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School district races underway

With the Nov. 6 General Election just a couple of months away, three local races are heating up as candidates step forward to govern the area’s school districts.

The election will feature races for Turlock Unified School District Area 4 and Area 6, as well as Keyes Union School District Area 2.

Four Turlock residents are vying to represent Area 4 on the TUSD Board of Trustees, including former Turlock City Council member Mary Jackson, retired educator Susan Thomas, former TUSD Trustee Eileen Hamilton and math teacher Travis Walsh.

Walsh, who teaches students at Waterford High School, has lived in Turlock for 12 years and has been an instructor for 16. His decision to run for the school board stemmed from a desire to be a part of the “bigger discussions” that go on behind the scenes of a school district without having to leave the job he loves, as well as ensure a successful future for his two children that attend Walnut Elementary School.

“I wanted to give back to the community, and I think this is a field where I can call myself an expert,” he said. “I know firsthand what teachers are struggling with…and I know the big decisions on top directly affect the magic that occurs in the classroom.”

Walsh believes TUSD is already doing plenty of things well, he added, like the implementation of technology throughout its classrooms and a fiscally sound budget.

“I don’t have a platform of, ‘I’m going to change something.’ I’m more on the platform where I’m going to represent my area and make the best decision for our schools,” he said.

Challenging Walsh and the others will be Mary Jackson, who served on Turlock’s City Council from 2008-2012. Jackson has taught for eight years at the high school and community college level and has also served on the Salvation Army Board and the Turlock Certified Farmers Market Board. She has three children who attend TUSD schools.

She decided to run for the school board after being approached by several community members asking her to do so, Jackson said, who acknowledged her past experience and ability to work collaboratively.

“My activism has helped me recognize the need for fiscal integrity, accountability to the community and the necessity to follow the district's mission statement to assist all students in reaching their individual potential and becoming productive members of our community,” she said.

Jackson said she would like to see the school board revisit long-term plans for the budget, growth and using technology, and anticipates her time serving, if elected, to be similar to her time in City government.

“I will have a chance to play a larger role in transitioning students to further their education and/or enter our community workforce; however, there are some similarities with the council and school board,” she said. “I have had experience with multi-million-dollar budgets, collective bargaining agreements, collaboration between community partners and working together to create opportunities for common goals.”

Another former elected official, Eileen Hamilton, has also joined the Area 4 race. Hamilton served as Area 4’s Trustee from 2007 to 2015 and will now seek election just three years after her tenure ended thanks to the encouragement of her friends. As a former educator who primarily taught teen moms struggling to graduate, Hamilton said that she knows what it takes to be a TUSD Trustee.

“I know the routine, and I know what’s expected of us,” she said.

If elected, Hamilton hopes to help the Board focus on students’ needs, she said, as well as continue to ensure the safety of children on campuses throughout the district.

“I think we need to be more aware of the student and realize that there’s more to them than just that one hour in your classroom,” Hamilton said. “It’s very important for them to be able to have that positive learning environment when they’re at school.”

Retired educator Susan Thomas is the fourth candidate in the Area 4 race and spent her career as a teacher’s aide, a teacher and an administrator, providing development for teachers and coaching other educational leaders. She decided to run so that she can use her experience to good use, she said.

“My experience in education makes me uniquely qualified. Because of the different jobs I have held, I can see issues from a variety of perspectives,” Thomas said. “I understand how school systems work, and can use that knowledge and my skills in working with people to help the Board operate effectively.”

Thomas cited the recent impasse between the District and the teacher’s union as one of the top issues facing TUSD, and praised the newly-formed equity policy as an “important and positive step.” At the center of the District’s concerns, however, should be curriculum, she said.

“Core curriculum is the primary focus in education, but I have three areas of particular expertise which are sometimes given less attention and support: early childhood education, special education and arts education,” Thomas said. “These are also important aspects of a school system that I can help the school board to support effectively.”

There are two candidates running to represent TUSD Area 2: Keristofer Seryani and Jeffrey Cortinas.

Seryani brings a different perspective to the Board, he said, as he came to the U.S. as a refugee. Since then, he excelled in Turlock schools and now serves as a consultant for companies, helping them structure and negotiate.

“I’m a strong advocate of the education system, and consider myself a success story out of TUSD,” Seryani said. “I can bring a different perspective of how I went through the education system and what my experience was like versus someone who has lived a life of privilege.”

Issues he thinks TUSD can improve upon and would help to do so if elected include creating opportunities for first generation college students, as well as encouraging equality across all school sites.


“I think those kids often lead the path of least resistance, and there aren’t enough programs to give them the support to reach their full potential,” he said. “I’d also love to see a way of parity between schools, so parents aren't fighting over which school their kids go to.”

Challenging Seryani will be structural engineer Jeffrey Cortinas, who bought his first home in Turlock after college and now manages a small start up engineering firm in town. Cortinas’ wife has been teaching in TUSD for eight years and his children also attend Turlock schools, which encouraged him to run.

“Being so connected to TUSD, I am hoping to make a difference on behalf of students and teachers,” he said. “I believe that this district can be the best, and I hope to contribute in bringing common sense solutions to our schools.”

Cortinas said he is a qualified candidate because he has worked to prepare council agendas, negotiate contracts and successfully managed projects with multi-million-dollar contracts during his time as a government employee. He also cited teacher salary negotiations as one of his top concerns within TUSD, and hopes to see an agreement made soon.

“This is a distraction right now to our teachers who must put their energy and resources into negotiations when they can be preparing for classes and helping our students,” he said. “This type of atmosphere creates uncertainty for some and I know we have lost some great teachers just because of this. There is much room for improvement, and I want to be sure that our district can attract and retain the best.”

In KUSD Area 2, incumbent Jimmy Emmons Sr. will be challenged by caregiver Ivy Benavides.

Profiles of all the TUSD candidates — along with the Turlock mayoral and city council candidates — can be found in the Turlock Journal’s special 2018 Election section, which will be inserted in the Sept. 19 issue of the Journal.