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Friday, August 31, 2007

Interview with School Board Candidate Bob Schelen

This is the last in the series of four interviews with the Davis School Board candidates. Bob Schelen agreed to sit down with me and be interviewed orally. Here is the transcription of that interview. I actually interviewed him prior to the new superintendent being hired, the only candidate that I did so with. Mr. Schelen has lived in Davis for over 30 years and since 1990, Schelen has worked as a consultant for the Speaker's Office of Member Services, in the California Assembly.

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

A number of friends of mine, parents, and community leaders came to me and asked me if I would be interested in running for the school board. I thought about it for awhile, it began to intrigue me because of a number of issues that I feel I worked on throughout my life that are kind of bubbling up at the school board level or in the schools now both at the state level and at the local level including mental health programs, achievement gap task force and also making sure that each and every child has an equal opportunity to an education, not just the child at the high level or in special education which is very important as well but sometimes there’s these people in the middle that get forgotten and they’re people who need a large amount of attention as well. Those are the major reasons.

The reasons that I think those people came to me is that I’ve worked with budgets at the state and local level and as we’ve seen in the last few years there’s been some turmoil with the Davis School Board Budget and one of the things that I have a certain amount of expertise in is budgeting and I think since that’s what sets kind of the principle of what we’re going to do for the school year that’s something that I could do well.

2. Tell us about your background prepares you to be on the school board

I’ve worked on educational issues, I’ve worked for the legislature, I’ve worked for the speaker’s office in member services, which in my specific role there is to constituent outreach and also to explain in layman terms what legislation does. The lawyers get a hold of it and you don’t really know what it does. My job is to explain what it does and in a number of issues that I have worked on have been specific to education and therefore with that background I think I can understand what is happening at the school district level. Again I also worked on the budget, on the ad hoc task force for the city about ten years ago when there was budget turmoil there and helped to put together a parcel tax proposal with the Parks and Recreation Department at the city in conjunction wit the school district. I’m on the local mental health board and that’s one of the reasons I so strongly want to stress proactive approaches to mental health at the school district level. Right now we stress much more strenuously physical health and nutrition. That’s good because nutrition is so important to a child being able to learn, concentrate, and not space out in class. At the same time, so is making sure that the environment is such for them in a mental health fashion that they can achieve their full potential.

Because of the background of working on certain educational things, I think that even though I don’t have kids, my friends who are parents felt comfortable coming to me and saying in essence the Davis School Board is a governing body, it needs somebody who knows how to put the pieces together, especially school financing in California is so complicated because it deals with both federal issues where there are federal mandates, state mandates, and then the rest is at the local level. And I know a number our school board members here as well as elsewhere are frustrated that we can only do so much with what we are left over. And one of the things that I think that I can do is advocate effectively for a different approach that might be able to bring the finances back to a more local control environment.

3. What are your top educational priorities?

Achievement gap task force is probably the most important thing that we can do right now. I think the recommendations are good and need to be implemented. That’s one of the major goals that I would have is to implement the achievement gap task force recommendations as they are presented today. But included in those are career technical education, assimilating it into the entire school district curriculum. Because we’re doing a pretty good job now but we need to supplement it, because there is still something of an aura that it’s not as good as other education when for the future of California the jobs are going to be in technical skills and careers are going to be in technical skills. They are going to be needed in such a way that there are going to be more and more employees to do that. And it doesn’t have to be different from the track of going to a university. One is not better than the other at this point and you can have career technical and a university track at the same time.

Those are the two major issues and of course the mental health issue. Senator [Darrell] Steinberg [California State Senator from Sacramento] has developed a program with the statewide mental health oversight commission where there is going to be a certain amount in the millions, I’m not sure if it’s $60 or $80 million or more statewide for a proactive K-12 mental health programs and have them be developed at the local level and I think that Davis would be an appropriate spot for one of those programs. If I’m lucky enough to be elected to the school board, I would push to have us be one of the school districts to get that money to develop one of those programs.

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

As I said, career technical needs to be assimilated into the full curriculum along with university bound. The mental health program, we develop them probably from scratch with this money that Senator Steinberg has pushed through. And again the achievement gap task force—not so much in curriculum but I think that one of the things as your well aware is that one of the recommendations there was to get a more diverse teaching body and a more diverse staff at every level and I think that that’s extremely important.

5. What is your position on GATE?

I think that GATE is an excellent program and it needs to be continued. I do believe as I have said before that we often spend time at the level of the advanced placement student or at the special education student and those are both legitimate programs, but sometimes those students in the middle get lost and I want to be sure as somebody who is the son of a widow, myself, and have been in a system where that could have happened I want to represent those kids who sometimes aren’t represented and I think that that’s an important process to put together.

I hope that that answered the question because I think that GATE is a legitimate program and I think that it needs to be supported, but I would also like to see a way, one thing that is of interest to me, I read a few months ago is that there’s a school district, I can’t remember where, but one of the things they did is that they put the advanced placement kids in the classes where the kids were having trouble learning and meshed them together. Rather than having the kids that were having trouble learning be frustrated by that, they actually wanted to keep up with the other kids and the other kids helped them. It worked where it brought them up rather than bringing the GATE-like kid down, it brought the other kids who were having frustrations up. I would like to see at least an experimental program or something of that nature.

6. As you know Davis schools are usually considered 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 think that we’ve started on that path with the achievement gap task force. My understanding is that was one of the reasons that the achievement gap committee was put together and they studied the reasons for the gap overall and made the recommendations that they did, which I think are wonderful. The way I think might be able to improve are through implementing the recommendations as soon as possible, not letting them sit, you know how reports just sit and people look at them and then the same problem pops up when the report comes up again in a year or two. The major focus that I have is on the achievement gap and Davis, although it is one of the better school districts in California, it has problems. Those problems need to be addressed. Sometimes what happens in Davis to be completely forthright and honest is these problems get swept under the rug because people want to see the best and they don’t need to be. Because if you address your problems that’s what improves the schools and makes us an even better school district. Makes us even a better place for each and every child to get the opportunity for a quality education. I won’t say they will because at a certain point it is up to the parents and the child, but to provide the opportunity as possible. Even in Davis unfortunately we can improve in doing that.

7. How would you deal with budgetary concerns

One of the things I think that happens when you look at people who are elected to the school board, not just in Davis but everywhere is they don’t understand the different restrictions and regulations as I have said before, that are placed on a school district by the federal regulations, by the state regulations, and how narrow the impact right now at the local level is. That’s why we have the parcel tax so that we can expand our local control a little bit. I think I’m a little bit ahead of the curve in that I understand the financing scheme such as it is with the feds and the state and the locals, and that I would be able to look at what we can do and be able to provide as we can for each child to reach full potential with the amount of funding that we have and also at the local level and also advocate at the state and the federal level for more local control because that could do nothing but help our school district I think. The other thing that I would do is I understand that each school in our district has a site council made up of parents, students, faculty and I don’t know if there’s a classified staffer involved in the site council or not, I think that they should be if they are not. They make a budget for their particular school and what their needs are then bring it to the school district and say this is what we’d like to see happen. I think that that is a good base to start in the budgeting process, so that you’d approach it both ways. You’d approach it from what the schools want and then you’d look at what the fed and the state can do and then put this maze together and hopefully make it as best we can.

8. What is your position on the closing of Valley Oak and what would you do if elected to the board of education?

I think that the closing of Valley was a mistake. I think that it should have stayed open. It’s the only elementary school in the core area or the downtown area and it has a strong historical significance. I’m not sure that at this point it’s realistic to think given what might be the make up of the board that it can stay open in its present form. However, I think the idea of a charter school is an excellent one and it’s very unique to have a teacher’s association anywhere in the state support the idea of charter schools. They’re very controversial and with good reason. However, in this case, the Davis Teacher’s Association is looking to put together the proposal for the charter school. When you have the teacher’s association saying this is what we want to do—then that idea excites me. And I would work as hard as I could to find a way that we could do the charter school if that’s the only thing that we can whether that be a technical… One of the ideas I had is we have Da Vinci as a technical school, well that’s high school too. But there are other technical schools… But a school for Democracy type of thing where you pound civics at a young age and instead of the eighth, ninth grade where they are excited about it. The same way that you are when you teach kids to read at an early age. That’s a possibility. That’s what I would like to see, there also are a number of alternative approaches along with a charter school. Our special ed classes are overflowing at the school they’re at now and one of the things that might be looked at is adding special ed classes at Valley Oak. If it was up to me though I would fight to see it open but given the political realities at this point that looking at these alternative approaches, but keeping it open and keeping it a school. Not having it disappear or become administrative offices or development.

Because you don’t know. Right now you may be looking at a trend of a lower daily attendance, but at the same time, if as so many people talk about having downtown have infill development, one of thing you could do with that infill development is having affordable housing and having it in such ways that young families could come into downtown because right now the “McMansion” thing or we’re graying and stuff. So we’re going to need, if we want to be a diverse community, young families come in and this is one way to do it, and I would hate to see Valley Oak be permanently taken away when there is such opportunity for it to still be a wonderful academic environment. And right now, the other thing is, it’s the only majority-minority school in town. We already suffer from this limousine liberal reputation. That can’t help but be strengthened unfortunately if we close Valley Oak completely in my opinion.

But also I do want to say that I think those people for the most part that have supported closing it, I think that they are sincere in their belief and believe that for them, in order to have the school district not forage money, it’s a legitimate belief for them. I disagree, but I do believe that they are sincere in that belief for the most part.

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

The recommendation of diverse teaching faculty is so very important. When there are no teachers similar to you, you are going to feel somewhat ostracized, even if its not consciously, subconsciously. I think that that’s one of the major issues. I do think this idea of bringing kids together in classes from advanced placement and struggling kids and bringing them together would be another area that you could possibly have kids rise up, looking at the glass half-full rather than half empty, you are not taking these kids and bringing them down to this level, you are taking these kids and bringing them up to this level and in the places where it’s been tried, that’s what has happened. I think to some extent, and I hate this phrase climate control, because you think global warming. But I think to some extent climate control in the school district would be much better served if you do that. Because you’ll have kids that don’t normally interact, interacting with each other. Those are the two major things, but I do think that we need to enact all of the recommendations.

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

I heard the superintendent say that they haven’t had enough applicants. I sympathize with him at that, but I do believe that we need to make a better effort to outreach to people of color and different ethnicities to come to teach in Davis. I think we just have to do better outreach and provide the opportunity to show people that you will have a rewarding experience teaching in Davis and that there are kids that need your help. I quite frankly think that it’s a cop-out to some extent to say that teacher’s of color don’t want to be here. Then go out and reach them and tell them why it’s important for them to be here.

11. There have been complaints and polling to show differential treatment with regards to discipline policy based on race and other factors, how would you address this issue?

I think that we need to deal with the discipline issues on a one-on-one basis. But I also think that we need some kind of training that shows those that do the discipline, whether it be teachers or administrators, that there are different cultural experiences for different people. And that discipline that might work in one arena or with one student, might not work with another student. It’s kind of like a baseball manager when you have 25 players and you have to deal with each one as an individual. I think that in student discipline, you have to deal with people as individuals, I don’t think that is recognized sometimes by those who have to do discipline of large amounts of students. They go by rote. Our kids are too important a resource to go by rote.

12. [This was asked prior to the hiring of the new superintendent] The district will soon be hiring a new superintendent, what qualities would you look for in this position?

I would like to find somebody who could work in a collaborative process with the school board, the teachers, [and] the parents that we are all in this together. Someone that has a good financial background, but also thinks that the students and having them reach their full potential is the most important thing. And that the way that they can do that is working together as I said in a collaborative process, so that everyone can feel a part of that process including the kids because they are the most important part of this but also the parents, the school district. We forge together as a unit. That to me is the most important thing. But also I think it is important that they have an understanding of the financial scheme of California schools because it is much more complicated than a lot of other states. But major working in a collaborative ways, but I think in some ways, without mentioning names, but in some ways that’s the problem that we’ve had in the last few years is everybody not being on the same page.

13. What changes would you like to see implemented with a new superintendent if elected?

I think there are two ways to look at a superintendent and a school board. It is similar to looking at a city manager and a city council only a bit different. One of the ways that a superintendent can do things is to work with his staff or her staff, put together proposals, and say these are our proposals, as the experts in education, accept proposal A, B, or C, this is what we’ve come up with. The other way is the collaborative process, where the superintendent and the school board and the parents and the teachers work together to figure out where they want the priorities for the schools to be and that starts with the budget process. So for instance, the budget is a perfect example. Rather than saying this is what it is, yes or no, working in such a way as these are things that may be the best ways for our kids to reach their full potential and have whomever wants to participate, participate. You get good ideas from anywhere. You can get a good idea from a teacher, from a parent, from a student, they just don’t happen from one arena. And then, if you feel a part of that process, you buy into it, and you also feel much more strongly about having that process proceed. That’s what I would like the superintendent to do is to develop a collaborative process with all interested parties and have them be a part of that process.

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

I’m not that familiar with Mr. Murphy and his time of administration other than there were some difficulties. Clearly those difficulties are things that need to be taken care with our next superintendent so that they don’t happen. I’m not sure I buy completely into the process of how Mr. Murphy was let go. But I do understand that he had been there so long that some felt that his style had become too autocratic. And that definitely goes against what I was just talking about. I do think that he had the sincere interest of students at heart, I just think there is a different approach. I think that his approach probably, and the present school board members can talk about it, was here are the options, please pick them and we’ll administrate them or we’ll implement them. And don’t ask us how we’re going to implement them, we’ll implement them. You pick what it is and then we’ll implement them. But we know how. And I think that that goes a little bit against the idea of collaboration. At the same time, I have to say that Mr. Murphy was sincere in his belief that what he was doing was best from the students. And I have support from a wide array of people including supporters of Mr. Murphy.

15. How would you deal with the projected problem of falling enrollment?

Right now, I know the trend is towards falling enrollment. But we haven’t had the same level of declining enrollment that other districts have had, for instance, our neighbor San Juan, where enrollment is severely curtailed. And I don’t think in the next few years, that will happen. I think we probably will be at an even keel. But with that said, one of the things that I think we can do with declining enrollment, is as I said, open up the community to truly affordable housing. And find ways that young families or families period can move into town. If that means infill development, and doing some kind of affordable housing around there. I’ve always, both when I was on the planning commission and at other times have always been a strong advocate of affordable housing. Affordable housing means different things to different people. I think affordable housing in one arena means shelter which is very important as well and I’ve worked on that. But it also means developing a way that young families with kids can come into the community, feel a part of the community and come into the school district. If we do that, enrollment will not stagnate, it may not rise to the level that we anticipated 15 years ago, but it definitely won’t decline in a steep fashion.

16. What book are you reading right now?

I just finished “Team of Rivals” the book about President Lincoln and his Cabinet and right now I’m in the middle of “1776.”

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

There are many. I don’t view politicians as evil, I think public service is a very honorable thing and I think unfortunately the Reagan Revolution was built upon demonizing government and politicians, I think that’s wrong. There are so many. Right now I admire Senator Edwards because of his call about poverty which is something that has been neglected for so long at the national and state level. President Kennedy I admire. Senator Wellstone. Governor Brown. Jess Unruh. I could go on and on.