6 seek 3 Waterford district seats

Candidates focus on managing cuts, parent involvement

October 12, 2009 

WATERFORD — Three first-term incumbents and three challengers are facing off for school board posts here. Voters will fill three of the Waterford Unified School District board's five seats in November.

Belt-tightening and a last-minute superintendent switch were the board's top challenges last year, according to incumbents. Sitting members acknowledged there was friction on the board, which challengers noted, but each said they decided to run because they have something to offer.

Elisa Godoy said she would bring the Latino community to the table with her bilingual outreach and community contacts. Godoy is a teacher who substitutes locally but is employed by the Stanislaus County Office of Education. She was active as a parent volunteer in classrooms as well as on-site councils and several district committees.

"The Latino community knows me. They will get more involved. They would come," Godoy said, adding that bringing Spanish-speaking parents into the schools would help raise test scores and close the achievement gap.

Board harmony also is important, she added. "I think that not only having the right lingo, several degrees or lots of experience is important, but what would be better is putting these skills to use in an atmosphere of collaboration, in an environment where one can voice different points of view without fear of defensiveness."

As funds allow, she added, she'd like to see vocational and trade courses added within the district.

Shirley Villarreal, who described herself as a "very involved parent," said she decided to run after serving on the high school site council with then-principal Don Davis. Davis was hired to replace Superintendent Howard Cohen, who resigned in June.

"I would like to be a supportive board member and help the district," Villarreal said. "I think we need to become a more unified body for the community."

She sells real estate but formerly worked in payroll and benefits for the school district. A veteran volunteer at all four schools, Villarreal said she knows the district inside and out, and her top priority is "keeping budget cuts away from the kids."

Also of concern is getting children safely to and from school by reinstating bus service or having crossing guards. When funds allow, she added, she'd like to see a cafeteria built for the high school.

Jim Weaver, who will retire Nov. 20 as vice president of human resources for Pacific Southwest Container, said he is "changing my public service focus." Weaver serves on the Waterford City Council, but said he will resign if elected to the school board.

Weaver said he sees parent involvement as the key to success, particularly at the middle school. "We need to get the middle school parents club back on its feet. We can build on that."

He said he wants after-school tutoring and mentoring programs in place, drawing on service clubs, senior citizens and others willing to pitch in.

As most in education brace for budget cuts ahead, Weaver is taking a different tack.

"Forget about the cuts," he urged, and focus on raising attendance dollars. Parents pulling their students out of the middle school cost the district $900,000, he said. "Then you work on absences ... that's half a million dollars. We need to look at dropouts. There's a cost associated with that. Increasing sales revenue is what I'm talking about, just like a business."

Incumbent Tim Bomgardner also said attendance is key to budget management, adding that he hopes the district can maintain its current enrollment of 1,900 students.

A home-schooling charter school operated by the district "helps keep us afloat," he said.

Connecting Waters school has 1,770 students enrolled from eight counties, according to its 2007-08 School Accountability Report Card.

Bomgardner said the biggest challenge ahead is "keeping everybody hired."

Parent groups have had to help with supplies, he said, but the district was able to keep class-size reduction in the early grades.

On the board, Bomgardner said he worked to ease transitions between the district's four main schools. "I'd like to see all the sites in collaboration — kids leave one grade and go into the next being taught a certain way, with certain strategies," Bomgardner said.

Incumbent Sheila Collins said: "Our schools were islands unto themselves. Everyone kind of did their own thing. Now everyone's gotten with the program."

Collins said the district's early frugality has put it in a better position to weather budget cuts.

"We're not having to cut as deeply as some of the other districts because we went with the worst-case scenario," she said. When the actual numbers came in, the board was able to restore some things and "come back as the good guys."

One perpetual frustration, she added, is the state's fickle figures. "The state keeps giving us money, then halfway through the year they take it back." She cited last year's cuts to busing, which the district partially offset using an after-school program to tap another funding category.

"Oh, yes. Schools have found very creative ways to look at the grants and categoricals and look at all the 'thou shalts' and 'shalt nots' and see how you can make it fit," Collins said.

Incumbent Barbara Little said her priority "is to bring back all the things we had to cut — all the people." Little said the budget was "absolutely the biggest challenge, without a doubt," of her term.

Another challenge Little took on was to update board policies, two 4-inch thick binders of regulations.

Given more funding, she said she'd like to see Waterford join all the student events she runs for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, including mock trials and the Science Olympiad.

Little said she would like to see family, teachers and staff working in tandem to educate each student. "My background is in special ed. I'd love to see individualized education plans for all our students. Have that collaboration," she said.

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