Six vie for full terms on Modesto City Schools board

10/22/2013 1:27 PM

10/22/2013 5:28 PM

Voters in the sprawling Modesto City Schools territory will choose five members for its seven-member board. In the full-term race, six candidates have squared off to fill four seats. In a separate race, a two-year slot will finish the term of a trustee who resigned.

Three challengers and three incumbents are seeking the four-year seats. Board President Nancy Cline did not seek re-election. While the election will bring at least one new face, the candidates struck many similar themes advocating greater community involvement and a focus on raising graduation rates.

The next four years will bring tremendous change to the district as state funding ramps up to serve its large number of English learners and poor children, particularly in its smaller elementary district. The funding also requires greater community participation in spending decisions. Candidates had different priorities in spending, with more services in early grades, smaller class sizes and restoring summer school among the answers.

Instruction in classrooms across the state will change with the shift to Common Core state standards. All the candidates were supportive of its focus on interaction and hands-on lessons. Brett McBay was the most skeptical, commenting, “I hope it does what it says it’s going to do.”

The Modesto Teachers Association, the largest donor in the 2011 race, has endorsed Sue Zwahlen, David Allan, Michael Scheid, Ruben Villalobos and, for the two-year seat, Jordan Dickson. The association gave about $2,000 to each in cash, support and signs.

McBay, however, has by far the largest war chest, reporting $40,269 in total contributions received, including $7,000 from physician Gurpreet Singh, $6,000 from Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen’s re-election campaign and a $20,000 loan to himself.

Here are highlights from interviews with the candidates, listed alphabetically.

• David Allan, 38, is a real estate agent whose wife is a special-education teacher in the district. His children go to district schools.

Allan said he is concerned about school safety and wants the district to collaborate more with Modesto police on training scenarios, school drills and campus access. Neighborhood safety is part of the issue, he said, and high-quality schools can bring up an area. “In real estate, I see it firsthand on a neighborhood level. A house in the Lakewood (Elementary) area, in quality not that much different, will cost twice as much because people want to be there,” he said.

That same house would sell for less in Village I because of extra taxes for building schools, he noted. Allan said that fact and the slim margins by which voters approved school bonds would make him more frugal in building decisions. But for school operations and salaries, he feels the district is too tight, building up a larger reserve than necessary.

New money coming to help English learners and poor students should be focused on early grades, getting kids up to speed before they fall too far behind, he said. For these and other issues, he said he’d like to create a Facebook page to give parents summaries of agenda items coming up and get feedback.

• Cindy Marks, 51, has been on the board since 1997. Her children are grown, and she has no immediate family working in the district. She is the 2013 president of the California School Boards Association and serves on a number of statewide committees and task forces.

She said she wants to see a larger role for civics education, to help students be more active and responsible citizens. “These are skills to help them in society and in helping others. It starts with their school – ‘How can I make it better?’” Marks said.

An active school parent herself, she said the district needs to be more welcoming to parent volunteers and draw in community groups and neighborhoods to help rebuild a sense of pride in Modesto schools. “Getting people to be more actively involved also helps with safety,” she added.

Raising graduation rates and improving achievement are top concerns. Among her suggestions, she said time spent watching movies in class too often cuts into meaningful instruction time. Bringing back summer school and expanding gifted programs to a west Modesto site are among her priorities. But, she cautions, Proposition 30’s additional funding is temporary, and spending decisions must reflect that time frame.

• Brett McBay, 43, is a business owner and district representative for Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen. He has a daughter at Gregori High and two younger children in a private Christian school, which he said better served their needs. His brother and sister-in-law are teachers in the district.

He sees businesses and community groups as having a direct stake in improving education. “It’s ground zero for how our community’s going to do. Crime, wage rates, attracting businesses — it all comes down to schools,” he said. McBay said he wants more mentors in place and more parents involved. He advocates business partnerships to help students connect schoolwork with job skills to raise graduation rates, especially for boys.

McBay would like to give school sites greater authority over discipline, saying bad behavior should not be ignored to lower suspension rates. “We’ve put a huge responsibility on schools; they’re de facto parents, pastors, counselors and health care providers,” he said.

Greater training for teachers and a strong evaluation system are needed, he said. “I know there’s some fear, but we have to address it,” McBay said. He also wants the board to approve a focused strategic plan for the district. “It’s a huge entity, with millions of dollars in its budget and thousands of employees. You don’t just snap your fingers and turn that ship around. But I think it has mission drift,” McBay said.

• Michael Sheid, 52, a Modesto attorney, has two grown sons and two in Modesto high schools. He has no immediate family members working in the district.

Sheid is a strong proponent of starting early to help kids stay in school. Providing more support in kindergarten and early grades would mean fewer dropouts later, he said. As an attorney, he said, “I really do see on a daily basis what happens when we fail the children of our community.”

Restoring art and music programs and beefing up vocational programs all help kids connect with schools and would help keep them in school, Sheid said.

He also has concerns about campus safety, from keeping students from harm to stopping parking lot vandalism and copper thefts. Using school facilities as community centers would help neighborhoods have a stake in student success, he said. “If a community feels like they’re a part of the school, then children would feel they belong,” he said.

• Rubén Villalobos, 40, a Modesto attorney, has been on the board since 2009. He has a niece at Modesto High, and his mother is a teacher in the district.

In the minority voting against popular projects like the Enochs High pool and Gregori High stadium, Villalobos said the district should pare down bond debt when possible. Proposition 30, passed last year, “is not a fix for education, it’s a patch,” he said. “The temptation is to say Prop. 30 passed, let’s spend it. But we’re really no better off, we’re just not in a world of hurt,” he said. “Any educator who sees raises on the horizon is not being realistic.”

The district needs to negotiate a system of regular evaluations for teachers and create a career ladder for highly effective instructors, Villalobos said. He would also like to see lower class sizes as finances allow, with more parent training to help raise involvement.

He sees the next few years as a major transition for the district as a wave of teachers hired in the 1980s retire. Villalobos said he would like to see recruitment target areas with more diverse populations to help the district better reflect its community. Role models matter, he said, and would help raise graduation rates.

• Sue Zwahlen, 59, an emergency room nurse, also has been on the board since 2009. She has six grown children who all attended Modesto City schools. Her husband is a volunteer coach with the district.

She volunteered in her children’s classrooms, as well as school committees and booster clubs, and often brings a hands-on view of school life to board discussions. Zwahlen served as board president through the packed meetings immediately surrounding the dismissal of the previous superintendent and the hiring of Pam Able, and said her nurse training helped her keep a calm perspective. “After what we see in the ER, this is not a crisis,” she said.

Modesto schools are “the hub of their neighborhoods,” Zwahlen repeats often, and drawing in more parents and neighborhood support will help students and make communities stronger. She supports the west and south Modesto outreach efforts the district has increased over the past year and wants to connect with more community groups to bring in mentors.

“A lot of problems are not at school,” she said, pointing to safety, crime and drugs as examples. “We cannot just sit. Everyone needs to step up,” she said. “As an ER nurse, I feel passionately about this.”

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