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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Commentary: A Closer Look at the School Board Race

We have now spent this entire week looking at the school board race. The purpose of this article will be more of an overview and synopsis of the week, then an article that will endorse or criticize the school board candidates. None of these comments should be read as endorsements. I offer some what I believe to be constructive criticism, but the criticism should not be read as opposition to their candidacy. The goal here as the goal was for the week was to let people read the candidates statements and then make up their own minds. However, I do have a few thoughts that I want to share and clarify on a few points that I think need to be made. (Also I invite you to vote in the candidate poll on the right sidebar).

It is clear from the interviews that each of these individuals running have particular assets to offer the community. Susan Lovenburg brings an array of experience as a teacher-volunteer. In fact, long before I knew who she was or that she was running for school board I would see her at a large variety of community meetings. While it is difficult to judge her interview because I did not meet her face-to-face, I think to her detriment, I think at this point in time she probably has the best working knowledge of the school district and the issues facing it. I've heard from a few of the candidates that she has the endorsement of the Davis Teacher's Association pending their formal approval. I hope in the future, I can sit down with Ms. Lovenburg and chat about the school district and education which she obviously has a passion for.

Some were struck I think by Richard Harris' responses. In fairness to him, I think he came across to me far better in person than he did in writing. I think some of the criticism in the comments were based on how he was perceived. But again, I think that some of that was in the translation from oral to written. We had a very good conservation and I came across believing that he was strongly dedicated to improving Davis schools. Running for office is a learning process, and it is clear that he will need to learn a lot as he goes along, but I think his Green School Initiative is an intriguing and innovative idea and that regardless of the outcome, should be examined by the school district as a potential means to save money spent on energy bills that could be put into more educationally oriented uses.

My impression of Joe Spector is that he has a real commitment to working with disadvantaged kids and giving all children access to the types of programs and advantages that the district offers to most students. His focus on access and communication, are clearly a function of his training as a psychologist and a counselor. He offers the perspective of a teacher to a group of candidates who mostly do not have that experience. However, it was also clear that he had little contact as a teacher with administration and the school board and needs to spend some time expanding his base of knowledge. As several current members remind me, they didn't know a lot either when they first ran, so we should not hold that against these individuals, we need to judge them on the basis of their values and their overall experience rather than what they may know or not know about the specifics of the district.

That brings me to Bob Schelen who has a strong commitment to helping the disadvantaged both in our schools and in our community. He will be a strong and powerful advocate for the poor and minorities. Some criticized his position on GATE, but he was pretty clear that he supported its continuation. However, where he sees the problem is not with the kids who are on the fast-track but those who are on other tracks, whether it be the average student or those who are in need of special education. He also has a strong focus on vocational education for kids who are not on a college track, a commitment I am pleased to see from the school district recently as well.

The issue of Valley Oak is a hot-buttoned issue. On this issue, we see two members that supported it staying open in Joe Spector and Bob Schelen and two, Susan Lovenburg and Richard Harris, who were more supportive of the Best Uses of Schools Task Force findings. At this point however, the key issue is support for the charter school. A charter school does not require board or district support but everything I have read suggests that is one of the critical keys to success or failure of the charter school.

The most important issue that I view our school district facing is that of minority hires and the achievement gap task force. Interestingly enough, the best answers I saw on those fronts came not from the school board candidate but from the newly hired superintendent. And frankly that might be the most important thing because the superintendent really is in the position to help shape district policy. Having a new face on the district can only help with these endeavors.

There are of course many issues that I could not raise in essentially a half-hour interview, but during the course of the election, there will be ample opportunities to both ask and answer key questions. My hope is that the school board candidates do as much listening as they do talking and I think the district as a whole will be well-served by such efforts and dedication. There will be plenty of time later on for tough questions and criticism. I hope to be able to cover a number of candidate forums and present further policy questions for these candidates.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting