School board shakeup
Nine candidates, two incumbents, three seats, one hot race
School board: the poor stepchild of state and city elections. Though the job is largely ignored as the thankless pastime of PTA diehards and businessmen, the race for Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees actually has some spice to it this time around. Nine candidates are vying for three seats in a race that largely calls incumbents to task for not doing more to build a third high school and mend the festering rift between administration and teachers.
The last few cycles, candidates skated in without having to face many tough issues. “We love kiddies” or pet projects seemed to be the platforms of years past.
This time, there’s no dodging the facts: Canyon View High School, four years after a bond’s passage, is still years from being completed because they can’t find a developable site. Who knows if the next round of contract talks will, again, end in a strike threat? The CUSD, like the state, is in full-fledged budget-cut mode as enrollment has declined. Communication between the district and the public seems virtually nonexistent. To top it all off, Marsh Junior High School is smack in the area that could be affected as the city moves to clean up the lead-contaminated Humboldt Dump site.
Voters will have to decide—based on what the candidates put out there—whose values they share. Do Chicoans support what the board’s been doing or do they see ousting the incumbents as a remedy to perceived passivity on the part of trustees? Who wins could shift the power base of the entire board.
David Haynes was reportedly hand-picked by the Chico Unified Teachers Association, which is pumping money into the campaigns of Haynes, Eileen Robinson and Scott Huber in hopes of gaining power on a board that the union sees as hostile to teachers and an affront to students. Haynes was on the CUTA’s executive board for more than a decade and served on the bargaining team for four years. He makes no apologies for the program cuts that took place in part due to the raise the district agreed upon to avert a strike: “If the board felt that they couldn’t afford to do the settlement they did, they shouldn’t have done it.”
At 64 and recently retired, the 30-year teacher downplays his union role and says he gets along with everybody, but he admits that if he’s elected “it’s not going to be an easy transition. They’re going to look at me as someone from the union.” A mix of backgrounds, he said, would stop the 5-0 votes and open up debate on the board. He’d also like more coordination with the community, particular when it comes to budget matters. He says he has no opinion on Superintendent Scott Brown.
Like most of the non-incumbent candidates, Haynes feels the district wasted time on undevelopable school sites, eating away the bond’s buying power. “We’re going to need a third high school, but do we need to build it right now?” asks Haynes, who sold real estate and insurance before teaching junior high and high school.
Haynes, a Chico resident since 1969, is a leader in the Methodist church and has two grown children.
Another union-affiliated candidate is Eileen Robinson, 55, a former Pleasant Valley High School attendance secretary and mother of four grown daughters, who retired last year after finishing a stint as president of the Chico chapter of the California School Employees Association. She also served on the technology task force of the strategic plan, a document that will guide the district for the next five years.
Robinson is perhaps the most-educated nonincumbent in terms of the issues; she’s attended nearly every board meeting held in the last few years and first hooked up with the district as a parent aide in 1971.
She says trustees’ relationship with the workings of the district, particular at the school sites, is too distant, and that hurts their policymaking ability.
She’s hopeful that the animosity between the union and district leaders is on the turnaround—if both sides continue to give a little. She says her union affiliation does not make her beholden in any way.
Robinson says that at board meetings she’d be more “inquisitive” but not micromanage. She also wants to “make sure they don’t drop the ball with implementation of the strategic plan.”
She isn’t sure now is the time to build a new high school, even if a site (she prefers Schmidbauer West) is found. “It will take $1 million” to staff and outfit Canyon View, she says, and “what are you going to cut to do that?”
“I don’t believe that the high schools are too big,” she adds, mentioning the wider range of electives and programs that can be offered due to sheer numbers of students.
As for the Humboldt Dump, Robinson says, “There’s no need to make that land more suitable for development.”
If Robinson is the candidate who would shake things up on the board, Sisco is the one who would ensure the status quo.
“I think we have a good board. We make wise decisions,” she says, and she can’t say enough wonderful things about the superintendent—she counts the board’s greatest accomplishment as having hired him. “I know we are perceived as a rubber-stamp board,” she says, but, “We are five individual people and we all have our points of view.”
She says the board had no choice but to approve teachers’ raises, even though it meant cuts later. “We had to. I think a strike would have been devastating to this district.”
Sisco can’t see how they could have reached a different end with the high school site. “I think we followed all the rules,” she says. “It’s been very frustrating. Things have kind of gone along as they should.”
She’s excited, though, about the strategic plan. “I just can’t wait to start those action steps,” she says. Test scores are improving, the district’s budget is solvent and the CUSD is “doing great,” she says.
Sisco has two children, ages 21 and 25. She is 53 and has lived in Chico since 1973.
Businessman Dave Donnan lost a bid for school board last time around, even with the backing of the teachers’ union. This time, Donnan, 50, had briefly considered trying for City Council instead. He has three children, two grown and one a sophomore at Chico High School.
Donnan also wants to counter the seeming single-mindedness of the current board (Steve O’Bryan and sometimes Rick Anderson can be contrary, but it’s rare).
He has a continued beef with “the lack of information given to parents.”
Donnan believes the board is being directed by the superintendent. “The board is intimidated by him in a sense,” he says. “He steers them in whatever direction he wants them to go in. I would tell him, ‘As the elected official you’re hired by us.'”
As for the high school, Donnan feels the district “dropped the ball” by not listening to environmentalists and federal agencies early on. He would suggest buying less-sensitive land now and waiting to build until the district can afford to staff the school.
Donnan has one specific proposal: There should be a five-year contract, with any new money being divided among the various employee groups. Also, he says, “open up the books to an independent auditor” so there’s no disagreement on what’s there.
Donnan, who has working in hazardous cleanups before, is not worried about the Humboldt Dump: “They can clean it up without it affecting anyone.”
Best known as a TV weatherman, Anthony Watts, 44, has publicly blamed too-liberal environmentalists for holding up the construction of the new high school. The businessman (he owns the computer consulting firm It Works!) set up a Web site in an attempt to prove the meadowfoam plants found in Butte County are not endangered at all.
Watts’ campaign has been low-key if not nonexistent, and while he promised to respond to our inquiries before an out-of-town trip, he did not and similarly was unable to attend the Oct. 24 candidates’ forum.
He has mentioned one pet project: doing something about traffic and the bus system so the commute to and from school is safer.
Ed note: We regret that we erred in that Watts did indeed respond to our e-mail questions; we just never received his response and wrongly assumed that he did not write back. Please click here to see his answers in their entirety.
Like Watts, Scott Huber has star power. He’s a prominent Chico real estate agent who also has a penchant for writing letters to the editor.
Huber, 46 and an officer with the Optimist Club, is characteristically optimistic that morale will turn around in the CUSD.
He’s been following the board meetings for several months and seems to have a handle on the issues. He doesn’t fault trustees for believing the high school site acquisition process was going OK. “Trustees didn’t see that the reason the [Schmidbauer] property was being so touted was that there were other interests involved.” Huber says schools are so overcrowded that Canyon View can’t wait, and he’d move ahead on the Schmidbauer land west of Bruce Road, or the Enloe property, even if it means using eminent domain.
The solution to the union dispute, Huber says, is just better communication earlier on. A formula-based contract would be a good idea, too.
Huber, who has children ages 13, 5 and 3 and has lived in Chico for 23 years, says he has no agenda or biases and he’d work toward the best interests of students, not the district or teachers. “I have strong mediation skills and I’m a good diplomat.”
Also hailing from the business world of Rotary meetings and Chamber of Commerce subcommittees is Janet Walther, a PG&E community and government relations specialist with ties to the conservative political community.
School trustee, of course, is a nonpartisan position, and Walther says she’s a free thinker anyway: “I’m more issue-oriented. I’m a registered Republican, but I look at each issue and what is the right thing to do. I’m not a stereotype person. I say what I feel and what I believe.”
The 5-0 votes worry her a bit. “You want to work together as a team as much as possible, obviously. At the same time, I think the board has taken a lot of its direction completely from the district staff.”
She balks at second-guessing the current board. “My position is that we need the high school,” she says, even if that means moving to a totally different part of town.
Walther would also avoid building on the Humboldt Dump site.
She knows that when it comes to political issues, policy or budgets, “it’s never as simple as it sounds.” But she would like to get out and visit teachers, the union office and schools, building relationships there.
She says if trustees are to OK raises with one-time funding, they should at the same time spell out exactly what it will cost in terms of program or staff cuts later.
Walther’s 10-year-old attends Shasta Elementary and her 12-year-old is at Bidwell Junior.
In public school circles, Rick Rees may best be known as the widower of Trustee Jackie Faris-Rees, who died in office from breast cancer in April 2000. But Rees is a skilled education advocate in his own right. He directs student activities at Chico State University, teaches leadership classes there and has two children—including one still in high school.
“I think independently, and I think I have a reputation as a problem-solver,” he says. Rees also knows trustees end up dealing more with policy than popping into classrooms and directing curriculum.
A big problem with the school board, Rees says, is “there’s probably a lack of leadership there, and it could be easier for the superintendent to take advantage of that.” But at the same time, Rees believes the district is lucky to have Brown, because he has much-needed skills.
Perhaps the shortcoming the district is least willing to acknowledge is, as Rees puts it, “their public information system sucks.” No one is touting the positives of the district, and “there’s no outreach to the press.” That translates into a less-than-stellar relationship with teachers, parents and the community at large.
He thinks the only way to avert another district-union spat is to move negotiations away from the industrial model and toward a process open to the public, if that’s even possible. “It’s a bazaar; it’s a bidding war,” he says. Nearly 90 percent of the district’s budget is in employee costs, which ties its hands in funding programs.
Rees says the board clung to the Schmidbauer site “for way too long” and now he’s worried about the bond’s buying power. He wonders “why Enloe doesn’t want to be the heroes here” and offer up its site at an affordable price.
Seeking re-election to a third four-year term, Donna Aro puts forth her experience on the board as her biggest selling point. She worked to pass the high school bond and was a trustee through good budget times and bad. She says she’s gotten past the personal hits she took during the negotiation mess ("I got yelled at at the mall. I got yelled at at the grocery store"). She’s running again largely so she can see the high school project through and make sure the strategic plan is implemented.
She doesn’t want to see the Humboldt Dump land developed.
The only thing Aro would have done differently regarding the high school site, she says, was, “I certainly wouldn’t have waited around so long thinking that [government agencies and the property owner] were working with us.”
“It is true that an incumbent always seems to be in the position of defending the district,” she says. But once a trustee is elected, “you start to see how complex everything is.”
She thinks it’s good that the board is working together, and believes Brown “is leading the district in a really positive way.”
Aro is 55, has one grown child and has lived in Chico for 13 years.
With nine candidates, you’d think the News & Review could come up with some ringing endorsements. In reality, the only one we feel pretty pleased about is Rick Rees. We’re also endorsing Eileen Robinson and Janet Walther.
Haynes seems sincere enough, but his close ties to the teachers’ union make us wonder if there isn’t some hostility lingering that could get in the way of a good relationship with the board. If we’re picking someone who also happens to be on the union’s slate, we’re going with Robinson—she’s passionate and bright, although we don’t agree with her contention that Chico’s high schools aren’t too big.
We endorsed Sisco in her last bid and regret it now. We had hoped her extensive volunteer experience and ties to the business community would make her a strong voice for children; instead, even as board president, she says little at meetings and defers fondly to the superintendent.
Aro, too, has disappointed us this term. The contentious labor negotiations visibly hurt her feelings, and public office is a role that requires a thick skin. Aro, dedicated and kind, has accomplished much in the district and shouldn’t pay the full price for the board’s collective inaction. In the absence of a stunning candidate among the six other contenders, we came very close to endorsing Aro, but in the end just couldn’t stomach a status-quo board.
Diversity and debate is what the board needs most now—and what will be best for children.
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