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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Interview with School Board Candidate Richard Harris

The Vanguard continues with the second in its series of four interviews of the school board candidates with Richard Harris. Harris agreed to sit down with me and be interviewed orally. Here is the transcription of that interview. Mr. Harris served as district chief of staff to former Congressman Vic Fazio in the 1990s. He is currently working as a lobbyist for the firm of Nossaman, Gunther, Knox & Elliot LLP in their Sacramento Office. He also has a biweekly column in the Davis Enterprise.

1. Why are you running for the Davis School Board?

I’m a parent of two kids at Pioneer who are going to be in the 5th grade and I'm on the site council. I’ve always believed in public service, I think we have a responsibility to do that at whatever level you can. You have to be involved in the things that are most important. For me the most important thing in my life are my children. On the site council, I learned somewhat of the governance of the school district and I have a background in government; I’ve worked in and around it for 30 years. I’m a lobbyist now. I understand the way that government works but maybe not necessarily schools until I got on the site council.

2. You already talked about this some, but can you tell us about your background and experience in education

I went to elementary school, does that count? Well education, I've been involved in my kids' classes and I've been involved on the site council. Specifically the education, that's it.

3. Any other experience do you have as a volunteer in the school district?

Yeah, I was a Master of Ceremonies for the Pioneer's Auction, and helped them with various pieces of the auction in terms of raising money. I helped them the year before as well. Then, of course, kids' education is not just the classroom, it's everywhere. So I've been a Little League coach in fall ball a few years ago. I was an assistant, I wasn't the manager. I've always helped out with sports, both soccer and Little League.

4. What are your top educational priorities?

I'm really concerned about the district's fiscal condition because everything else stems from that. So my educational priorities are also fiscal priorities. I look forward to the new superintendent. I like the new team that's been there in about the last year or so. I think they're doing a good. But I want to get in and be able to look at it myself, page by page, line item by line item, and see what we have. Because resources are going to go down with declining enrollment. As you have less kids in the class you have less funds. That's just the basis of everything right there. It's going to take some tough decisions, maybe some good decision-making by people that are really willing to spend a lot of time at it.

5. What educational programs would like to add, modify, or enhance?

I'm not going to talk about adding any programs right now-with declining enrollment I think that's a little tough to do. I want to get in there and look and see, and really get a handle on the fiscal condition. I think we need to look at that first before we talk about any of the other program and issues.

6. What are your feelings about GATE?

I think the GATE program is a good program for the people who are involved in it. I think there were some problems a year and a half or so ago with some misinformation that was put out there that kind of got everybody riled up. But I think the GATE program is an important program and I support it.

7. As you know Davis schools are usually among the top schools in the state, however, last spring the Superintendent presented statistics that showed when compared to similar schools, Davis is in the middle pack as opposed at the top, so how do you respond to that and how do we improve the Davis schools?

I feel in some ways the school district and the Davis schools has rested on its laurels for a long time. I think that we can be able to do better. Because it's Davis there are a lot of parents involved, a lot of people pay a lot of attention, it's not like other communities in that respect. The statistics that you are talking about, I don't know, I haven't read that, so whether it is the middle of the pack or whether it's the top of the pack, I want us to focus on who we are, and focus on the things that we can try to do and do it better.

8. One the biggest concerns in the district has been lack of minority hires, how do we go about recruiting and hiring more minorities?

I think it's essential-I don't have the silver bullet-but I think we have to focus on it. It's important. I think [with] the new Superintendent, we'll see what he brings to the party. What his abilities are. It's not just a Davis problem, it's an education system problem.

9. How do we close the achievement gap between on the one hand Whites and Asians and on the other hand blacks and Hispanics?

I don't have an answer. We need to work at it. We have to listen to what the professionals say. We have to attack the problem, we can't let it fester. I can't sit here today and tell you I have answers to it, but it's something I want to look at.

10. What types of programs do you advocate for at-risk children?

I think that at-risk children, we have to do what we can to help the parents help the at-risk children. That's the basic bottom line on that. I don't know what the programs are specifically, but I'm willing to listen to the folks who are involved to see what they need to help make those programs better.

11. What is your view of Valley Oak?

You have to see what the proposal is once it's brought to the district. I'm not going to sit here and say yea or nay to it because I don't know what it is they're going to bring exactly. They don't know yet. If they can bring it altogether then let's see what that is. And I'll take a reasonable eye toward it, if they really have parental involvement and community involvement and they can do it, then let's take a look at it within the law and see how that all fits.

12. Given projections of falling enrollment, how can the district find new sources for revenue and also better utilize existing revenue?

When I got into this it was because I was a parent and I'm worried about my kid and really all of our kids and I started looking and I started thinking, you know this is Davis and there's things that we ought to be able to do. I came up with this notion of the Green Schools Initiative which I think answers your question here and takes it further. What I want to do, think of it this way, every dollar that you don't pay PG&E, which is essentially a physical facility sort of dollar, but that money is coming out of the general fund. Every dollar you don't pay PG&E can be used for something else whether that's teacher salaries, or programs or services. So what I want to do is have a bottoms up approach where we go from school to school. District support, but school to school, set up a committee at every school, figure a way for the teacher's to have the ability to participate, and then use that as a way to partner with the other institutions in town-the city, the university.

But take my Green Schools Initiative will allow us to look at everything that is going in the schools as the facilities and look at how to put in solar, more trees to cut down on the heat, maybe shading, maybe for natural lighting, anything that we can do to save money on the energy side that allows us to generate revenue. Because you have no other ability to generate revenue for the school district unless you go out and try to find some grant programs, or something. Which we have do as well. But an overarching systematic approach is my Green Schools Initiative.

Nobody else is talking about that. This is the only thing that you can do. There's no other revenue source. Your revenue source is the money that you don't have to pay someplace else.

It could be significant. John Mott Smith who writes a column on sustainability is my treasurer and John and I have been friends for 25 years, and he's helping me figure this out. We're talking through it. And I have to go to the District, I have to get support on the board for it. They already spend, we already have this program they instituted last year where we don't even have the software up and running yet. But we're paying this company to come in and they are basically going to give us an audit and then use that money to pay for the person to go around and change the behavior of people. I think that's great but it's just a start. That's just kind of the beginnings of that thing. I want to take it further. I want to take it as far as we possibly can because if you are going to have the greenest school district in the country, it ought to be in Davis. And we can do it. The resources that are there at the University, you know they did that program already with the seventh graders in the using, and there's just so many more opportunities to be able to partner with the university to help teach the kids. Ultimately kids become the teachers, your children are the ones who say 'Dad, don't throw that bottle away, we gotta recycle that.' I'm trying to get my kids to turn the light off a little more frequently, but you know what they get it, it's ingrown. So then they're the next generation. We reduce our carbon footprint, it's the right thing to do, and we save money at the same time. I'm very serious about that.

13. You were at the Superintendent announcement last week, what is your reaction to the hiring of the new Superintendent?

Seems like a nice, hope he's the leader that they say he will be. I have no reason to doubt that and I'm really glad to have him on board. I'm looking forward not backwards. A young guy, energetic, I think that's pretty cool. A guy of color who's going to bring a different perspective. That's all really good, that's really good for us, it may shake some things up. Make people think about things in different ways-there's nothing wrong with that at all.

14. How do you foresee working with the new superintendent if elected? What role would you like to see the new superintendent play in the district and what role do you see the board performing?

Well the board sets policy and the superintendent provides leadership and administration, that's what this guy is going to do. I'm looking forward to working with him. I see no problems, I see it as opportunity. I'm pretty excited about it. I'm going to win. I get along with the people who are on the board, I get along with the candidates I know who are running too. I think it's going to be a new day for Davis schools, it's going to be a tough day because of the declining enrollment. There's no doubt there's tough days, but you know that's what you have to do, you have a fresh look, look at where all the money is, look at where the programs are, let's look at everything, it's going to be good.

15. What were the strengths of David Murphy and what do you think his weaknesses were?

I never worked with him, so I don't know. I just know the schools from the perspective of what I saw on the site council and what my kids are going through. So overall I don't know what his strengths and weaknesses were. I think there were some things that happened on his watch that were disturbing. But they were able to get the money back the other day thanks to the really hard work of Helen Thomson and Lois Wolk and Mike Machado and this present board. But, they needed to really pull in all their political guns on that deal because that state allocation board did not have to give us back that money. That was really key. I'm sorry we lost that money to begin with. I think King High, it looked like that really wasn't that well thought out. But now we're moving forward, we need to make sure we work really closely with the neighborhood and that's done right. Of course anything else that happens with the school district administration buildings any other sort of plans like that, facilities stuff, we have to work closely with the neighborhood as well. In terms of Murphy, I didn't work with him, so I'm going forward not backwards.

16. What book are you reading right now?

That new one on the Kennedys, a friend of mine just gave me and I started it yesterday, I don't even know the name of itÅ  It's the Bobby Kennedy look at who killed John F. Kennedy. And I think everything involved in it, but I'm just into it, so I don't know much about it, it's pretty interesting. I worked in Bobby Kennedy's campaign in 1968, I was a seventh grader, and my cousin and I went downtown, Senator Hotel and stuffed envelopes and all of that. That was a crushing day for this country.

17. What political figure either of the past or contemporary do you most admire?

I think Vic Fazio is one of the premier public servants this country has ever had. You did not have a guy who worked harder and cared more about the people he represented. And he's honest and incredible ethics. And he did what he thought was right with some trying times. There were some issues related to different defense spending bills that might have made different constituencies mad. And things like that. But you know he charted his own course but he always worked hard for the people he represented and I always respected him for that. You know, there's other people, Bobby Kennedy, obviously but like I just said Vic's really, you know, he really did an incredible job.