Helming the schools
Six candidates vie for three Chico school board seats
Like the Chico City Council race, the race for the Chico Unified School District’s Board of Trustees has six candidates, including two incumbents, running for three seats. Unlike the former race, however, this one is neither polarized nor contentious.
That may be due in part to the fact that the board is enjoying relatively smooth sailing with Chet Francisco as superintendent after the stormy years when Scott Brown filled the post. All of the candidates were enthusiastic about the new chief and eager to help him implement his vision.
It also helps that the state’s financial situation has improved. There’s more money for schools—and the likelihood that teachers will get a raise this year.
CN&R sat down for interviews with all of the candidates. Here’s what we learned:
Anthony Watts—A resident of Chico since 1987 and a trustee for the past four years, the former TV weatherman owns a company that provides weather display systems for TV stations worldwide. His Web site, www.anthonywatts.com, is as tech-savvy as they come. He’s married and has two small children.He’s running, he says, on his record of helping to solve the district’s serious budget problems in 2003, fighting to keep community schools open in Forest Ranch and Cohasset, and helping to build a solar power station at Little Chico Creek Elementary School, among other things.
The board has decided it’s not feasible to build a new comprehensive high school, so instead he’s “very much in favor of a technical high school,” he said, ideally to be built on the current bus yard across the freeway from the Butte College Chico Center and operated in conjunction with the college. He envisions a pedestrian overpass connecting the sites.
He also wants to continue working with Francisco, who he says had introduced a unified model for education throughout the district, with more collaboration among the campuses and clearer standards. “There’s a whole new feeling of excitement, and I want to be part of that.”
Rick Rees—A Chico resident since 1970 and a Chico State grad who received a secondary teaching credential in 1975, Rees has worked in various capacities at Chico State since then, as associate director of student activities since 1985. The father of two CUSD graduates, he’s served one term as a trustee, including as president.
He touts his “steady leadership in handling an unprecedented $9 million of reduced state support,” his “strong leadership during transitions in superintendents,” and his support of high standards in all areas.
He wants to be a part of building a new performing arts center at Pleasant Valley High School and in creating an “early college possibility program” emphasizing practical job training in conjunction with Butte College. He recently returned from visiting Contra Costa Community College, where such a school is embedded in the campus, has some 300 students and is doing extremely well, he said.
He doesn’t believe Chico High or Pleasant Valley High is going to become much smaller, however. Most parents want what larger schools provide in the way of activities such as choir and band, he said.
He, too, is optimistic about the success of the district because of Francisco’s focus on assessment, benchmarks and standards.
Andrea Lerner Thompson—Originally from Cambridge, Mass., Thompson was the first person in her family to attend college, receiving a BA from Reed College, an MA from Stanford, and a PhD in comparative American literatures from the University of Arizona. A resident of Chico since 1991, she is head of the Honors Program at Chico State. She is married and has two sons, both students in the Chico schools.
Thompson is a passionate advocate of smaller high schools. “I’ve been reading the literature on small learning centers, and it says the optimal size is 1,200-1,500 students,” she said. “It would be nice to have someone on the board who could say that.” The biggest complaint of students who drop out, she said, is that nobody knew who they were.
She believes the biggest issue in the coming year will be the early college program. She’s not opposed to it, she said, “but what else are we looking at? … There should be more than one alternative.”
Long-term, the district’s focus must be on better performance. “It’s rated an underperforming district,” and parents “feel that in order to have creativity they have to leave the district. They shouldn’t have to.”
Todd Sturgis—A Chico native, Sturgis has three children, the eldest two in the public schools. He has been active in PTA for three years, two of them as president at McManus, serving on the district level. He has been faithfully attending school board meetings for more than two years, he said.
A sales manager for a wine and spirits distributor, he said that he would work to “get the parents back involved” in their children’s schools and be “the voice of the parents,” as he puts it on his Web site, www.toddsturgis.com.
One of the main issues facing the board, he said, will be school overcrowding in north Chico, “where all the growth is,” and redrawing school boundaries to adjust. He believes the district erred in closing Jay Partridge. Some schools have plenty of room, so “we have got to get attendance up.”
He wants to know why parents are putting their kids in Chico Country Day School. “They’re not shopping at our store,” he said. “Why not? I want to know.” The CCDS has good ideas; he wants to “steal” them and use them in the other schools.
He agrees Chico High needs a rehab—"it’s a mess and a half.”
Kathleen Kaiser—A professor of sociology at Chico State since 1972, Kaiser has served in many roles, including as the faculty representative on the CSU Board of Trustees. Her MA and PhD degrees are from Duke University. She has three stepsons and currently is rearing her granddaughter, a Pitt River Indian. She is the 2006 Outstanding Faculty Service Award winner at Chico State.
Kaiser cites her long career in public education, including appointment to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, and “her wide range of experience … at the executive level,” as well as having children in the schools, as qualifications for the school board.
She decided to run, she said, because she’d “seen a lot of parents who were frustrated by the CUSD” because their kids weren’t getting the educations they needed. And she realized that her wealth of experience could be put to use.
She worries especially about the young men who are dropping out and not going to college “at a really striking rate.” They’re not preparing for college, they’re not learning a trade—they lack the skills “even to balance a checkbook,” she said.
She believes that enrollments are declining at least in part because students are leaving by choice. The district is constantly “surprised” by declining enrollment but has done little to research—"It doesn’t know how many kids want what.”
Gene Lucas—A former engineer and manager in Silicon Valley, Lucas had a career in the technology field before “semi-retiring” to Northern California in 1987. He came to Chico in 1996 to obtain BS and MS degrees in industrial technology. He’s the father of two grown children, the stepfather of four more and a grandfather.
He’s running for the school board because, he says, Chico kids are not doing well in school and too few of them are going on to college or being adequately prepared for work.
“I was born poor,” he said. “I’m a California Okie. Public education made me what I am today. It’s payback time.”
Lucas (www.genelucas.info) is a strong advocate of building new “technical and career” high schools, co-located at the current high schools, to serve kids who aren’t interested in four-year colleges. He also wants more and better career counseling, and for CUSD to turn as many classrooms as possible into “smart classrooms,” something he knows how to do.