Conejo Valley school board candidates made a final presentation of their platforms to voters at the Goebel Center last Thursday night at a forum moderated by Acorn Newspapers editor-in-chief John Loesing and Thousand Oaks Acorn editor Kyle Jorrey.
Eight hopefuls are vying for three seats on the five person board that oversees a school district with around 18,000 students. The candidates answered questions at the Oct. 25 event about the board’s oversight of booster club fundraising, standardized test scores, the core literature policy and the district’s proper role in addressing racial discrimination off-campus.
But moderators also asked candidates targeted questions that addressed specific issues that had arisen in each of their campaigns or from their record of service.
Jenny Fitzgerald was asked why voters should cast their ballot for her, an attorney, when other candidates in the field have long histories of serving and volunteering in the district.
Fitzgerald disputed the claim that she did not have a track record of service in local schools or a concrete background in education. She said she was a PTA member and classroom volunteer who goes on field trips. She said she appreciates stay-at-home parents who can donate time as room parents and she participates to the extent she is able.
She said her professional background, both in law and state legislation, would provide a skill set which is sorely needed on the board.
“I do have a history of putting in time to help our local schools,” she said. “I do what I can as a working parent to make sure I’m there for my kids and the kids that are in our schools.”
Cindy Goldberg has been the executive director of the Conejo Schools Foundation since 2007 and leads the District Advisory Council and has close relationships with administrators across the district.
Jorrey asked her if she could see herself, a district insider, voting against the recommendation of district staff. Goldberg said she has disagreed with district staff vehemently at times—on certain issues, namely the manner in which the University and Meadows elementary school closures were handled.
She said her job at CSF is about supporting students, not the district.
“It’s always about the students for me,” she said.
Marlon Delano Williams has become a perennial candidate in Thousand Oaks elections, having run once for City Council and four times for school board. But he doesn’t fundraise, canvass neighborhoods or campaign outside of appearances at political forums.
Loesing asked Williams why voters should back him given his lack of campaign effort. Williams said children have the potential to be outstanding citizens in CVUSD and beyond and he would like to serve as a role model for students to go out and challenge themselves and society to do better.
“We are living in a society where we spend too much time, too much energy trying to belittle each other, trying to tear each other down,” he said. “We need to learn to be a community of builders.”
Bill Gorback’s slogan is that “It’s all about the kids,” but Jorrey asked “What about the taxpayers?” as he queried Gorback about which specific cuts he would make to help secure the district’s financial future while taking into consideration that employment costs account for the lion’s share of the budget. Gorback said employment and pension costs are set but he would focus on cutting spending that doesn’t benefit children in the classroom.
He cited a recent decision by the district to spend $15,000 to create a graphic explaining the district’s fourth LCAP goal.
“$15,000 in a $197 million budget, it’s a drop in the bucket. It’s a very small thing,” he said. “What I look at as an example is what could that $15,000 have bought as far as educational material for the kids?”
Patrissha Rose Booker has based her campaign on being a “voice for the voiceless” and she has frequently said she doesn’t expect to win. Loesing asked her if her candidacy was simply splitting the vote. Booker said there needs to be diversity on the board, which is currently all white.
“Maybe my face will encourage some other person of color to run and they will get on the school board. I’m trying to inspire others,” she said. “I’m not splitting any vote.”
Amy Chen has billed herself as the director of a newly formed educational nonprofit in Arcadia, Top Goal Education. But critics have accused her of creating a paper organization that exists in name only in order to use it for her ballot designation.
Jorrey asked her to set the record straight once and for all and to tell what work she has done as director of Top Goal as well as what resources the organization has provided or will provide in the future.
Chen, reading from a piece of paper, responded that the documentation she submitted regarding her role at the nonprofit was accepted by the county clerk and recorder’s office.
“We have followed the law and it is validated to their satisfaction,” she said.
Chen said she has been a professional in the education sector for the past four years, citing her role as CFO at a for-profit Chinese language cultural enrichment school in Arcadia, First Avenue Education.
“I have an appreciation and respect for diversity, however the negative innuendos and speculations are unfortunate,” she said. “As I have said in the beginning, as an immigrant, I understand and respect cultural differences, needs and challenges facing our population.”
The lone incumbent in the race, Mike Dunn, spent some of his time during the forum chewing gum and reading a newspaper.
Loesing said last year was a tumultuous time for the school district and Dunn’s disparaging remarks about the LGTB community and his tendency to mix politics and religion has been well documented. He asked Dunn if he will he continue to put his religious and political beliefs ahead of decisions affecting our public school system if he’s reelected.
“What I will do is what I have done. I will be a strong advocate for the rights and wishes of the parents and taxpayers in this community who send their kids to the public schools and pay for public education,” he said. “There is a segment in our society which is using the public schools to indoctrinate our children. And I oppose that agenda. That makes me a target.”
When asked by Jorrey if he had any regrets from his last term, Dunn said he regretted going along with a decision in 2013 to fire Joe Cook, the district’s former director of nutrition.
In a letter to the Acorn in August, Angie Simpson said that personal attacks and political agendas damage our schools and have no place in our community. Simpson was one of three candidates endorsed by the Ventura County Republican party and the other two GOP-backed candidates, Chen and Dunn, have made their political positions crystal clear. Jorrey asked Simpson to rectify her statement in light of statements made by her de facto running mates.
Simpson said she wasn’t aligned with any of her fellow candidates, including Chen and Dunn.
“Do I agree with them on some things? Absolutely. Do I agree with candidate Fitzgerald and Gorback and Cindy on others? Yes. But what you can expect out of me is to be an independent thinker,” she said.
Simpson said as a trustee she will never agree with anyone on every single position and she thinks the notion of candidate slates has been destructive to the community.
“I think this election is completely polarized. This isn’t about the best person for the job,” she said. “This is about who’s on Team Blue and who’s on Team Red and I think that’s really sad.”
Williams said regardless of who wins a seat on the board Nov. 6, he believes the next few years will be great for CVUSD.
“Whether it’s Team Blue or Team Red or Team Black, it’s all about the students,” he said.