The topic of finances dominated a debate between school board candidates cohosted by the League of Women Voters and the Santa Barbara Youth Council on Monday night. Four candidates are vying for three open seats on the five-person body.
Even in her first question, when she asked the school board hopefuls about the biggest challenge facing the schools, moderator Jean Reiche specified, “besides the budget cuts.” Gayle Eidelson, who has sent five kids through the district with two more in media res, said that opening up opportunities for students of all backgrounds would be her priority.
Lou Segal, a retired real estate investment consultant, said that the teachers union is the district’s biggest albatross and that it will be tough to push reforms through collective bargaining in two years. Pedro Paz, an evaluation manager for First 5 Santa Barbara County, said that he’d like to close the achievement gap. Echoing Paz, incumbent Ed Heron, a retired real estate professional, said that he’d like teachers to better differentiate their instruction so that all students are learning. He also called for training that would help them do so.
The fiscal state of the schools, however, could not be avoided. When asked about the greatest barrier to closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, Heron said, “The biggest challenge is the fact that in the last four years, we cut $20 million from our budget.” Paz claimed it was “the current economic crisis” that has upset the stability of homes and made it difficult for parents to stay engaged in their children’s education. He also emphasized the importance of community involvement and pre-kindergarten preparation.
Eidelson pointed out the importance of community involvement, as well, mentioning that families need to be a bigger part of the schools and that children need good mentors. She and Segal both noted the importance of good teachers who, Segal said, are “the single most important factor” in education.
Despite that happenstance, Segal did his best to differentiate himself from the other candidates, saying that the current boardmembers don’t know the issues and are “content with the status quo. He also criticized them for being beholden to special interest groups and challenged them to make public their union endorsement questionnaires as he has.
Segal has also distinguished himself by contesting two parcel-tax measures that would raise a combined $2.9 million for the schools annually for four years. The other three candidates support the measures. Even the conservative Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association has endorsed Measures A and B, as they are called, and the Santa Barbara County Republican Central Committee took no position. Because there is no organized opposition to the measures, Segal actually wrote the argument against Measure A that appears on the November ballot. He does not live in the elementary district, so he could not do so for Measure B. He feels that the district should institute reforms before asking for taxpayer money.
Heron, the current board’s lone Republican member, countered that if the measures don’t pass, “We are going to cut $1.7 million out of our budget from something. I don’t have the luxury as a school boardmember to think about trying to do other things.” Eidelson said, “We would be hypocritical to not want what the parcel taxes give our children.”
Pedro Paz, who holds a PhD in education from UCSB, spoke in terms of “programs and strategies,” stating that he “loves data,” and that metrics on specific populations of students at specific school sites will be necessary to improving performance — a concern stressed by Heron, as well. When an audience questioner prompted candidates to discuss their budgetary experience, Paz explained that he oversaw a $7-million budget as the executive director of First 5 Merced.
Segal and Heron both touted their business experience, Heron adding that he has already performed the tough job of prioritizing line items in a rapidly shrinking school budget and Segal arguing that per-pupil spending is not strongly correlated with outcomes. Instead of discussing her long involvement with the school district as a volunteer and member of the Parent Advisory Committee with a strong grasp of the labyrinthine strictures of California school funding, Eidelson said she had managed a family budget but never the budget of a large organization.