Our View: Five candidates edge out rest for Modesto school board

10/16/2013 6:00 PM

10/16/2013 7:18 PM

For some voters in the greater Modesto area, the only candidates on their Nov. 5 ballots are those running for the Modesto City Schools board.

The Modesto district has not yet switched to district elections, so all citizens within the high school district – which includes Modesto, Sylvan, Stanislaus Union and other neighboring elementary districts – get a voice in choosing five school board members.

There are two contests: Six people are vying for the four four-year terms, and four people are vying for one two-year seat.

The good news for voters is that they can’t go wrong because there are many capable people running.

Furthermore, the district has regained stability from four years ago, both in leadership and in finances.

The state’s new local funding formula will mean thousands of additional dollars for Modesto because of its high number of English-learners and students from low-income families. The state law also gives more power to local school boards, which is why they are independent thinkers, willing to listen to all sides and able and willing to explain their decisions.

We haven’t agreed with all of the decisions of the Modesto school board in recent years, but we think that the seven trustees have functioned well. There are healthy debates at board meetings and trustees question staff and each other. This is in sharp contrast to the district situation four years, under the previous superintendent, when it landed on a budget watch list and when board members were often at odds with each other or administrators.

Four four-year seats

This is a crowded field, with three incumbents – Cindy Marks, Ruben Villalobos and Sue Zwahlen – and three political newcomers – David Allan, Brett McBay and Michael Scheid – in the race. The top four vote-getters win.

We think the three incumbents have performed well, for different reasons, and all deserve another term.

Marks is the board’s longest-serving member and currently serves as chair of the California School Boards Association. She is a social conservative and has a long reputation as a board member willing to ask questions, especially about money issues. Her depth of knowledge about school finance and academic performance issues has only grown with her state activities, making her a real asset to the Modesto board in the coming few years.

Villalobos, a private practice attorney, has shown during his first term that he will ask probing questions and buck the majority on budget issues. He has been the lone vote against proceeding with building a pool at Enochs High School and had similar reservations about the Gregori High stadium, which is now complete.

Zwahlen has been an advocate for sports programs, in part because they encourage students who might otherwise drop out. As a longtime parent volunteer in the schools, she values parental involvement. She also seems to listen to all views and explains her conclusions and votes. She, too, is seeking a second term.

We think that any of the three challengers could do well, but see Scheid as the strongest among them. He has four children who have or do attend Modesto schools and he served on the committee on boundaries, a thankless task that provides real insight into neighborhoods and campus demographics. Finally, we agree with his emphasis on early intervention to reduce school dropouts.

One two-year seat

This opening was created by the resignation of Catherine Flores Hallinan less than a year into her term and then the decision of appointed incumbent Stacie Morales not to run to serve out the remaining two years of Hallinan’s term. The person chosen will serve through 2015.

Charlie Grom and Jordan Dickson have both run active campaigns. Dean Smeltzer has not been actively campaigning because of a job change, and Fabiola Garcia did not return a candidate questionnaire or respond to the invitation to meet with the editorial board.

Both Grom, a lieutenant in the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, and Dickson, who works in brand marketing for E.&J. Gallo Winery, are exceptional candidates. The edge goes to Dickson, an articulate and energetic graduate of Grace M. Davis High School and Stanford University who, at 23, isn’t much older than some of the students who are attending classes in the district’s high schools.

Dickson and Grom agree on many key issues, including the need for fiscal responsibility and better safety and security policies on the district’s campuses. Where Dickson excels is his ability to understand the current generation of students and what they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.

Dickson places a priority on improving the district’s technology offerings and speaks convincingly about how social media can be used as a powerful tool to keep the conversation flowing between the district, teachers, students and parents. We agree, and we think he would bring a fresh approach to tackling the district’s challenges.

Mail ballots already pouring in

Almost 125,000 of Stanislaus County’s 207,000 registered votes have opted to vote by mail on a permanent basis. The mail ballots went out late last week and as of Wednesday afternoon, 4,501 ballots had already been received at the elections office in Modesto. For those who are a little less organized, there’s still time to register to vote in the Nov. 5 election; Monday is the deadline to register. Oct. 29 is the last day to request an absentee ballot.

Good day to check out UC Merced

If you are one of those surprised that little UC Merced, which opened just eight years ago, has blossomed into a campus with 6,000 students, then you might want to visit Saturday, when the university hosts Preview Day for prospective students and their families. Registration begins at 9 a.m. and the program will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tours of the campus, residence halls and library will be available. This event is open to the community, not just parents and future college students.

The Bee invites visiting editor applicants

Every year, The Bee invites readers to join its editorial board to discuss and comment on local and regional issues. Visiting editors serve for three months and attend the weekly meetings of the board, usually held Wednesday afternoons. The 60- to 90-minute sessions often include community leaders talking about a range of subjects. Visiting editors participate in the candidate endorsement process and have the opportunity to write monthly mini-editorials on topics of their choice.

To apply, send a letter explaining your interest and a copy of your résumé to jsly@modbee.com or fax to (209) 578-2207. For more information, call Judy Sly at (209) 578-2317 or email jsly@modbee.com. The deadline for applications for the 2014 program is Oct. 25.

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