Candidates line up for a tough job

School-board race starts to warm up with emergence of three-candidate slate

(L-R) Sean Worthington, Dean Stefanides and Erik Lyon are running for school board as a slate, but say they’re more independent than the term suggests.

(L-R) Sean Worthington, Dean Stefanides and Erik Lyon are running for school board as a slate, but say they’re more independent than the term suggests.

PHOTO by robert speer

What if you called a press conference and nobody came?

That almost happened Tuesday (Sept. 14), when three men running for the Chico school board almost had to cancel their presser for lack of media interest—until this reporter showed up outside City Council chambers.

The men—Erik Lyon, Dean Stefanides and Sean Worthington—call themselves the “Putting Kids First” coalition. They’re running as a slate for the three open seats, they said, but they didn’t know each other before they entered the race and their campaigns are independent. It’s really more of a “cooperative endeavor,” Lyon said, in which they pool time and energy but not money.

Carl Ochsner had something to do with their joining forces, apparently. Ochsner, the executive director of the Work Training Center, was also present at the press conference. He explained that, concerned by a possible shortage of candidates, he’d toyed with the idea of running himself, but when he became aware of these candidates, he “decided to step back and help these guys.”

All three have children in the public schools. Worthington teaches computer science at Butte College, Lyon is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and Stefanides is a hotel manager. What they have in common is a strong sense that the Chico Unified School District is in danger (especially of a state takeover), a desire to use technology more effectively, and mutual support for alternative learning environments—charter schools, home schools, special programs such as GATE and Open Structure.

“One thing that unites us all,” Worthington said, “is we believe in consumer-driven education.”

“I want to have a choice as to where I take my kids,” Stefanides said. “At the charters, they’re thinking out of the box.” He suggested too many district teachers don’t “go the extra mile” for their students.

Here Lyon disagreed. Because he sometimes works for the district as a therapist helping at-risk kids, he sees that “the teachers are doing a fabulous job … [and] are hard-working,” he said.

The district is facing a huge budget deficit—as much as $9 million in 2010-11, depending on what the state budget allocates for schools. Stefanides touted his business experience as something that would benefit the CUSD Board of Trustees. He said he is “absolutely” convinced he can find cost savings in the district’s budget. “Upper management is too fat,” he said.

Lyon said he would bring communication skills to the board. “My strength is in reaching out to the different sides,” he said, and getting them to work together to reach resolutions.

And Worthington said his background in technology “is something that [the trustees] don’t have” and clearly need.

This is a pivotal moment in the modern history of the school district. It faces unprecedented pressures, fiscal and otherwise. It’s hard to understand why anybody would want the job of trustee.

But, in addition to the three men mentioned, four others are in the race. Two of them, Chico State University professors Kathy Kaiser and Andrea Lerner Thompson, are incumbents. (Longtime Trustee Rick Rees is not seeking re-election.) Eileen Robinson, now retired, was for many years the attendance clerk at Pleasant Valley High School, and Ron Sherman recently retired after 25 years as a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier.

Robinson says she’s been involved with the district in several capacities since 1970 and believes she can help pull it out of its “cycles of fiscal distress and labor strife.” The district has done a good job of offering alternatives in the past—she cites GATE, the Open-Structure Program, Academics Plus and Spanish Immersion—and should do more of that in order to compete with charters.

“I have a really broad, basic understanding and can help the board ask the right questions and evaluate the answers,” she said. “It’s because I’ve been there, done that.”

Sherman also believes the district must become more competitive to stop the drainage of students to charters. He would like to create more “dependent” charters like the new Inspire high school (which his daughter attends) and create incentives for existing independent charters to come back into the district.

Before becoming a letter carrier, Sherman was an accountant, and he believes that could be of benefit in examining the district’s budget. He also said he wants to improve the relationship between administrators and teachers. “Some teachers are concerned about the amount of respect they’re getting in the workplace,” he explained.

All of the candidates said they would devote whatever it took to do the job well. “My wife signed off on it,” Lyon said.