RIVERBANK Two incumbents want to continue progress made at the Riverbank Unified School District and two challengers seek to bring new voices for education to the November school board election.
The four candidates are vying for three open seats on the district's board of trustees.
As state funds dwindle at schools throughout Stanislaus County, Superintendent Ken Geisick said the district survived $2.5 million in budget cuts in the past two years with its academic programs intact.
Geisick said the district is in good shape, but faces the possibility of more budget cuts.
"We just don't know yet," he said. "We have to be alert and be prepared."
All the candidates said they want to protect academic programs at the schools if more cuts become necessary in the 2010-11 budget.
Cohen Blount, one of the challengers, said his priority is to improve academic performance.
"You don't want to cut academic programs if you want to improve test scores," said Blount, the son of Patricia Ann Blount, who served on the Riverbank school board for more than a decade before she died in May.
Her seat is one of the three up for election next month.
Blount said his mother's death is one of the reasons he decided to run. He said he wants to continue her legacy of working on behalf of students and cutting through the political bickering that gets in the way.
"I want to make a difference in the the community," Blount said. "So, I thought the best way to do that is to be a part of the decision-making process."
Elizabeth Meza is the other challenger. She said she would steer budget cuts away from teacher and staff positions because those employees play a huge role in providing a quality education.
"Every teacher and staff member is essential to our children," said Meza, whose two children attend district schools. "Not only do I want my children to succeed, I want all their peers to succeed."
Meza said she has been volunteering as a parent on various district committees for several years. She said there is a communication barrier between the school board and parents, especially those who speak only Spanish.
"I speak Spanish, and I want to help parents," she said. "If I don't know the answer, I'll help them find the answer."
Egidio "Jeep" Oliveira has been on the board since 2005. He said school officials are bracing for more budget cuts, but it's too early to know if spending reductions will be needed.
If re-elected, Oliveira said, he would work to protect academic programs and cut travel expenses, consulting contracts and administrative positions, if needed.
"Sometimes people forget who is paying the bills," Oliveira said. "We should be asking ourselves, 'Is this fair for the taxpayer? For the students?' And sometimes those decisions have nothing to do with those two things."
Oliveira and Ron Peterson, the other incumbent running for re-election, said there are many positives at the district on which they can build.
The new gymnasium at Riverbank High School was unveiled in late March. Construction is expected to finish in December at Mesa Verde Elementary School, the district's first new school in 60 years.
Peterson, who has been on the board since 2005, said he wants to build on those achievements.
"I think we still have some unfinished business," Peterson said. "I'm not ready to stop right now."
In September, Riverbank Unified was one of three Stanislaus County school districts to win a lottery to help fund school construction proj- ects. It can issue $25 million in bonds.
Meza, Oliveira and Peterson said the district should use the bond money to buy land for more schools while property is cheap.
The three said the bond money also should be used to install solar panels and other technology that will help cut energy costs.
Blount, Oliveira and Peterson said the money should be used for modernization projects and school facilities, such as building a library for Mesa Verde Elementary or updating science labs.
But Peterson said that all starts with the school district planning ahead financially.
"We want to be proactive; not reactive," he said.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.