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The Candidates, AV School Board Election 2011

For the next two weeks, our local interviews will adopt a different theme. I shall be interviewing the five candidates who are seeking election to the three open positions on the AV School Board. I will be asking each of them for their opinions and thoughts on some of the issues they will face if successful in Their answers and comments to the first half of those questions appear this week, with the rest to follow in the AVA’s November 2nd issue — just six days before the election on Nov 8th. Candidate responses are in the order the interview were conducted: Dick Browning, Marti Bradford, Ben Anderson, Ernie Pardini and Don Harris.

FYI: School Administrators are Superintendent J.R. Collins, and Principals Jim Tomlin (High School) and Donna Pierson-Pugh (Elementary School). The two School Board members not up for re-election at this time are Erica Lemons and Ydira Mendoza

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1. Are the schools properly led by the administration and the current school board?

Dick B: Yes. In this age of accountability, this is not too hard to check on and our regular test results show well. The High School scored over 800 on the last Academic Proficiency Index — a very high score that was only beaten in this county by Mendocino High. The Elementary School also consistently scores high marks and is always one of the top in their school-type. In fact our three Administrators — the Principals and the Superintendent, are regularly asked to speak to other schools and explain how we do it.

Ben A: From my vantage point, no. What I see is the result of a philosophy of deferred maintenance. It doesn't take any more than a quick tour of the grounds and a walk down the main hallway at the high school to see that something is amiss. Our immediate surroundings, regardless of where we are, have a direct effect on our psyche. It's important that we do all we can to provide our students, faculty, staff, and community campuses of which they can be proud.

Marti B: I would say ‘Yes.’ I have been on the Board for 26 years, since my first daughter was two years old and have worked very closely with the administration and teachers in that time. We have maintained high standards for the staff and students and now Principal Tomlin is following the excellent leadership shown previously by J.R. Collins, while Elementary School principal, Donna Pierson-Pugh must never sleep! Our top priority has been the academic success of the students and to provide the tools to be successful in their adult lives.

Ernie P: No. The School Board needs to be more hands-on; be present in the classrooms, walk through the school halls and around the grounds, etc. — instead of listening to what they are told by the administrators and accepting it as fact. I also feel that greater consideration should be given to hiring the administration from outside, with no ties to the faculty. They would have a history of success in school administration and provide a fresh outlook.

Don H: I am going to play the ‘new kid on the block’ card’ quite a lot in this interview. I am that ‘kid’ but as a result I bring some new ideas and I will be unbiased by history and personalities. From what I have seen here, the administration and School Board have overseen enough good things in our schools for us to want to see our daughter, Lana, in school here. We came here four years ago and found that the community is the backbone of life here and we want to be a part of that. Some people cannot take part but we can, and have the time, energy, and desire to do so. Through my being on the Site council at the Elementary School, I have seen test scores and we certainly seem to be doing something right. I have looked at the School Board minutes and there does seem to be a lot of 5-0 votes. That is interesting to me. Are the choices put forward in the motions that obvious? Really? I am not looking to join forces with any group on the Board if elected. My experience to date tells me that we are headed in the right direction and I hope to get more experience to validate that.

2. How much time have you spent in Anderson Valley classrooms?

Dick B: I frequently find myself in classrooms for a variety of reasons and as president of the Education Foundation I am required to interact with the teachers.

Ben A: Over the past few years I have been in the classrooms quite a bit — three or four days a week as a substitute teacher, at both campuses. These days it is a little less, but it’s still three days a week that I will be on the high school campus.

Marti B: Much more when my girls were in school. Katy graduated in 2002 and Stacey in 2005 after being there from K-12th grade. During those years I volunteered in the classrooms many times, and attended sports events, chaperoned dances, and went on student field trips. I have not been around the school so much in the last five years.

Ernie P: I have not spent much time there — I have to work, but I fully intend to do so if elected. I will visit all the classrooms on both campuses and would prefer to do so without giving much notice so that I am able to get a true reflection of what is happening.

Don H: Last year I volunteered once a week for Lana’s classroom. In addition I attend Site Council meetings once a month as a kindergarten father. It has been a good window for me, following my position as the President of Lana’s Nursery School in Sausalito. In that position I was an advocate of the teachers and wore many different hats. I must say I was impressed by the student’ recent presentation at a school board meeting that I attended here, along with the Board and the three Administrators.

3. What is the current way in which teacher’s are evaluated? How often is this done? If a teacher has tenure, are there efficient methods in place to dismiss them if necessary? (When was the last time a teacher was dismissed?)

Dick B: The teachers are evaluated every two years if they have tenure; every year if they are on probation or temporary. The Principal does this and the Superintendent evaluates the two Principals — Jim Tomlin and Donna Pierson-Pugh. The School Board assesses Superintendent J.R. Collins. It has to be said that tenured teachers have lots of due process protection and it is difficult to dismiss for incompetence or poor teaching. Morals charges or felonies are a different matter of course. The principles try to give advice to teachers who are having problems and this often solves the problems. If it doesn’t then continued oversight in the classroom will often lead to the teacher resigning rather than being fired. I don’t recall any tenured teachers being fired in my seven years on the Board.

Ben A: Everything is test score motivated and I am opposed to tenures in principle. However, it is a fallacy that those with tenure cannot be fired — there is a difference between inconvenient and impossible. There should be more than one person doing the evaluations of teachers and administrators — a School Board Member, the Superintendent, the Principal, and a parent advocate perhaps.

Marti B: I think the process in place is quite good and agreed to in the teacher’s contract. A peer group of teachers will get involved if a teacher needs to improve. It is very difficult to fire them. We have had such good teachers, it is very rare to fire them — may be never in my twenty-six years. We do scrutinize them strongly in their first two years and if there are any doubts they are not given tenure. It is therefore a non-hiring rather than a firing.

Ernie P: Obviously there are guidelines and laws set down which have to be followed. If there are continuing problems then the Board must get involved and there are ways of doing this.

Don H: My wife Bonnie and I run a business. If you are sick or take a day off you don’t get paid or clients get upset. I understand why there are tenures and pensions but these days the world operates on a 24/7 response time and the tenure is a luxury. In public schools there are rules and regulations that mean we are dealing with difficult situations as a School Board in dealing with tenured positions that are not performing. It is a potential problem.

4. What level of involvement in teacher evaluations should the school board have?

Dick B: The School Board hires the Superintendent to run the schools. He might get involved with the teacher evaluation process along with the Principals. The Superintendent is answerable to the Board and we can fire him.

Ben A: The Board should have direct involvement. In the hiring process too — there should be a School Board member on every hiring committee.

Marti B: We don’t need to be more involved. We do need to know about any problems though. As I said, we are very careful about giving out tenure. The Superintendent recommends and the Board decides. It can be hard to tell a young teacher ‘No’, but if there are any doubts that is what we will do.

Ernie P: The School Board, in some capacity, should absolutely be involved in teacher evaluations and not accept verbatim what they are told by the Superintendent.

Don H: I think it is important to have ‘360-degree’ reviews. These are used in the corporate world sometimes and they involve input from those in positions below, level with, and above the person being evaluated. I could see that working in our school system.

5. How often should school board members audit classes?

Dick B: It is the job of the school administrators. Our job is to ensure that it is being done. The test scores indicate that there are not problems in most areas and progress is measured across the board. Sometimes these are adversely affected by the arrival of a new student we have not taught before.

Ben A: I don’t see any reason why a Board member cannot spend a day each semester and randomly select a few classes to sit in on. The members have to be curious to know for themselves and not just rely on the superintendent’s reports. I believe it is part of a responsibility and duty as a School Board member. What is a board member there for? As someone who accepts the Administration’s words as gospel? No. For me, it's a matter of curiosity. I believe that, in order to be a meaningful representative for the community, trustees must possess some measure of personal curiosity in the daily goings-on of the district.

Marti B: I think it is the personal decision by each member. You put in as much time as you can.

Ernie P: I think once a month a Board member should spend some time in classrooms. I shall certainly try to do that if elected, on both campuses, as often as possible.

Don H: I think auditing classes is a good idea but I’m not sure if it is of the highest priority. I like the phrase ‘A successful person can build a foundation with the bricks that are thrown at them.’ With the budget cutbacks, the School Board has to react to these and other issues sent down by the State. Auditing classrooms may be too minute a job and one that the Superintendent and Administrators are empowered to do. However, having a presence in and around the school is important.

6. What kind of discipline reports should the school board get each month?

Dick B: The Board does not get them by the month. We get a report at the end of the school year. We do discuss important issues as deemed by the Principals and Superintendent.

Ben A: These should be monthly. I know that in the community there are concerns about how discipline is decided on. I would like to know what sort of behavioral issues occur with regularity, for example, and how each individual case is handled. Statistics are information, and information is important. It would only serve to potentially better understand causation, and from causation we can best determine the most effective disciplinary course of action.

Marti B: There are no formal reports apart from the annual one at the end of the school year but we do hear about events and issues that may arise, particularly possible expulsion issues.

Ernie P: I believe that for serious offenses, involving suspension or expulsion, we need to see a written report from the teacher and administrator to explain what has happened and they should attend a Board meeting. If I heard about such an incident, I would go and find out the facts from all concerned — administrator, teacher, student, and parent if necessary. The current Board seems to think and act as if they are governed by the administration, not the other way around, as it should be.

Don H: Certainly attendance/truancy reports; drug and alcohol incidents, fighting. We should get detailed reports on such issues and be able to act on these rapidly. Of course we need to know the good things too.

7. Would you disclose all teaching staff and administration salaries to the public?

Dick B: This information is available if people want to know it. Go to the District Office and ask Patty Wilson for it.

Ben A: I was under the impression that as public employees this information is available to anyone interested as a matter of public record. The fact that this information is available to the public just comes with the territory as far as I am concerned. People question these things; it is the topic of many conversations. Justified or not, the distrust and skepticism is real, and needs to be addressed.

Marti B: They are available at the District Office. Currently we are in negotiations for pay raises and hopefully this will happen. It is a problem for us to compete with other school districts although we are somewhere in the middle. We do offer full healthcare and many others do not. Our teachers seem to have that as a priority even over a raise so it has worked well overall. We would like to improve and be able to compete with smaller districts in Sonoma County.

Ernie P: Absolutely — they have to be made public.

Don H: Apparently they are available, although for me I do not need to know exactly — the range is good enough for me. I fully encourage and believe in full transparency. I don’t think there should be closed-session meetings. Why? It just gives fodder to the conspiracy theorists.

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Interviewer’s note: I did go to the District Office as a tax-paying member of the public. Initially I was offered a series of pay scales but this was a sheet of numbers hardly helpful to anyone who actually wishes to know how much is being paid, and for what. As a result, and after their initial surprise at being asked for more specific information, the staff of Patty Wilson, Sarah Ivey, and Gwen Smith, made a couple of phone calls and were given the go-ahead to hand out this information. They were very friendly, helpful, and efficient, and Sarah printed out the whole list of salaries for all school employees — administrators, faculty, secretarial, transport, maintenance, etc. — Steve Sparks.

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8. Should teachers be encouraged to attend school sports events, extra-curricular activities, and fundraisers outside regular school hours?

Dick B: Yes this should be encouraged but not required. Our faculty has lots of preparations — four or five different classes a day. They also teach six classes a day where in many schools it is five. This is a big plus for the school but involves more time taken by the teachers leaving them less for other things.

Ben A: Encouraged, yes; insisted upon no. I enjoy going to sports events and other community events because, for me, it's a big part of how I was raised here in Anderson Valley. I see it as community building in the simplest sense. It's an indication that we care about each other, and it adds richness to my life; it's why I moved back to the Valley. But I don't attend everything, and people are going to do what they feel comfortable doing, or what they're interested in. I don't think we can mandate such attendance, and I would never want to. There is a professional and personal benefit to being involved in the student’s life outside the classroom- it would surely have positive results. Being visible once in a while at some community event would go a long way.

Marti B: This is a touchy area for teachers. They should be ready to put in some time on these activities and I believe they do — chaperoning dances, working the door at events. In Ukiah the teachers get paid for this.

Ernie P: Yes. I actually believe that a couple of administrators and/or faculty should be at every outside-school event. That was the way it was when I was at this school. There was a rotating list and it was mandatory and as students we really appreciated them being there.

Don H: We should pay them $10 a game! … I’m kidding. I’m sure some teachers do go to sports events and if sports are not that important to them they probably get out and support the kids in other ways. If they don’t, I’d like to think that it is because they have very demanding job. I can see the importance for kids to see that their teachers are interested in their extra-curricular activities.

9. What are your thoughts on the cutbacks and, in some cases, the elimination of arts, music, and vocational classes in our schools? If elected would you push for a return of some emphasis in these areas of education?

Dick B: The high school does offer music in the form of band and we have a full-time art teacher. Drama is more hit-and-miss at this point. The elementary school has a music teacher and thanks to the good graces of the Education Foundation there is a very good after-school arts program that many elementary school kids enjoy. So we are doing well but not investing enough — kids are forced into concentrating on the three ‘R’s’ to meet national and state goals. American schools were set up on the idea of providing a comprehensive education for all but many of the vocational subjects have bee dropped due to the budget cuts. We are lucky to still have woodshop, metal work and some auto. Another factor in this was the feeling that the minority kids were tracked into vocational subjects, while the white kids were studying courses that would lead to college, so the cutbacks were made in the vocational areas as everyone was encouraged to attend college.

Ben A: In a perfect world all three would be offered with few limits but with budget restrictions they are going to be the first affected. In the past however, marketable skills through vocational courses were used to further the careers of many of our students. At some point college careers as opposed to vocational training was decided to be the way forward. I do not know how we can reverse that at this point. The British system does seem to work where for the final two years of high school those kids with an aptitude for vocational studies, and not for purely academic subjects get the opportunity to choose. Meanwhile many of our kids think they are college material with a false sense of preparedness and fall by the wayside once there. That is not being negative — that is reality. I see it. I can track the kids by their scholarship awards and many of these are not collected because they are not at the college after they leave here. It is very disingenuous to always talk about the kids who do go on to college and not the many others who do not.

Marti B: We are trying to stop further cutbacks in these areas and we do still have music and art at both campuses although they have certainly dwindled. Changes are being looked at the elementary school where we insist they start an investment in these topics in the 5th grade. Vocational studies have suffered but we’d like to do more. They are not as strong as they should be but we are hanging on to them and hope to modernize Mr. Pinoli’s workshop.

Ernie P: I realize that in the current system, when classes are cut, they are going to be the vocational ones. However, a very high percentage of our graduates are going to work in vocational fields. Lots of boys will go into the construction world or mechanics. Many of the girls will be running households where life skills would be very helpful. The wine industry makes millions of dollars out of this Valley and often relies on graduates for their workforce. We need to convince these future employers that they would benefit from a better preparedness on the part of these students. I believe that some would be willing to fund or participate in expanding our agricultural courses, machinery work, etc that will benefit them later when the kids move into that industry and others. It would behoove the school to pursue this. Internships that earn credits, taking up a few hours here and there, could be offered during the school year. I personally know many people in business here that I could ask to offer some sort of training to students and I feel such a system could work very well.

Don H: We must be flexible, times change, and if we feel that vocational classes and the arts are not getting enough then we re-direct our resources. The test score of over 800 on the Academic Proficiency Index is wonderful and if the vocational classes are offered too all is good, but having been told, ‘Oh by the way — your budget is to be cut by 20%’, it means that something has to go and at this point it is not the academic classes. Fortunately, the community has been good enough to pick up some of the slack.

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