By Allen Payton
At a forum for Antioch School Board candidates in the November election, hosted by the Friday Morning Breakfast Club on Thursday, September 8, 2016, five of the seven squared off, debating and discussing the issues facing the Antioch Unified School District.
Two candidates, incumbent Diane Gibson-Gray and news site publisher Mike Burkholder said they couldn’t attend due to a scheduling conflict with back-to-school night, at the same time as the forum. However, both appointed incumbents Fernando Navarro and Alonzo Terry attended the forum. Navarro said he visited one school and with his children’s teachers prior to the forum, and Terry arrived late to the forum in order to fulfill his commitment to visit three schools.
In addition, former school board trustees, Gary Hack and Joy Motts, along with substitute teacher and tutoring business owner Crystal Sawyer-White participated in the forum.
Don Freitas, the leader of the Friday Morning Breakfast Club, an invitation-only group of about 22 residents who meet on Fridays to discuss local issues, hosted the event in the Antioch City Council Chambers and Ann Flynn of the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley served as moderator and asked the questions. She also stated that no unauthorized recording of the forum would be allowed, as was the same for the mayor and council forums hosted by the FMBC, last week.
Seated, speaking and answering questions in random order, the candidates gave their opening statements with Hack speaking, first.
“I want to be on the board, yet again to help educate kids and make them a better person,” he said.
Sawyer-White said “I’m excited to be running for the Antioch School Board. As a parent in the 21st Century, I believe that every parent should have access to the best education possible.”
She then listed her experience and service on various committees, as well as being the owner of a tutoring business.
Motts spoke about being a “lifelong resident of Antioch and a product of Antioch schools.”
“We need school board members who have a detailed knowledge that is focused on our children,” Motts added.
Navarro spoke of his upbringing, as well.
“I’m a first-generation American of Mexican descent,” he said. “I know the problems of inner city youth. I’m fully bilingual and bicultural.”
“I’m a defender of the taxpayer and the bottom line,” Navarro continued.
“My frustration was the experience in the ELL (English Language Learners) program,” he said as one of the reasons that motivated him to apply for the appointment to the board vacancy, last year. He also said he wanted to “see how the sausage is made, if you will. To look under the hood.”
“The opportunity to rectify the school district is closing,” Navarro added.
Motts shared about her experience on the school board.
“It was a very difficult time,” she said. “We worked very strategically to get through the crisis.”
She spoke of “many reformations,” the “Antioch High restoration, Linked Learning and restorative justice, “despite the deep cuts.”
Hack said he’d “been a small business owner for more than 25 years” and “on the board for four years.”
“When I was on the board, it was the time of the recession,” he stated and spoke of “prudent husbandry of the budget we had.”
“The budget problems won’t disappear,” Hack added.
Navarro responded with “I’m not a politician. I’m not a polished orator.”
He shared that he has been “business owner for 20 years” and learning about “quality service and quality control.”
He mentioned the on-going drop in enrollment and that students were leaving the district.
“Because we are subsidized by the taxpayers, we’ve become a little tone deaf,” Navarro continued. “For God’s sake, let’s not become the DMV.”
Sawyer-White said she was “deeply concerned” about “crime” and “I feel unsafe in some situations.
“I feel I can make a difference,” she said and then mentioned “summer jobs” for students.
“Children have been diagnosed with” learning disabilities, Sawyer-White continued. “They’re not able to meet the Common Core standards.”
Motts used her first rebuttal in response to Navarro.
“The drop in enrollment is anticipated,” she stated. “Those children are now aging out. It appears there’s more of a problem than it is.”
“The good news is there’s new development coming into Antioch,” Motts added.
Handling Disciplinary Problems
Hack said he wants to “enhance the education experience” and about the “dichotomy of those who behave and those who don’t behave.”
“I met with the principal at Dallas Ranch” about “restorative justice that deals with kids who have been suspended and deal with them when they return to campus.”
Navarro said “I think we should have zero tolerance for interruptions in the classroom.”
He wants to “reinstill a respect for fellow classmates and teachers” and spoke about “better class management.”
“Students work more individually than in group seating,” Navarro added.
Sawyer-White mentioned “PBIS,” referring to positive behavior implementation strategies, then spoke of her experience at a school where she taught.
“We had a tracking device instead of sending the student home, but out of the classroom.”
She spoke of having the students “meet with the school psychologist, parents, teachers.”
“If you build rapport with students…they can excel academically,” Sawyer-White added.
Motts said “many students come into the classroom in crisis” due to being “hungry or challenges at home.”
She also mentioned PBIS and said “we reach out to every child to get the services and counseling they need.”
The next question was how the candidates could turn around the chronic truancy in the district, which is as high as 40% at Antioch High School.
Sawyer-White responded with her knowledge of what is done in other school districts, how the “classroom is rewarded for high attendance and no tardies” and “if late a number of times it can add up to an absence.”
“There needs to be more of a text message tracking system,” she continued and wanted to “get the parents involved.”
Navarro took a different tack, saying “stop blaming parents and students” and “start accepting blame as a district.”
He cited “boredom and not feeling safe” and when the schools “promote students prematurely.”
Navarro suggested an “all hands on deck” approach and working “with the city council and police department.”
Motts said “I have to agree with Fernando on one point. Our children need to be engaged.” She then mentioned linked learning at the secondary schools.
“Truancy is the responsibility of parents and students,” she continued. “It affects our bottom line. Our ADA” referring to average daily attendance which determines the amount of per pupil funding the district receives from the state.
“The district can’t tolerate it,” Motts added.
Hack said “there are positive programs” and that “what happens in the class needs to be relevant to students.”
“Truancy won’t go away,” he continued, then spoke of “communication with parents, family and the kid taking responsibility” as his solution.
Alonzo Terry, arrived in time to answer the question.
“Mr. Hack is correct,” he stated. “Truancy can come in so many ways. Some time circumstances cause people to be late or not even show up.”
“Together, it’s about communication and tell them how important it (school) is,” Terry added.
Programs for Academic Achievement
When asked which programs are translating into academic achievement, Navarro said “I would pick the Math Intensive. It shows data driven results.”
“The class structure,” he continued. “It goes back to old school mentality.”
“The business of schools is education,” Navarro stated. “I am a believer in all the different career paths.”
Terry said “it’s not one fit for all. I went to visit several math programs.”
He then stated there are “three different ways people learn in English and math. We need to put them all together.”
Hack said “options are good. One system doesn’t work for everyone.”
“Give kids different approaches to be successful,” he continued. “It’s very different than when we were in school. It’s better. Kids are learning stuff and we don’t have to rely on test scores.”
Sawyer-White said “I don’t think one size fits all. A career path is a good beginning for the Antioch school district.”
She then mentioned “robotics, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in Pittsburg, computer technology and engineering.”
Motts said “with the LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan) you get to go back each year and review. It’s really about equity. Our children have different needs.”
“We need to make sure the children remain in school, are engaged and perform,” she added.
When asked what the biggest issue facing Antioch schools, Terry replied “that question is really hard. What is 9-11 to one person is 4-11 to others. It’s like asking someone would you rather have a bullet or a knife.”
“I don’t know how to answer that question, because they’re all important,” he continued. “They all need to be addressed with the same amount of energy.”
Sawyer-White spoke of “graduation rates at 77%. We can improve that.”
“After graduation the job opportunity is bleak,” she stated, then suggested Antioch schools be “linked with community college for classes.”
Motts said “providing a quality education is job one. It encompasses a whole bunch of things.”
Hack didn’t like the question, then rephrased it.
“It’s a negative connotation,” he said.
“What is the biggest priority?” Hack asked. “It’s personnel. Everything flows from that.”
He then mentioned the “new members on the board” and the district having “a rookie superintendent.”
“We lost over 100 teachers, this year,” Hack continued, then spoke of “paying regular wages.”
He said it’s about “dealing with the best humans we can put in place.”
Navarro said it’s “the demographics” and that “77% of our students are not proficient in English.”
He then mentioned the “truancy issue at our high schools” and that “33% are barely making it.”
“We’re graduating kids but they’re undercooked,” Navarro continued. “The colleges have to pick up the slack.”
“We need to rethink our fad tactics,” he added.
When asked about Common Core, Navarro read a statement from legal counsel that it was a state requirement and the policy of the district, then crumbled up the page the statement was on and tossed it to his side.
“Top down ties hands. The hands of our district and parents,” he stated. “It cattle prods our students.”
“We can do better,” Navarro continued. “We can go beyond the mandate.”
Sawyer-White first said “I feel it is a challenge” but then said “I think it prepares the student in the proper way in math and English.”
“If parents were more involved at home, working with their student, with the teacher, they can succeed,” she stated. “It prepares us better for college prep.”
Terry said “Common Core is good for some people, not for everyone” but, if it’s “not working you have to find another avenue.”
Motts said “the data is still out a bit on it.”
“But teaching to the test was failing our students,” she added. “It’s raising the bar which will lead to higher achievement for our students. I fully support it.”
Hack said “things need to change to the modern world.”
“I also think it’s a dynamic and different approach,” he stated. “It’s in its infancy. It’s a living and ongoing process.”
“Education is always changing,” Hack continued. “I’m in favor of it, now.”
Navarro used one of his rebuttals to respond, saying he wanted to “point out over time, truth comes out” and that Common Core is a “bill of goods that was sold to us.”
“They pulled it out of a hat,” he continued. “We’re seeing a gap between high schools and colleges which I think was intentional.”
Hack used one of his rebuttals, as well and said there are “three parts of any program, staff and teachers, the board trains and supplies, monitors and adjusts it,” and that “students and parents need to do their part.”
“Being stagnant in education does not solve the issue,” he added.
When asked about the $2 million deficit spending in the current budget, Motts responded “that’s inaccurate. Adjustments have been made.
“I’ve been through deficit situations,” she continued. “It’s about efficiency. Retiring teachers can cut costs.”
“We’re 47th in the nation in per pupil spending,” Motts added, referring to state spending.
Motts is correct. The figure in the question is incorrect. The 2016-17 budget approved by the district in June includes deficit spending of $1.2 million. But, it projects a deficit of $2.1 million next year and $2.4 million in Fiscal Year 2018-19.
Terry said “we have to cut from the top and work our way down, because I think we’re top heavy.”
“Right now, we are in a hole and it’s not going to be easy and some people are going to be hurt,” he added, then referred to the decline in enrollment. “We’re losing numbers.”
Navarro said “we need to start with a ‘come to Jesus’ moment.”
“The funds come from the taxpayers,” he stated and proposed a budget “review, line item by item.”
“I’d like to see a larger vendor pool,” Navarro continued. “We’re paying through the nose top dollar.”
“We’re getting about a quarter of a million dollars and we still have teachers paying for pencils and tissues?” he asked.
Hack said “every year, in June, we have those discussions.”
“You may not be rich, but you’re solvent,” he stated. “Maybe not with a capital ‘S’.”
He then spoke of the “dichotomy of how much do we keep in reserves. I think it’s very viable.”
Sawyer-White said “Again, I’m new to this,” then suggested “maybe have a long-term forecast” and what was done to save money at the school where her son attends.
“We decided not to get a $25,000 electronic sign,” she said.
“Maybe we don’t need so many consultants,” Sawyer-White stated, regarding the AUSD. “And vendors, I agree with Mr. Fernando.”
Trade & Technology Education
Terry was first to answer, stating “we need to bring back all the trades that we can do with our hands.”
Motts said “not every child is on a pathway to go to college.”
“The good news is they are starting to work with the trades and trying to integrate those into the schools,” she stated. “I would definitely support that.”
Sawyer-White said “I am very supportive of vocational training.”
She then suggested adding “coding classes” and that they “prepare you for developing websites,” and then also proposed “entrepreneurship classes…mechanics, maybe dental training.”
Navarro said “I believe in vocational education” and suggested “aviation engineering” and also mentioned coding.
However, he said “if we don’t get back to basics, it’s all a moot point.”
Hack said “one fallacy in education is that everyone’s going to college. Not true.”
He proposed “coming up with new classes that we don’t have in the district, already.”
When asked what board members should do if teachers complain that they’re not being listened to by administration, Sawyer-White responded “In Sweden, the principal has to teach a class, once a year.”
“They’re not aware of what’s happening in the classroom because they haven’t taught,” she said.
She then suggested “multi-disciplinary teams to meet more often.”
Terry said “I don’t think anyone should be denied form going to whomever, whenever they want.”
“That should be changed,” he continued. “Teachers need to know they will be heard.”
Hack said “as a board member, you have to be open to communication. But we have to work through the proper channels.”
“There’s a danger there for board members to try to deal with individual problems,” he added.
Navarro said “the role of the board” is to “represent voters, taxpayers and the district teachers.”
“But you only have one vote,” he stated. “The role of the board members is to be a conduit. Because the board only has one employee, the superintendent.”
“Feel free to call me or text me,” Navarro continued. “I’m an open book.”
Motts said “teachers are on the front line. I think it’s imperative the board members are out in the schools.”
“Healthy organizations have open communication,” she added.
On this subject, Motts spoke about her experience in the PTSA (parent, teacher, student association).
“The good thing about LCAP is it requires parental communication and involvement,” she said. “Teachers need to reach out to parents.”
Hack said “I like to talk to teachers. You find out what’s going on with parents.”
He suggested “going to PTA meetings.”
Sawyer-White said “parental involvement is a challenge. I think the first day of school should be an orientation, so you don’t have an open house a week later.”
“There’s no excuse not to communicate with parents,” she added.
Terry said “I’m the wrong person to ask that question. You can’t make nobody do anything.”
“We all do what we can to get them involved,” he continued. “Especially the parent. Because every parent is not a parent.”
“I have 380 kids I work on a regular basis,” Terry shared. “It’s hard to get parents involved.”
Navarro said “I echo some of what Alonzo said. It’s plant that seed with parents.”
“They are the single most important first responders. We’re just surrogates,” he stated. “I do a lot of outreach to the Hispanic community.”
Responding to a “lightning round question” of should the district “bring back corporal punishment,” they all said “no” with Navarro responding with a joke, “introducing the old board of education? No.”
Navarro went first with his closing statement saying “Antioch is a crossroads of many dynamics. We have demographics of a small town” and “a new dynamic of an urban center with its challenges.”
“I humbly ask for you vote,” he concluded.
Motts said “the school board is one of the toughest jobs there is” and spoke of “educational excellence.”
“I have that knowledge,” she stated. “Now, more than ever, we need experience and knowledge on the board.”
Sawyer-White said “I am the candidate who will fight on behalf of our children” and that she’s “committed to continue improvements in the classroom.”
Hack said “the educational landscape in Antioch has changed. That’s not a negative statement, nor is it a positive one. It’s simply a fact.”
“The school board of which I was a member for four years” did “far more than any other previous board had done,” he continued. “Great responsibility, awesome opportunity.”
“Two years later much still needs to be done,” Hack stated. Then, sounding a bit like Donald Trump, he concluded “We can make this good district great, yet again.”
Terry used his closing remarks to explain his tardiness to the forum
“I was committed to going to three schools for back-to-school night,” he shared. “I apologize for being late, but not for putting students first.”
The next forum of the candidates for school board will be hosted by the Antioch Herald and held Monday, September 19 at 7:00 p.m., also in the Antioch City Council Chambers at City Hall.