By John Crowder
On Thursday night, September 18, 2014, candidates running for two seats on the Contra Costa County Board of Education (CCCBE) participated in a question and answer forum held at the Antioch City Council chambers. Present were all four candidates. Incumbent and retired school administrator Richard Asadoorian is facing challenger Mike Maxwell, a former teacher and local businessman, in the race for Area 4. Incumbent Cynthia Ruehlig, a non-profit administrator, is being challenged by educator Jeff Belle in the race for Area 5. Maxwell is a resident of Danville, while the rest of the candidates are from Antioch.
Paul Burgarino, formerly of the East County Times, and now serving as a Voter Education and Engagement Specialist with the Contra Costa County Election Division, served as moderator for the event. The two panelists asking questions were Allen Payton, publisher of the Antioch Herald, and Dr. Sean Wright, CEO of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce.
Of the four debates held in Antioch last week, this one produced the most contentious moments, as Belle and Ruehlig challenged each other throughout the night.
Following opening statements and then in answer to the first question, posed by Wright, Asadoorian, Belle, and Ruehlig emphasized their public service credentials, and Maxwell his teaching experience and desire to help kids.
The second question of the night, posed by Payton, asked for the candidate’s views on charter schools in general, and the contentious Dozier-Libbey charter school petition in particular. The answers set the stage for the battle that would continue throughout the rest of the evening between Belle and Ruehlig.
All four candidates expressed at least some support for charter schools.
Maxwell said they were important, and a good asset to the community, but decided to forbear on the Dozier-Libbey question.
Asadoorian, while stating his support for Clayton Valley Charter School, said that he opposed the Dozier-Libbey petition because the school was, “not failing.” He characterized the teacher’s independent charter petition as an attempt to “kidnap” the school for a small number of teachers who were upset.
Ruehlig pointedly disagreed with Asadoorian, taking the position that the Charter School Act of 1992, the applicable state law relating to the formation of charter schools, required the approval of the petition since, “ it met all of the legal requirements.”
Belle stated that he opposed the Dozier-Libbey petition, while at the same time expressing support for the idea of charter schools. “But,” he said, “you can’t do this in the middle of the night. That’s a form of tyranny. We cannot abandon public schools, especially for private schools. They’re public schools, but charters are a lot different.”
Following Belle’s statements, Ruehlig immediately exercised her prerogative for a rebuttal. She referred again to the Charter School Act, emphasizing it was the duty of the board to follow the law when confronted with such issues.
Belle then made his own passionate response to Ruehlig, saying, “Although the law may say something is right [doesn’t make it right].” He went on to say, “Before 1964, the law said hanging was right.”
Ruehlig, though, was not ready to back down, and told Belle, “If you don’t like the law, you can change it.” Bringing up a theme she would return to throughout the evening, that she believed Belle was unfamiliar with the role of the county education board, she said, “If you want to change the law, run for legislator.”
After this lengthy exchange, Wright asked the next question, seeking to learn what each candidate believed the county could do to assist Antioch schools in quelling the violence that has been so prevalent in the news lately.
The incumbents, Asadoorian and Ruehlig, while acknowledging the concern, emphasized the limitations placed on the county board with respect to local matters. Asadoorian said, “Our power is limited…we can’t delve into local politics.” Ruehlig, explaining the role that the county board has, said, “School violence must be addressed at the local level. We have fiscal oversight.” She went on to say that it was important to keep their hands off with respect to specific cases, due to the appellate role the county board serves in the expulsion appeal process.
Maxwell, acknowledging the limited role of the county board previously emphasized by Asadoorian, said he though the county could facilitate issues if they were asked for help.
Belle, though, took a different approach. “It doesn’t take intellect to see something is wrong,” he said. “The board can direct the Superintendent to do a very full performance assessment.”
The next question, asked by Payton, followed up on the responses the candidates had given regarding the issue of violence, by asking each of the participants to explain what they saw as the role of the county superintendent.
Three of the candidates, Asadoorian, Maxwell, and Ruehlig, emphasized the fiscal and budget responsibility of the board, while Ruehlig also spoke about upholding the education code and adjudicating certain issues, such as expulsion and charter school appeals. Belle again took a different position, noting that the board was “elected by the people, first of all,” and, while acknowledging the role of state law, said they should also focus on federal law. “State law does not trump federal law any day,” he said. Belle also spoke again about directing the superintendent, setting up another confrontation with Ruehlig, who said, “The superintendent is a constitutional position. The board works with the superintendent, not one over the other.”
Another point of contention was raised in a discussion of Common Core. Maxwell favored Common Core, saying, “Everything is good in moderation.” Asadoorian thought the controversy surrounding Common Core was due to it being misunderstood. “It’s not a [federal] government takeover,” he said. He went on to say, “It aligns with the kinds of standards that colleges want.” Ruehlig said the Common Core was a set of standards that established what the students should learn, but said that the teachers still determine how to teach.
Belle, however, took one of his most passionate stands of the evening, calling Common Core a “re-indoctrination of children.” In a statement provided by Belle in an email elaborating on his position, he said, “The authors of Common Core are wrong as to what constitutes college readiness.” He went on to characterize the program as, “A
nationalization of public education in America – an indoctrination of mindless information.” He concluded, “I’m not a supporter of Common Core.”
Although the debate was drawing to a close at this point, Ruehlig and Belle weren’t done challenging one another yet. Each candidate was permitted to ask a question of their opponent, and Ruehlig, in an attempt to paint Belle as unfamiliar with the education code, took advantage of the opportunity to ask Belle how AB97 (Dealing with the requirement that county and local boards annually adopt a Local Control Accountability Plan) effects the county office of education, and how he would mitigate those effects. Belle responded that it was, “the right thing to do philosophically, but wrong in budget.”
Belle then asked Ruehlig whether or not she currently sat on the board of a charter school. When she responded in the affirmative, he said, “Why wasn’t this made transparent during the Dozier-Libbey [charter school appeal?]” He went on to say it was a, “conflict of interest.”
Ruehlig, however, seemed to be prepared for the question, responding that she had, “Just last month” become a member of the Synergy board. She emphasized that she was not a member of the board during the Dozier-Libbey appeal, said that Synergy was a state charter, which meant there was no chance of a conflict of interest, and concluded by telling Belle, “You are misinformed.”
In asking for closing comments, Burgarino alluded to the contentious exchanges between Ruehlig and Belle, by saying, “Let’s start with the quiet side of the room,” as he asked for statements by Asadoorian and Maxwell first. Now, Asadoorian was able to get in a dig at his opponent, while at the same time highlighting the difference in their experience, when he said, referring to Maxwell, “If he doesn’t win, I hope he’ll start coming to our meetings to find out what we’re all about.”
Maxwell laughed it off though, then concluded by saying that he was very concerned about our kids and their education, and that the board, “needed a new face.”
Belle focused on a theme from his campaign literature, saying that our schools were at a critical mass, and that lack of safety amounted to a public health issue. “We need clear policy direction,” he said.
Ruehlig emphasized her knowledge of the education code and the role of the county board, then once again challenged her opponent in this area, saying it was important to ask if a person is “ready to serve, or just giving empty promises.” Referring to Belle, she asked, “Are you ready to serve?”
The complete forum can be seen on the Antioch Chamber of Commerce website at www.AntiochChamber.com and on Comcast Local Cable Channel 24 and at 10 p.m. on September 30 and October 2, 7, 9, 21 and 23.