Santa Clarita Valley school board candidates gathered Saturday for a candidate forum sponsored by The Signal, SCTV, KHTS and Cougar News.
Fourteen of the 18 candidates facing opposition in the coming Nov. 6 election were in attendance to speak on issues pertinent to the voters of the SCV and answer questions from a panel comprised of representatives from the local media outlets.
Santa Clarita Community College District
Candidates running to represent Area No. 5 of the Santa Clarita Community College District began the first of the day’s five district forums speaking on collaboration, which has been a key factor in the college’s success.
Incumbent Joan MacGregor said her collaborative efforts during her 25 years on the board have produced many opportunities for students at every grade level and district.
“We’ve done so much in business with retraining and training skills,” MacGregor said. “And I feel I’m the best informed to be able to continue to those efforts.”
While MacGregor promoted her experience, challenger Ann-Marie Bjorkman touted her energy, passion and drive, which she feels can create new partnerships in the city, especially ones in career technical education that will benefit local students.
“I think the workforce training they do at the college is second to none,” Bjorkman said. Everything could always benefit from new points of view, ideas and increased teamwork, she said, adding there’s always room for improvement.
Saugus Union School District
All seven candidates seeking a spot on the governing board of the Saugus Union School District spoke on a number of issues Saturday. While a question on special education had to be cut for time, candidates were able touch on other relevant issues in their answers, which were limited to 45 seconds due to the number of candidates.
Following opening statements from the seven candidates — Laura Arrowsmith, David Barlavi, Sharlene Duzick, Jesus Henao, Evan Patlian, Christopher Trunkey and Judy Umeck — the group responded to the question, “STEM or STEAM?”
Arrowsmith, who’s challenging for a seat in Area No. 2, said she is a proponent of the district’s focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, but she’d like to add an “H” to STEAM for history.
“When we hyperfocus on STEM, we narrow the curricular focus,” Arrowsmith said. The two disciplines require different types of thinking but they’re also complementary, because technology needs the arts, as well as a historical perspective.
Umeck, an incumbent for Area No. 2, said she’d take Arrowsmith’s idea a step further by adding entrepreneurship and ethics.
“Studies on the brain have shown (that) you integrate arts along with your sciences,” said Umeck.
“We are always, always looking to improve,” whether that be in the areas of academics, facilities funding or special education, said the 22-year board member.
“All of those things are important for the kids, but how do you make it fun for the kids?” asked Henao, a candidate for Area No. 1. “If they’re not engaged at that young age, then we’re losing them.”
That’s the key, Henao said. “If we can make it fun for them, then the kids are going to be engaged,” and go on to find great success in life.
School safety — a leading priority for some candidates — was another issue discussed during the forum.
David Barlavi, who’s running against Henao and Patlian in Area No. 1, concurred that school safety is paramount to the success of the children.
“This issue is at the top of my platform,” Barlavi said as he outlined the three Bs — bullets, bullying and bias. “We have to minimize or eliminate those from the world of our children.”
Patlian, who commended current school board members for the work they’ve done in regards to school safety, said he walks his child to school at West Creek every day and is unable to enter campus without scanning an identification card, even though staff and faculty know him.
“We are taking steps and there are plans in place, but I think campus safety goes beyond physical safety,” Patlian said, referring to the cyberbullying that often occurs on social media, gaming groups or other technological platforms.
“Safety comes in all different shapes and forms,” said Duzick, a candidate for Area No. 5. The district should ask families what safety means to them, because some might be focused on traffic, while others might want more supervision to ensure children don’t go missing for 25 minutes.
Trunkey, the incumbent for Area No. 5, was able to speak on the district’s current measures to increase safety for students prior to the closing statement portion of the forum, where Saugus Union’s current board president urged voters to do their research and learn as much as they can about all of the candidates.
“If you happen to live in trustee Area No. 5, please vote for me,” Trunkey said.
William S. Hart Union High School District
During the Hart District’s portion of the forum, Joe Messina, an incumbent for Area No. 5, was joined by challenger Jeffery Martin, and Donna Robert, a candidate for area No. 2.
Area No. 2 incumbent Bob Jensen, challenger Kelly Trunkey and challenger Chris Werthe did not attend the forum. Kelly Trunkey cited personal reasons and Jensen caught the flu.
Following the candidates’ opening statements, Martin was asked if the district should focus on STEAM or STEM but he chose a third option.
“When it comes to science, math and arts, those are very important, but these days kids are dealing with a lot of bullying,” Martin said. “I think the health and wellness of our children are more important or as important as their education.”
After discussing the district’s curricular focus, mental health and bullying, the three prospective representatives moved to discuss other topics pertinent to local voters, such as fair salaries for teachers, career technical coursework, inclusion and representation.
As a teacher, Robert said she knows firsthand that teachers plan and prepare lessons outside of the classroom and the hours aren’t considered part of a teacher’s workday or accounted in their salary.
“If you look at the budget, there’s ways to save,” said Robert, who possesses a master’s of business administration degree. She hopes to use her skills to compensate teachers more fairly following the election in November.
After clarifying some budgetary facts with the challenger for Area No. 2, Messina proceeded to explain how the board gives control to schools to make the students feel included and represented.
“The board members can tell you this is what we do, but we don’t,” Messina said. The board empowers administrators on campus, because it’s impossible to touch all 21,000 students at every campus.
“You have to empower and give people the ability to make it happen,” Messina said. “We have all kinds of peer groups on campus to help those kids get involved.”
Newhall School District
Similar to the Hart District, the Newhall School District’s forum was missing a candidate — Liz Guardado — but that didn’t keep two former Newhall employees from sharing their thoughts.
Larry Heath and Donna Rose are both running for Newhall’s Area No. 2 and they believe they can use their experiences to better serve the district’s residents.
Having worked in the district for nearly a decade, Rose said, “I still feel like I know this district very well.”
There’s a new superintendent on the board who should have tremendous support to ensure they are successful, which is something Rose feels she can contribute after serving as an assistant superintendent in the Santa Paula Unified School District prior to retirement.
Rose hopes to use her experience in Santa Paula when compiling the budget, discussing ways to increase teacher salaries or projecting district enrollment, which could soon be changing as more and more housing developments are built.
Like Rose, Heath hopes to provide a new perspective on the Newhall board by using the experiences he gained during his 45 years working in education.
“The other thing that I’d like to do is make sure there’s a balance when it comes to high-stakes testing,” Heath said. “There’s an awful lot of pressure on classroom teachers and middle management to produce great test scores.
“There needs to be an understanding that that is not our purpose,” he said. “Our purpose is graduate students who — as I said before — thrive at the junior high school level,” so communication with the junior high administrators is critical to see if the district is delivering those students.