West Contra Costa school district: Ten candidates seek three seats

September 23, 2014

RICHMOND — Ten candidates are vying for three open seats on the West Contra Costa school board, including two incumbents seeking re-election and eight challengers.

Longtime trustee Charles Ramsey is not seeking re-election to the school board after serving 21 years, opting instead to run for City Council.

The candidates are: incumbent Madeline Kronenberg, incumbent Elaine Merriweather and challengers Elizabeth Block, Chester Stevens, Raquel Donoso, Mister Phillips, Otheree Christian, Valerie Cuevas, Peter Chau and Ayana Kirkland Young.

They faced off recently in a CCTV forum moderated by columnist Tom Barnidge, where they differed on how well they think the district is communicating with the public regarding its $1.6 billion construction bond program and other issues.

The challengers all agreed that the district could do much more to be more accountable and provide honest information to the public about financial dealings and other issues. Student safety, improving academic achievement and parent engagement were top issues.

Cuevas, who is interim executive director for the nonprofit student advocacy group Education Trust-West, said the district’s recent subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission related to its bond program financing raises serious questions about whether the district is ethically managing public funds. She said she started out as a Head Start student and has never forgotten her teachers.

“If it wasn’t for the great teachers that found me and nurtured me,” she said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Block, a former elementary school principal who says she helped raise test scores, said the West Contra Costa district is not forthcoming about financial issues. Even the bond oversight committee, she said, has difficulty getting information from the district as it tries to monitor spending.

“I will demand transparency and accountability to safeguard taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. “And I will foster opening communications with the community to rebuild trust in the district.”

Christian, a school safety officer in the district, said the Hercules City Council has raised questions about the level of accountability and transparency in the district. He wants to improve school safety and to attract and retain high quality teachers.

“My involvement is about community,” he said. “It’s about commitment to people. It’s about reaching the parents and helping to bring about change in the community.”

Phillips, a labor attorney, said the bond oversight committee needs to be empowered to do its job to ensure money is spent wisely. He said he envisions a district where every student attends a safe school, is engaged and can achieve.

“If elected,” he said, “I promise that I will strive to achieve that vision for the sake of all children, regardless of where they live or where they attend school.”

Kirkland Young, an attorney and district parent, said the district should spend less money on lawyers. She said she also believes it’s important to be connected to the community.

“I want to hear from you,” she said to voters. “I will take it to the board, and I will make sure that your voice is heard in this district. I will be a partner for you, and I hope to get your vote. Thank you guys. I love you!”

Chau, a law clerk in the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office who is a member of the bond oversight committee, said the district needs to do a better job of building trust with parents and answering the committee’s questions.

“Does your kid feel safe? Is your voice being heard? Do you believe that your kid will get a great education?” Chau said. “That’s the reason why I’m running for the school board today, because I believe I have the answer to those questions.”

Stevens, a substitute teacher in the district who was an alternate on the bond committee, said committee members weren’t satisfied with the information they received and that public trust needs to be rebuilt. He also wants to improve technology, teacher support and parent engagement.

“I think bullying in the schools is a problem because we don’t consider emotional safety,” he said.

Donoso, a nonprofit executive and district parent, said many people don’t believe the district is doing a good job of being financially accountable and that the bond oversight website does not present information in a way that can be easily understood. She said she would set higher expectations for the district.

“We really need to focus on how we can attract the best teachers,” she said. “And we also have to focus on developing strategies that would engage parents like myself.”

On the other hand, incumbents Kronenberg and Merriweather defended the district, praising the rebuilding and renovation of 36 schools. Kronenberg said audits of the bond program ensure accountability and transparency.

“If there’s anything more we can do to enhance it,” she said, “I’m all for it.”

Merriweather, who was elected four years ago, said she wants to continue the work she has begun.

“I will continue to invest in the whole child,” she said. “I will continue to increase accountability and transparency.”

West contra costa school board candidates

Age: 61
Professional background: Elementary school principal, special education administrator, school psychologist. Served on El Cerrito Human Relations Commission, 2010-12
Personal background: El Cerrito resident for more than 35 years; married, with two grown children; fluent in Spanish
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology and developmental psycholinguistics, Duke University; master’s in education and school psychologist credential, UC Berkeley; administrative services credential, Saint Mary’s College

Age: 27
Professional background: Contra Costa County Law Clerk in District Attorney’s Office since 2013
Personal background: Richmond resident, graduated from Pinole Valley High, 2004.
Education: BA, history and public policy, Dartmouth College; JD UC Hastings College of the Law

Age: 46
Professional background: Safety Officer at El Cerrito High School; president of Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council.
Personal background: Richmond resident; involved in Richmond PAL
Education: Graduated from Kennedy High School; BA in criminal justice with minor in political science, Howard University; internship on Capitol Hill serving under Rep. George Miller.

Professional background: Interim executive director of Education Trust-West, former director with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials; former aide to the chair of the California Assembly Committee on Higher Education; former chief of staff to a Los Angeles Unified School District trustee; held student affairs positions at various California colleges and universities.
Personal background: Richmond resident. Board President of the California Latino Environmental Advocacy Network
Education: Dual Bachelor’s Degrees, University of Southern California; Master’s n Educational Psychology, Administration and Counseling, California State University, Long Beach.

Age: 39
Professional background: Director of Department of Education Mission Promise Neighborhood Initiative, former CEO of the Latino Community Foundation. Formerly held positions with the PTA and School Site Councils in Berkeley school district.
Personal background: Richmond resident; married with two sons, including one in a district school. Serves on the board of IGNITE California, Planned Parenthood Northern California and Greenbelt Alliance. Past board member of the RYSE Center.
Education: Bachelor’s Degree, University of California, Los Angeles; Master’s in Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles.

Professional background: Retired teacher; elected to school board 2006
Personal background: El Cerrito resident; married with adult children

Professional background: Educator; elected to school board 2010
Personal background: Richmond resident; district parent
Education: BA, San Francisco State University

Age: 37
Professional background: Attorney for California School Employees Association; former substitute teacher in district; appointed to First Five Contra Costa Children and Families Commission, 2012; elected to state Democratic Central Committee, 2011; elected to Contra Costa County Democratic Central Committee, 2012; ran unsuccessfully for county supervisor, 2010.
Personal background: Richmond resident; married with two children
Education: JD, UC Hastings College of the Law; BA English literature and political science with honors from San Francisco State; associate degree in English, social science and liberal arts, Solano Community College

Professional background: Retired computer science professional; substitute teacher in district for five years
Personal background: Hercules resident

Professional background: Attorney
Personal background: Hercules resident; married with district children; grew up in Pinole and graduated from Pinole Valley High in 1994
Education: JD, John F. Kennedy School of Law; BA liberal studies, San Francisco State
Source: Contra Costa Times