This interview is part of an ongoing series of candidate profiles ahead of the General Election on November 3, 2020. Stay tuned to our Election 2020 page for all of our latest profiles and election coverage.
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Four years ago, the three open seats on the Santa Barbara Unified School Board were quietly filled by three unopposed candidates — but that isn’t the case this time around. The three now-incumbents are running to keep their seats for another term, but they are being challenged by emerging candidates.
Cue Virginia Alvarez.
Of the at least seven candidates in the running, Alvarez is the least known in the community. But she intends to change that. She has worked in the Montecito Union School District for nearly two decades and in the Santa Barbara Unified School District before that. She came to Santa Barbara with her parents at 9 years old from Zacatecas, Mexico, and enrolled in district schools, graduating from San Marcos High School.
Alvarez sat down with the Indy to talk about her campaign. The following is a condensed version of the conversation.
Who are you and what skills can you bring to the School Board?
I’m the chief business official and human resources manager at Montecito Union. But what does that mean? I’m responsible for all of the fiscal services in the district, budget preparation, payroll, you name it. I also manage the human resources portion of it. I’m the only bilingual candidate with that sort of experience … I believe that strength is missing in the current composition of the board.
What inspired you to run?
I’ve been wanting to run for a long, long time. This is something I’ve wanted to do, and if you knew my family they would tell you that. But it was just never the right time for me to run personally. I had to rearrange several things in my personal life to do this. And as I mentioned before, one of the big things in my life is to do due diligence, so I wanted to do my own due diligence before I made a commitment. When I do something, I do it 200 percent.
But in addition to that, I see the great need. There is a great need at the board level to have someone with my background. I already have a career; I don’t need a career. I want to serve my community. I care about Santa Barbara, and I’ve lived here most of my life. My kids went through the school system here. My parents still live here. Schools are the backbone of our community. I live it every single day; it’s in my blood.
Is there anything else lacking in leadership that you hope to change?
Yeah the other thing that I see is that we as a board need to be more responsive to our community. We need to hear the voices of our community members … . Elected officials need to be responsive. Democracy is a civil discourse.
And as I mentioned before, I am bilingual. Spanish is my first language, my maternal language. When I came to Santa Barbara I spoke zero English. Zero. And back then, they didn’t have any of the programs that we have for English learners. We didn’t have AVID, EL, nothing. There was zero outreach to the Spanish-speaking community.
Now, there is more outreach. But we can do better. We need to change. I think that’s missing. I have no problem standing in front of a group of Spanish-speaking parents and saying, “This is what we offer. What do you need?”
I grew up on the Westside, and back in those days they called us “at-risk” kids. I was an at-risk kid. Now I know what that means, and that gives me a responsibility. Knowledge brings responsibility, and mine is to try and help every student to have educational opportunities and make sure that we are telling them what is available to them.
How did your experience growing up as an English-language learner frame your understanding of best practices for today? At S.B. Unified, English is a second language for half the children, and the district recently adopted META (multilingual excellence transforming achievement), a plan to integrate culturally and linguistically focused education.
Well, when I came over here, I also didn’t understand the culture. So when Halloween came along, I thought people were dressed weird, and I didn’t understand. And then St. Patrick’s Day came along, and I was the only kid who wasn’t wearing green. I didn’t know why the other kids were being mean to me and pinching me … There were no EL programs so the teacher’s assistant used to pull me out of class and teach me English. There wasn’t phonics, so I learned by memorizing. She would put up a picture and say the word, and I would repeat it.
I did not have the opportunity to be in the immersion programs, the wonderful things that the state has now. But I did have one thing, and I really believe that’s why I was successful. I started school in September, and by December I was translating for my dad during parent conferences … . I believe I was successful because I had a strong foundation in my maternal language … . I am in no way an expert about the program the district is implementing. I saw it being presented at the board meetings, and my hope is that the program helps students dominate in their maternal language, like I did, so they can make that hop to a multilingual program.
How would you apply your fiscal knowledge to Santa Barbara Unified’s deficit? For example, the current board has had to grapple with a major deficit in its food services department.
Like any budget problem — or budget opportunity — you have to look at everything first. You cannot make rash decisions. As a board member you have to do your due diligence, and as a fiscal person you cannot leave any stone unturned … you’ve gotta look at the why. Usually the why has different components and isn’t black and white. Is it a longstanding problem? Is it a structural deficit? … The decisions that a school board makes can have an impact for a long time.
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