By Marsha Sutton
Whoever wins the upcoming election for the three seats on the Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Education will be sitting pretty. There are certainly challenges – finding a new district office, balancing enrollment among the schools, squeezing more and better programs out of fewer dollars, and healing rifts in the community, among them.
But the winners won’t have to worry about what matters most: student achievement. Because for all the strife of the past four years, Del Mar’s children continue to thrive in and out of the classroom.
Thanks to the efforts of self-motivated students, inspiring teachers and involved parents, kids in their classrooms have been insulated from the acrimony swirling around them at the adult level and are able to find success in academic performance at an astounding rate.
Look at the latest Academic Performance Index scores which continue to climb – soar, actually.
Recently released API numbers place all eight Del Mar schools in top-ranked positions in the county. As such, continued student success during these four years demonstrates that the influence of a school board over student achievement may be minimal, and that the dominant factors are parent education and commitment, socio-economic status, resources available to students, teacher quality, staff expertise and professional development programs.
Another issue the new board won’t need to focus on is staff. After past superintendent debacles, this board managed to find someone to replace her who is well-respected, knowledgeable and highly competent. From all accounts, new superintendent Jim Peabody, through his strong leadership, has defused much of the rancor and restored civility in the community, and has reignited progress on pressing issues.
Bemoaning the loss of veteran staff, and implying that they all left due to irreconcilable differences with this school board, is a point that has been raised in this election campaign frequently. School board candidate Doug Rafner said at the League of Women Voters forum on Sept. 20 that it’s “a travesty when they leave.”
But this view should be regarded somewhat skeptically for at least three reasons.
First, some people resigned because they could not work with top administrators: Both past superintendents, Sharon McClain and Tom Bishop, were not without faults. Second, others left to take better positions or to retire. Third, some needed to leave for the good of the organization. Not everyone was a treasure worth keeping.
I’m not being an apologist for this school board. I too have been sorely disappointed by many of their actions – and inactions. However, nothing is so black-and-white.
It may have taken four years of floundering, but the board seems to have finally put in place a mighty fine work force. Under Peabody, things are humming along nicely. Staff and principals seem content, teachers are busily at work without distractions, parents are satisfied, API scores continue to climb and students are excelling.
The district seems to have righted itself. Despite a handful of challenges, those elected to the board this November will have the benefit of steering a ship now on course.
Nevertheless, there is an election coming up, and there are distinct differences among the five candidates, meaning that choices need to be made by informed voters.
Again this year, there is a slate of three: Rafner, Scott Wooden and Kristin Gibson. But voters need not support all three, as not all three agree on every issue. One point uniting them all, however, is their critical view of the current board and the need for more accountability and fewer closed-door meetings.
Although much has been said about the need to replace the existing board with trustees of a different nature, this election can hardly be called a referendum on past performance, given that two of the three trustees are not running again. It’s hard to argue with non-existent opponents.
The only incumbent running for re-election is Steven McDowell who, for all his likable qualities, presents a weak target. A truly nice guy with a kind demeanor, he seems unwilling to stand behind past actions and unprepared to make hard choices.
At the Del Mar television forum on Sept. 30, when asked to select one of the five Extended Studies Curriculum subjects to cut if budget constraints demanded it, he said, “If I had to pick one, I wouldn’t pick.”
Even though the three slate candidates dodged this question as well, McDowell’s statement, and his phrasing, was reminiscent of his infamous abstention to release McClain.
The fifth candidate, Jason Maletic, gets points for being the only one to actually answer the question, saying physical education – if forced to choose one subject to eliminate –could be handled by volunteers more easily than the other four (art, music, science and technology) which require specialists.
When the question of the east/west divide within the district was raised at the Sept. 30 forum, Rafner suggested that the schism was exacerbated by the formation of the 7-11 committee, which incidentally was an idea put forth by McClain and adopted by the board on her advice.
McDowell, curiously, seemed to agree, saying the 7-11 committee “helped create the divide,” “did not provide the service we expected” and that it “was a mistake we made as a board.”
When asked about the time-banking issue and the early Wednesday release program, all candidates seemed confused. Gibson gets credit for having the most grace under pressure for this one, it being her turn to answer the question first.
But when McDowell, the lone incumbent, said, “I’ve read about it, and I’m still not personally clear on how it goes,” one has to wonder. Hasn’t he been present at labor negotiations? Having spent four years on the board, shouldn’t he be intimately familiar with the teachers’ contract and the time-banking and early Wed. release program?
His remarks on these and other issues are troubling, and voters are left to puzzle over exactly what his positions are.
The Del Mar California Teachers Association, the teachers’ union, has endorsed Gibson, Rafner and Wooden. At first blush, one might think this is a fortuitous development for the candidates, but there are strong arguments to be made that an endorsement by a teachers’ union can become a ball-and-chain.
One need look no farther than the San Diego Unified School District to see what can happen when teachers control a school board, with a newly elected board majority suddenly indebted to union interests.
Can school board members who have unions to thank for their elections negotiate appropriately to protect taxpayer interests when teacher contracts are reviewed?
Teacher salaries and benefits are the single most costly item for any school district, running between 80 and 90 percent of the budget. Understanding what needs to be done and taking steps that may not be favored by one’s supporters can be a thorny undertaking.
Teacher and student interests overlap, but not completely. Teachers’ unions exist for the benefit of teachers, and not everything teachers want is good for students or a school district’s bottom line.
Do these three individuals have the courage to do the right thing for the district and taxpayers, when push comes to shove? Will their allegiance to the DMCTA color their judgment?
Maletic, who at the Sept. 30 forum suggested that teachers need to consider cutbacks during hard economic times, gave a frank, direct response to a politically charged question and deserves credit for his willingness to speak candidly about these and other issues. On the other hand, he’s not been involved with the district previously and there’s no history.
McDowell offers continuity and historical perspective. On the other hand, there’s all that history.
For Gibson, Rafner and Wooden, there’s something to be said for change and enthusiasm. Although running as a slate, each candidate offers enough distinction in background and experience to provide a healthy diversity of viewpoints. And all three have young children in the district’s schools. When trustees are personally involved and invested in the success of their children’s education, school boards benefit through their passion and perspective.
Gibson, Rafner and Wooden may offer the skills, knowledge, patience and thoughtfulness needed to guide the district into the future. They seem intelligent, inquisitive, quick to admit what they don’t know, eager to learn, and able to articulate their ideas clearly and fervently. And each of them declares fierce loyalty to the precepts of the open-meeting Brown Act, promising more sunshine on the public’s business.
But once elected, could they put aside existing alliances with individuals and organizations and do what’s best for the district when the inevitable collision of interests occurs? Can the community be assured of no hidden agendas? Can they focus forward rather than on the past?
We shall soon see. Because if I were a gambler, I’d put my money on these three. Their priorities are sensible and ideas impressive, and their leadership promises to infuse the district with respect, stability and direction.