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Snowline Candidate Forum Highlights and Analysis

PHOTO: I.I. Cabrera

On October 28, Tri-Community NewsPlus hosted the first ever SJUSD Candidate Forum.

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Tri-Community NewsPlus hosted a virtual candidate forum on October 28 for the two vacated positions on the Snowline Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees.  This is the first time NewsPlus has hosted such an event and has ever attempted to live-stream.  The forum was moderated by Don Fish Jr., with all six of the candidates participating in the forum.

The Board of Trustees is made up of five members each representing an area within SJUSD. To be eligible to run, candidates must live within the area they are running for.  The incumbent for area two is David Nilson, and he is not running for reelection.  Area Two roughly covers Northeast Baldy Mesa and Northeast Phelan.  The candidates running for the Area Two vacancy are Daniel Flores, Anona Gasca, and Todd Moen. Area Five roughly covers Southeast Baldy Mesa, Southeast Phelan, and West Oak Hills.  The incumbent is Kenny Funk.  Because he does not live within the area the position is up for election.  Running for the Area Five vacancy are Nathan Bristol, Tari O’Neill, and Graham Ludlow.

After a brief introduction from each candidate, the moderator posed the first question – “With annual four million-dollar payments looming and the potential for reduced funding from the State, what solutions do you have to ensure the district has adequate dollars to keep school’s open?”

Graham Ludlow is running for public service because of the amazing women he has had in his life. “Women like my grandma, who taught me to never run from a just fight, and to always stand up for the people that are around me.” He describes the district’s long term debt as the biggest problem it is facing outside of the corona virus pandemic. His solution to keep schools open is to go to the teacher’s union and “ask for our next contract to reflect the fact that we are facing in two years this massive payment.” By curbing retirement rates, he believes several million dollars can be freed up.

Tari O’Neill is a longtime Tri-Community resident that has lived here 38 years.  She is a mother of nine, with two high schoolers currently attending Serrano. “I’ve been in education for over 30 years.” She says that if payment is not made when it comes due, the district “is in danger of going bankrupt.” Her solution is to have a plan.  What she does not want to do is cut from classrooms or programs for students. Nor from the funds for teachers. She is open to cutting funds from the earliest offered retirements and has considered cuts to transportation.

The first question may have caught several of the candidates off guard—especially those not used to a question and answer forum.  Outside of candidates encouraging enrollment, Ludlow and O’Neill were the only ones who had a plan that addressed necessary pay cuts most candidates agree could possibly free up the money needed for the belt-tightening coming in the near future.

In another question, candidates were asked to give their top three priorities concerning students while moving through the pandemic and beyond.  Anona Gasca is an employee of San Bernardino city schools with 28 years in education and instilling hope. Her goal is to “increase enrollment and make Snowline schools the number one choice through a world-class education. ” Her top priority concerning students is health and wellness. This includes safety from the virus and mental health.  Second is maintaining the academic rigor through support from the parents.  The third is “the equity in distance learning and making sure all students have connectivity and access to the learning.”

Daniel Flores is a 2002 graduate from Serrano High School.  He has worked as a youth pastor and is an assistant pastor, and volunteers as a Chaplain throughout SJUSD schools. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of teachers and staff and all our wonderful students.” His top priority is safety and following the data.  Second is getting kids “back into school in some way or another.” Once they are back in classes, he would like an expansion of hybrid learning.  The third would be to continue “to expand those educational and career pathways through whatever interests the kids.”

Todd Moen is a military veteran that is recently retired.  He’s lived in Phelan over 40 years and raised three children in the area.  He has two grandkids attending school in SJUSD today.  “Clearly, the most important issue is safety,” he says about his concerns.  His second concern is “keeping kids engaged in their online schooling.” This includes helping families with online teaching until kids get back into class. His last concern is finding a way for kids to return to school safely.  “I believe we need to investigate and nurture a segued way to open our schools as soon as possible.”

Nathan Bristol is a father of three current SJUSD students. With kids in middle school and elementary, he says, “I’m super connected to the school district and everything that’s happening.”  His top priority is for SJUSD to keep to their mission, which is “to build these great human beings that are educated and get out in the world.  If you’re a parent, no matter what you have, your child is your number one investment.”  His other concerns were mental health and returning to school safely.

During this round, only half the candidates mentioned the need to address families’ Internet connectivity issues.  The importance of this issue was only highlighted by the fact that a third of the candidates suffered from connectivity issues throughout the forum. Internet reliability and lack of Internet were among teachers’ biggest issues with distance learning during recent interviews on the subject. It was good to see that all candidates had safety as a top concern.

The fifth question asked, “Many classified employees are working for the district part-time as their sole source of income.  What role do you see them playing in student’s lives, and what options do you exhaust before potentially considering furlough days and cutting staff?” deals directly with Snowline employees’ concern for what the future may bring.

Classified employees are described as school employees that do not require licenser or certification to be qualified for their job.

In his response, Candidate Flores stressed the importance of these workers and the work they have been doing since Covid started.  “I’ve seen the hard work they do.  As far as options, we need to look at all of them.” “There are some difficult decisions, but I think we need to exhaust every resource first.”  An idea he mentioned was getting creative with work schedules and cuts being made across the board when the time comes.

Candidate Moen praised the workers for all they do, including distributing books, food and working behind the scenes. “It would be preferable not to have to let anybody go through this whole process.”  The roles they play in schools are important, he says.  “It would be the last decision on my part to discharge them.”

Candidate Bristol disagreed with cuts being made across the board.  He suggests instead of going to the experts like the superintendent for suggestions.  “If I were to get surgery, I wouldn’t go to a mechanic or ask a fireman how to get that surgery performed.”  By going to the teachers, administrators, and classified employees, he believes they can come “up with a plan that least affects the students.”

Candidate Ludlow described classified employees as “the backbone. Without our classified employees, we can’t operate this school district.”  He offered alternatives to cuts like retraining, reclassification, and reassigning employees before resorting to layoffs or furlough, along with a hiring freeze on the position. “I don’t want to see our classified employees having to use their vacation days to maintain a normal check at the end of the month.”

Candidate O’Neill believes these employees play pivotal roles in kids’ education.  “A lot of times a teacher will know, of course, their students. But they don’t know all the other people on campus.  But you know what? These classified people do, and it’s really, really important in making those connections with the students.” In conversations she has had with classified workers, they have suggested schedule changes and retraining.

“I would keep the cuts as far away from the kids as possible,” says Candidate Gasca.  To her, all employees bring services that are valuable to the district.  But classified employees play outsized roles in students’ lives.  “They’re inexpensive. But what they bring to the table, bring to a child’s life is invaluable.  And I don’t know why we’re even discussing cutting them at all.”

In another question about budget cuts, what stood out most was how some candidates didn’t respond to where cuts will be made.  Instead, choosing to discuss where they will not be made.  Don’t take our word for it. Watch the full video here.

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