The most striking feature of last Thursday’s League of Women Voters forum for Santa Clara Unified School District candidates wasn’t anything that was said. It was that the event wasn’t recorded or live-streamed on the Internet despite exceptional public interest in the forum. This was apparently because of concern on the part of the event’s sponsors that such images might be used “inappropriately.”
(A statement almost guaranteeing some teenager will record the next school board meeting on a Flip camera and post it on YouTube with, say, the heads of board members affixed to the bodies of characters from the adult swim cartoon Squidbillies.)
Chris Stampolis (Trustee Area 2) was the evening’s Mitt Romney, on his game, sounding sure of himself, and convincingly attacking a variety of what some thought were straw men. He was joined on the soapbox by Michele Ryan (Trustee Area 3) in suggesting that radical change was called for to face a time of crisis.
Elise DeYoung (Trustee Area 3), and Albert Gonzalez (Trustee Area 2) – the sole Hispanic on the board – offered crisp, low-key contrast in both style and substance. Unfortunately, the two-minute answer format didn’t allow either of these candidates – currently serving on the SCUSD board – to fully discuss their insights on what are complex, multi-dimensioned issues.
Ashish Mangla (Trustee Area 2) and Jim Van Pernis (Trustee Area 2) brought plenty of goodwill to the party, but failed to provide any deeper insights – again, the format wasn’t conducive to the detailed discussion that might have more sharply defined these candidates.
But what the discussion lacked in opportunity for real discussion, it made up for in being exactly right for grandstanding on the part of Stampolis and Ryan.
Stampolis didn’t waste any time bringing up the district’s recent audit – which just that day had come to light, insinuating the audit into his remarks at least three times, and promising to be a veritable Grand Inquisitor on this question.
“We have to ask questions. It’s not just simply about actively supporting the existing administration… The entire financial department has to be reworked and re-questioned. So part of the job of a board member is to ask questions, respectfully, to ensure that we don’t just accept what staff says without having some additional information…and details.”
He went on later in the evening to castigate the district for an “achievement gap” that he never quantified – including a proposing the school board undertake “academic theory discussions about what it will take in the classrooms” to closed the presumed gap – express his “disappointment” about negative campaigning, ring numerous changes on the phrase “first bell to the last bell,” and even dusting off some high school Spanish for the benefit of Hispanic parents.
DeYoung countered Stampolis with a focus on the collegial nature of the school board. “The primary responsibility of school board members is to be contributing members of the governing team for the school district…a seven-member governance team…to be active, contributing members to decisions and the decision-making process.”
In response to Stampolis’s clarion call about an achievement gap, De Young said, “I think we have to be wary of comparisons. In Santa Clara we have a very diverse population…more so than many of our neighboring districts.”
Ryan’s crusading moment came when she highlighted her concern about district finances – namely how to get more of them, via a stratagem for funneling more money from property taxes to the district. Although school boards have virtually no control over school funding in California, Ryan sees an opening with the RDA successor agency to divert money – called “clawbacks” – from money allocated to pay the defunct RDA’s debts; essentially forcing the city’s general fund to cover the debts or default on them.
She elucidated her position more directly at an earlier school board candidate forum held by the Santa Clara Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Sept 28. “This past summer the RDA oversight committee decided that there was an obligation that was not enforceable, which would have meant an increase in funding to our school district,” she said at that event, referring to last summer’s dispute over $30 million in RDA money that was approved by 2010’s Measure J for the stadium construction project.
Ryan is the chair of Santa Clara Plays Fair (SCPF), a political committee that has tried unsuccessfully for years to block the stadium deal with the 49ers. At least one sitting board member, Ina Bendis, agrees with Ryan, publicly referring to the city as a “party adverse to SCUSD’s interests.” (Another sitting school board member, Christine Koltermann, is a former member of SCPF).
“We didn’t see leadership on the school board to really ask people for that money,” Ryan said at the September forum. “We need to do those things as forcefully as possible for additional money. Our school board members need to be in a leadership role in lobbying.”
Signaling that she was ready to lead the charge, Ryan said, “We need new direction – I will demand accountability from district staff,” and adding that the district needed a “board ready to assume a leadership role in advocating for change in all aspects.”