Still navigating through murky waters, still lagging in academic achievement and with a new, staggering budget deficit, the Stockton Unified School District is about to corroborate or replace four Board members, changing —once again— the balance that governs the largest school district in San Joaquin County.
In an effort to shed light to those who vie to stay or join this School Board, Bilingual Weekly (bw) sent a questionnaire to all SUSD candidates. We received responses from six out of nine of them: AngelAnn Flores and incumbent Salvador Ramirez (Area 2,) David Varela (Area 5,) Sara Cazares, Angela Phillips and incumbent Bill Ross (Area 6) (The full text of the each answer is online at http://www.bilingualweekly.com)
When bw questioned about the looming $25-million deficit, the candidates needed to explain where they would cut and why; all respondents agreed that the cuts should stay as far from the classroom as possible. Then, “I would consider cutting Administration…” replied Flores “the priority is in the classroom and the focus should be on the students.”
That determination will be made when we know the actual amounts needed to be reduced” said Ramirez.
Before making any decisions, Varela would prefer a quick lesson on budget, fiscal stability, curriculum and instructions, instructional programs along with a two or three day retreat on roles and responsibilities of board members done with the SUSD’s Attorney and Superintendent. “After that has been completed (…) cuts would be in some administrative areas.”
Sara Cazares would bring all stakeholders to the bargaining table to discuss how to move forward. “Clearly, the fiscal times will call for shared sacrifice (…) but we must have a full and correct budget picture for our District to make informed choices that explore all avenues for savings outside the classroom.
Realizing that salaries and benefits “are the largest part of any school districts budget, the board should work collaboratively with our employee associations to make sure that any cuts to staffing are minimal and thoughtful” said Phillips.
Although he sees value on saving on consultants, rents and utilities, Ross —the current seat-holder— notes that since the “SUSD budget is 93% (…) payroll, it makes sense that the heaviest hit area will come from that group.
Regarding the predominant role unions have played lately on SUSD affairs, Flores believes “it’s time that the board and the unions start putting their focus on students instead of their own personal politics,” adding that “people are forgetting that we are here to serve our students not ourselves.”
Ramirez credits unions with stepping “up to the plate in recent years and helped protect Stockton Unified from dishonest, self-serving superintendents” brushing off any notion of unions overstepping their role.
Varela thinks the Board “needs to regain control of being the policy makers for SUSD. We need to govern ourselves as a unit, or else someone comes in and does what you can not do.”
“The unions are stakeholders to be included and respected in carrying out the goals of the Board, namely educational success for our students” says Cazares. “It is the board’s job to govern the district, and our primary goal should be the academic success of all our students”, added Phillips. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” commented Ross about the unions’ possible role on influencing the Board. “The unions took a prominent role recently (…) to protect the jobs of their members. SUSD had a superintendent, supported by a board majority, that could have bankrupted the district (…) We are grateful the unions joined the board minority to protect their members and the district.”
Asked if the district needs a “shake-up”to raise students’ performance, Flores agrees. “All SUSD personnel need to realize that they must learn to work together and must treat everyone with respect regardless of their personal views or it’s not going to happen.” Ramirez disagrees, “ I believe a good educational leader (superintendent) will do what is right and necessary to improve student achievement,” adding past superintendents’ ill-thought programs hindered “good teachers and good administrators” success with children. Varela believes that although “(former Superintendent Anthony) Amato was hired by the board members to be an agent of change (…) he moved way too fast….. the fast track derailed.”
“With over 40 low performing schools, clearly we as a district have much work to do on this front,” concedes Cazares “A one-size-fits-all programming approach fails to differentiate our successes from schools that need instructional support”
“We need all hands on deck, this includes students, parents, staff, administration and the board members, adds Phillips. Ross believes SUSD is on the right path for students to have greater academic success. “With an honest, student-centered superintendent leading the district, and the current board that I am part of, this district has refocused on the students by emphasizing mastery of reading, writing and mathematics.”
On the SUSD Board losing the respect of the community, Flores says that, if elected, she will remind the board “their behavior are not helping student success.” Ramirez blames Amato, “Our board endured a superintendent with a self-serving agenda that fractured our ability as a board to work harmoniously.” Varela seeks to have “retreats and trainings with the (SUSD) attorney, Superintendent, and entire Board to review, study, and understand (…) standards of good practice as an elected official”
Other than demanding professionalism from other board members, Cazares wonders that if “We demand that our students perform, our teachers perform, our school sites perform —let us demand a School Board leadership that also performs on behalf of the students” Phillips will lead by example and “keep the dignity even if not one else does”
As Ramirez, Ross places the blame on Amato,“Because we are the largest school district in the county, it was very public dissention” adding “the Board can and must put differences aside for the good of the district.”
Asked for a specific plan meant to raise SUSD children’s academic success, Flores thinks involving “the parents and the community (…) I am going to ask SUSD to allow our parents into the schools and train parents on the academic curriculum so that we can help them at home.” Ramirez: said “is within the purview of the superintendent and the educational services division to lead the district into greater student achievement.” Varela thinks that “every thing has a process and we need to make sure that all of the processes are functioning correctly and make adjustments as needed.” Cazares will visit her “area schools and work to support quality educational service for all our students.” Phillips will work jointly with other board members to establish policies that address our deficiencies.” While Ross reminds us the job of a board member is to create policy, not determine curriculum. “Those decisions should be made by the experts as overseen by the superintendent”