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DUSD board candidates answer tough questions

POSTED October 17, 2009 1:36 a.m.
The six candidates vying for two available seats on the Denair Unified School District board gathered on Wednesday to debate the issues at hand in their Nov. 3 election.
The debate, sponsored by the Turlock Journal and the Kiwanis Club of Turlock, asked candidates five questions prepared by Journal staff and three drafted by audience members. Topics ranged from the role of vocational education to the banning of controversial books.
Responses from candidates tended to be variations on a theme. The entire gathering agreed upon common points, but offered subtle — yet notable — differences in their statements.
With regards to the aforementioned banning of books, the majority opinion hinged on setting aside personal views to make a decision as a board that would represent the community’s voice.
“We have to make decisions that reflect the cultural norms and values of our community,” said Eric Andersen, an educator running for the DUSD board. “I think this happened in Newman and they regretted rushing to judgment.
“John Steinbeck was banned in Salinas and now they have a museum dedicated to him, so times change.”
Candidates also voiced their willingness to become personally involved in controversial issues, going the extra mile to do the research needed to find out if a book really deserved to be banned.
“Beside setting my own views aside, I’d actually read the book,” said dairy farmer and candidate Ray Prock Jr. “I’d see what the issue with the book is.”
Prock noted that, sometimes, reading the opposing views presented by controversial books could help bring perspective to students. By having access to both sides of the argument, Prock said it could help students think “outside the box.”
The widest range of opinion came in response to a query on whether or not candidates believed public school was better or worse now than it was just 10 years ago.
“No, I don’t think it’s worse,” said technology consultant Denise Hurd. “Though I would duly support the recision of No Child Left Behind.”
Hurd went on to chronicle the many break, lunch, and afterschool programs now offered by schools. She said she believes schools now are producing children with a better educational foundation to take on the trials of life.
“It’s not better or worse, it’s different,” Prock said. “We have different challenges to meet, different goals to meet.”
Prock acknowledged the educational research done in recent years that has helped to teach students in a manner they’re likely to learn from. Of course, by catering to the many different learning styles and special needs of students, the job of teachers has become more complicated, he said.
While all in attendance agreed that the base of students’ knowledge is increasing, some alluded to the fact that outside influences on education are making schooling quite difficult.
“There have definitely been some changes for the worse to me,” said incumbent Louisa Allen. “Ten years ago, did you see police cars at school? We have gangs to worry about. It’s here in Denair. People like to think it’s not here, but it is.”
Many also had problems with the testing-centric mentality of modern schooling, a topic addressed in further detail later when candidates were asked how they measure success outside of test scores.
“I think test scores are a horrible way to really see the progress of a student and how they’re progressing through school,” said farmer and candidate Robert Hodges. “… You get that one kid who doesn’t want to do the testing, fills in all the bubbles, and he’s done.”
Hodges suggested that low dropout and high graduation rates were better indicators of success. Anderson expanded on that notion, offering that students’ post-matriculation enrollment or employment were good indicators. Hurd lobbied for a comprehensive portfolio of students’ work, which could be used to evaluate cognitive ability.
Fixing whatever problems may exist in the current educational system could become more difficult when considering probable future state budget cuts. Candidates were asked what they would cut first from the DUSD budget, should such a situation arise, but most sidestepped making any firm pronouncements.
“I would find it very difficult to make that decision on my own,” said incumbent Norma Cordova. “… It should be a collaborative decision. We’d need to look at our educational priorities and goals, and work together collaboratively with staff input and community input.”
Cordova lauded the community for coming to the District’s rescue in February of last year, helping to fundraise to offset some cut programs. It was because of the community, she said, that students could still attend outdoor education and receive transportation to and from athletic contests.
Just one candidate dared to offer any prognostications for what might come, and what might have to be cut.
“I think that budget cuts are coming,” Hodges said. “I think the money tree has run out. I don’t think the people in the community, with them hurting, are going to be able to put the burden on their back right now.”
Hodges reluctantly went on to list field trips, transportation, and sports as items that could be on the chopping block.
“You don’t want to (cut anything), but I think it’s coming,” Hodges said. “Our goal is to educate first and then play later.”
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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