On Monday October 20th the last candidate forum for the West Contra Cost Unified School District School Board was held at Richmond High School.
Unlike the previous two forums sponsored by the District, this one had nearly four times the audience with more than 165 in attendance.
The ten candidates all gave the perfunctory opening and closing statements and many of the questions were, as Candidate Chester Stevens observed, pretty vanilla in that they didn’t really elicit anything that had not been said at the numerous forums held over the past couple of months.
Where this forum was different, though, was that someone invited the 800-pound gorilla into the room and gave him a seat up front. Someone asked a direct question of each of the candidates: Do you support charter schools.
There have been very heated discussions in the past week with several negative mailers being delivered to homes paid for by The California Charter Schools Association. These mailers vilified Trustee Madeline Kronenberg while supporting Candidates Liz Block and Val Cuevas.
Between the CCSA and local charter school supporters Susan and Steve Chamberlin, more than $150,000 has been spent supporting Block, Cuevas and Candidate Raquel Donoso. The Chamberlins even donated $2,000 to Donoso, $5,000 to Block and $2500 to Cuevas.
[Late arriving information: Steve Chamberlin contributed $1,500 to incumbent Elaine Merriweather.]
Surprisingly, all three responded to the question much in the same way as many of the others by saying that they do not support charter schools. What we heard were several candidates saying that they support any means of educating our children—even if this means going the route of charter schools.
It’s surprising to hear from Candidates Cuevas and Block that they do not support charter schools when as early as last May the word floating around the district was that the Charter Schools Association would be running Cuevas and Block as their candidates in a push to turn the District into a charter schools district.
Several candidates understood that the Board has little recourse but to accept a charter school application if the requirements are met. These often include proving that they will have the financing, that they have a solid business plan, that they have community support, that they will blend into the community and that they have some sort of history that suggests they can succeed and survive.
While none of the candidates really stated that they supported charter schools, several made it clear that they were not at all averse to expanding the number of charter schools in the district. Contra Costa County currently has 14 charter schools with 8 being in West County.
Candidate Chau spoke about how charter schools often cherry pick their students leaving behind students who may not come from homes where they receive the support to succeed. He spoke of how charter schools often take funding away from traditional public schools. He spoke about how charter schools often select students who will not require additional resources.
Candidate Stevens spoke about how the public schools in the WCCUSD could not offer his daughter what she needed so he has her enrolled in a charter school in Oakland.
Candidate Donoso spoke about how she recently pulled her son out of a charter school to enroll him in Korematsu Middle School.
Candidate Kirkland Young, who seems to be running mainly as a disgruntled parent who feels that the District is broken and not providing her family—and others—with the educations they deserve, spoke out in favor of anything that will provide a better education for her children and the rest of the District.
What’s left for the voters is to decide whether charter schools are something of great interest to them before casting their votes and whether they want Board members who lean towards charter schools or lean towards traditional public schools.
When they let in the 800-pound charter schools gorilla they couldn’t stop his good friend: the 600-pound JROTC orangutan.
Last Spring the Board listened to many students and parents from the De Anza community as they begged the Board to allow the Air Force ROTC onto their campus and to allow the Air Force to offer them courses. While there was a large number of impassioned students and parents pleading for this opportunity, there were numerous others speaking out against anything military.
The program was approved with a commitment from the District of $200,000 over a two-year period.
The question of the JROTC program has come up at other forums but the question was more direct at this forum and out the candidates on the spot.
While several candidates opposed this program based largely on taking District funds to pay for it, others were strongly opposed to anything military in the District. Candidate Kirkland Young spoke about her six boys and how the military tends to target students of color when they provide them with career opportunities in the military. Candidate Donoso mirrored these comments.
Candidate Stevens spoke about how colleges kicked ROTC programs off of their campuses when he was in college (during the height of the Vietnam War). Candidate Phillips—a former Naval Reservist—voiced his opinion that even JROTC programs were recruiting tools for the military.
Candidate Kronenberg recalled how so many letters, phone calls and emails came to the members of the Board when the issue was under consideration and how they were so anxious for such a program. She admitted having voted for the program and did not see the JROTC program as a recruiting tool.
It was interesting that when the discussion was about charter schools several candidates spoke about the need to listen to students and parents when they demanded charter schools but when students and parents begged for this JROTC program these candidates were less accepting.
Candidate Merriweather reminded the audience that she was the only Board member to vote against the program and this was based on her belief that it should not be funded by the District.
With charter schools and the Air Force JROTC program dominating the discussions, it was difficult to take seriously questions that asked where the candidates resided, about common core standards and what schools they had been involved with. Somewhere between the heavy hitting questions and the softball questions was the discussion of what place Adult Education placed in the District. Not as a surprise, all
of the candidates supported Adult Ed with Candidate Kirkland Young making sure everyone knew her support only went as far as the District’s ability to pay for it.
Concerns were voiced about the lack of a teachers credential for the JROTC instructor. It has been confirmed that, as promised, the instructors are credentialed teachers.
With two weeks before election day, it’s now up to the candidates to make their phone calls, walk their precincts and deny they had anything to do with the negative mailers sent out on their behalf. In other words, just a regular West County election.
By: Don Gosney, Richmond resident