Four candidates are campaigning for three full-term seats on the Modesto City Schools board, with an appointee the only filer for a two-year post. The winners will have to prioritize needs competing for the district’s better funding, and start a search for a new superintendent as retirement approaches for Pam Able.
Increased funding, in large part due to the district’s high numbers of poor children and English learners, could prove as politically problematic as the recession’s cuts. A facilities study found $1 billion in repairs and replacements needed at its schools, while community spending priorities call for more student supports and technology.
The new board may well be sworn in before the district’s teachers sign off on a contract. Underlining that issue, the teachers union decided not to endorse anyone in the race.
“For the first time in the history of the Modesto Teachers Association, as far as we know, we have chosen to make no endorsements in the Modesto City Schools Trustee election,” MTA President Doug Burton said via email, explaining that the decision for incumbents was tied to lack of movement in negotiations and low morale. Neither of the challengers “stood out enough” to garner an endorsement, Burton wrote.
The two incumbents running are retired teacher Steven Grenbeaux, seeking a sixth term, and attorney Amy Elliott Neumann, current board president, first elected in 2011. The two challengers are property manager Chad Brown, a former Sylvan Union trustee active with the Boys & Girls Club of Stanislaus County, and University of California at Santa Cruz software engineer John Walker, active in the campus site council and music boosters, and a critic of Common Core testing.
3 four-year seats being sought by four candidates
Walker’s campaign finance filing shows his campaign has received $535 in contributions, including from himself and Pat Bicknell, founder of the Citizens of Stanislaus County Against Common Core Coalition.
Neumann stands as the race fundraising leader, pulling in $10,495 as of the Sept. 19 filing date. She lists a long string of $100-$250 donations, with the largest recent contributors being attorney Naresh Channaveerappa and Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3.
Brown lists $2,600 in contributions, the largest from Milt David, M.D., and a loan to himself. Grenbeaux’s filing lists no money raised or spent on this campaign.
At a League of Women Voters forum and Bee editorial board meeting, the candidates addressed key district issues of achievement; safety; and competing demands for improved funding such as technology and facilities. Incumbents said Able, on the job since June 2011, has told them she will retire in 2017. All but Walker have experience with hiring a superintendent.
Modesto City Schools gets extra funds to help high-needs students: 85 percent of its elementary students, 60 percent of its high-schoolers.
On student achievement, all the candidates acknowledged Modesto City Schools’ low scores in the first year of Common Core testing.
“Common Core increased the rigor. The test showed we need to reach more students,” Neumann said. Expanding hands-on learning, such as through the Beyer robotics program, and access to a wider variety of arts programs would help, she said. “We also need accountability at all levels. It’s not the next teacher’s job (to teach something missed). It needs to be imperative. Students and the community need to feel that imperative,” she said.
Walker said he disagrees in particular with the math standards of Common Core. “We’ve got to get back to algebra I, algebra II and so on. It’s the way it’s always been taught,” he said. While local boards do not have the power to change state standards, Walker said he is working with others around the nation to regain what he calls local control of curriculum.
Looking at what has worked in other districts, increasing industry tie-ins for career classes and boosting parent involvement are the keys to better grades for kids, Brown said. “We’ve got to get outside of the box,” he said.
For Grenbeaux, it’s all about excellent people. “The quality of teachers and quality of principals are what make a school,” he said.
But some of the issues in education go beyond the schoolhouse doors, noted Grenbeaux. “Kids are coming to us with every problem under the sun,” he said, advocating more nurses, safety officers and campus supervisors.
“Safety is the No. 1 thing for me,” Grenbeaux said. “I’d like to have security teams at every high school and have junior highs get another safety officer. And every elementary school needs campus supervisors,” he said. Safety spans the anti-concussion helmets and defibrillators the district added this year, traffic safety near schools and anti-bullying efforts.
“Our schools are only as safe as each individual student feels he’s safe,” Brown said. Fenced Modesto campuses help, he said, but bullying is a pervasive problem.
Walker sees the need for more adults “with ears to the ground,” including safety officers and campus supervisors who get to know students. “The kids know what’s happening,” he said.
The safety officers are a first step, said Neumann: “We need adults in place who earn the trust of students.” Better communication among students, staff and parents is needed, Neumann said, as well as what she called community respect, for example driving slower in school zones.
The district is moving toward laptops for high school students in 2016-17.
Modesto’s 35 schools need restoration, and an academic shift to online will call for far more student computers – two of many demands competing for funding under the state’s new system that gives more to high-needs districts.
Walker, despite his day job designing air traffic control software for NASA, would buck the technology trend. He sees California’s computer-adapted testing as “a nightmare” that requires children to type too early, and advocates all parents opt out of testing as he has. There needs to be less emphasis on technology in schools, he said, “We have to get back to basics.”
With less money spent on testing and technology, Walker added, there would be more money left for building. “You’ve got aging facilities,” he said.
“There are stark differences in campuses,” said Grenbeaux, noting his alma mater Burbank Elementary is among the worst off.
Brown, who manages older apartment complexes, said maintaining buildings is an ongoing investment. “I know what it takes to make sure funds are used appropriately,” he said. “ ‘Equity’ is the important word here.”
Brown was the only candidate to speak directly to the possibility of a bond to finance renovations. “I think it’s a matter of seeking public input at every level if we’re going to do that,” he said. “(The current budget commitment of) $5 million a year is not even a scratch on what we need to be doing.”
Neumann said general funds would have to help foot the bill, especially at more crowded west Modesto campuses. “We have a responsibility to try to tend to some of these needs,” she said.
Trustee Desiree Romo faces no opposition for her two-year seat, completing the term of Ruben Villalobos. Asked via email for her top three priorities for the next two years, Romo responded, “My top three priorities are supporting lower socio-economic students and their families, competitive global education, and increase career/college readiness.”
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree, master’s degree in business administration from Brigham Young University
OCCUPATION: Apartment manager with VIP Management
FAMILY: Wife Cheryl, grown son, three daughters
EDUCATION: Modesto High Class of 1963; bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University; teaching credential from California State University, Stanislaus
OCCUPATION: Retired Empire Elementary School teacher
FAMILY: Wife Karen, one grown daughter
AMY ELLIOTT NEUMANN
EDUCATION: Beyer High Class of 1988; bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley; law degree from Ohio State University College of Law
FAMILY: Husband Seth, two sons in Modesto City Schools, junior high and high school
EDUCATION: Associate’s degree from DeAnza Community College; bachelor’s degree from California State University, Hayward
OCCUPATION: Software engineer, University of California at Santa Cruz
FAMILY: Wife Jessica; two daughters in Sylvan district middle school and Modesto City Schools high school
DESIREE ROMO (2-year term)
EDUCATION: Associate’s degree from Modesto Junior College, bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in public administration from the University of Phoenix
OCCUPATION: Professor at Brandman University
FAMILY: Husband Guillermo, son attending Modesto City Schools high school, grown daughter