Modesto City Schools Board Candidates tackle schools

Topics include budget cuts, dropouts, evolution

September 30, 2009 

Candidates for Modesto City Schools: (top row: left to right) Solange Altman, Nancy Cline, Steve Collins, (middle row: left to right) Cindy Marks, Belinda Rolicheck, Jim Standart, (bottom row: left to right) Joshua Vander Veen, Ruben Villalobos, Sue Zwahlen

Nine candidates for the Modesto City Schools Board of Education expressed similar views on topics such as teacher merit pay, dropouts and the district's upcoming budget cuts, but had different ideas on items such as evolution during a Wednesday night forum.

A crowd of 50 people listened quietly as the candidates answered six questions submitted by the audience. Four incumbents and five challengers are running for four seats on the board in the Nov. 3 election.

On some issues — such as how to trim the budget — candidates found common ground.

Budget cuts likely will come from all areas in the district, they said. Incumbent Steve Collins said cuts will have to be across the board, and that he would look for concessions from employee groups. Incumbent Belinda Rolicheck said she'd look at closing schools and reducing staff.

Challenger Solange Altman cited examples of wasteful spending and said she'd like to see the district use fewer "expensive consultants."

Candidates were asked about basing teacher pay on their performance. Most said they supported such a system as long as it did not rely solely on student test scores.

"I think it'd be difficult to do, but I think it can be done fairly," incumbent Cindy Marks said. "Some teachers work harder than others and deserve to be paid more."

Challenger Jim Standart likes the idea of merit pay, but said he was concerned that teachers would spend less time teaching and more time manipulating the criteria of their performance evaluations.

Candidates said they'd call on parents and businesses to donate money to preserve costly extracurricular activities, such as arts, music, theater and sports.

For example, Standart suggested getting businesses like Save Mart and Del Monte Foods to sponsor high school football fields.

Marks and incumbent Nancy Cline had prepared responses to the first question of the night — whether creationism should be taught in Modesto's schools. Teaching evolution and creationism in public schools is often debated, though the law prohibits the latter.

Both read from statements, with Marks citing definitions of the theory of intelligent design and design theory. Both said creationism should be covered in schools.

"I believe (creationism and evolution) should be taught side by side," Cline said.

The other candidates said evolution should be taught in science classes and creationism in world history or religious theory classes.

The candidates debated one of the school board's most controversial issues of the past year: rescinding some restrictions on junior high and high school students' ability to leave campus for private medical services ranging from drug abuse counseling to abortions. The board ultimately left the district's policy in place, requiring students to get parental consent for those visits.

Collins originally supported easing the policy to let students leave campus, but backed down once he saw strong community opposition. Marks and Cline voted against the change. Rolicheck supported the change.

Challengers Standart, Altman, Josh Vander Veen and Sue Zwahlen said they would have voted against the proposed policy change.

Challenger Ruben Villalobos said he thinks the change conforms with the law and would have voted for the new policy. He called out the board for avoiding a final vote on the issue, saying it was done to shirk controversy during an election year.

During closing comments by candidates, Vander Veen caused a stir when he acknowledged that many people aren't sure what a 24-year-old can offer the community. He noted that he would be here longer than many people in the room. Most of the crowd chuckled, with one man jokingly scoffing "that's cruel."

Following Vander Veen, Marks said she appreciated his youthfulness and different views. She encouraged people to vote for him. Later, Collins sarcastically said he would not apologize for being a senior citizen.

The forum was coordinated by the League of Women Voters and broadcast live on public access TV. The 90-minute event will be replayed; for that schedule, visit www.lwvstanislaus.org.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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