibson in Area 5 as well as Rhea Stewart in Area 3 and Amy Flicker in Area 1. The SDFA has endorsed and supported Gibson, Stewart and Flicker.
“I have been a regular voice on my own time and resources for students this year…I have the courage to ask really hard questions and speak up when I think things are wrong,” said Wolf. “I welcome hard questions because if I know what people are thinking, we can solve any problem collaboratively.”
Gibson clarified that while she is supported by the teacher’s association, it is different from “being in the pocket of the union.”
“This is an unpaid position so it’s sort of hard to buy me. I’m doing this simply because it’s my form of parent volunteerism,” Gibson said.
Gibson said what makes a good board member is realizing that as an individual board member, you have no power and that you’re only powerful when all five members are together. She said a collaborative board is one that demands accountability and also supports its leaders and treats them with loyalty and respect, putting students before their own personal agendas.
“This is a job about letting go of your ego,” Gibson said “It’s about being reasonable, civil, kind and honest. It’s about being compassionate to everyone you interact with and listening more than you talk.”
James-Ward acknowledged that the voluntary position of board member is a difficult one and it requires a certain disposition—someone who can be collaborative and is slow to anger at meetings that can be contentious. She said a good board member is open-minded and employs empathy, humility, healthy skepticism and reflection in their decision making.
“This is a great district. But it can be a better district. And I believe that we can not only be a model for California or for the nation but I believe we can be a global model,” James-Ward said. “We have all the components here… In 2030 the way a school looks will look quite different than the way a school looks today. We have an opportunity to get ahead of the game.”