Antioch School Board candidates challenge incumbents on Dozier-Libbey, violence, budget issues at forum

Debra Vinson speaks during the Antioch School Board candidate forum, Thursday, September 18, 2014.

Debra Vinson speaks during the Antioch School Board candidate forum, Thursday, September 18, 2014.

By John Crowder

On Thursday night, September 18, 2014, candidates running for the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) board participated in a question and answer forum held at the Antioch City Council chambers. Present were all four candidates, incumbents Gary Hack and Joy Motts, and challengers Walter Ruehlig and Debra Vinson.

Paul Burgarino, formerly of the Contra Costa 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.

As illustrated by the closing statements of Motts and Ruehlig, voters are being given a clear choice between the challengers and the incumbents when they go to the polls this fall. Following Ruehlig’s closing statement, wherein he listed what he considers a series of problems created by the missteps of the current leadership, including lower test scores, deficit spending, lawsuits being filed, violent behavior by students, and teachers threatening to leave the district over lack of support, Motts defended current board policies. “In spite of some of the comments,” she said, “I think we are headed in the right direction.”

The forum began with each of the candidates providing opening statements. Each spoke about his or her background, and why they felt qualified to lead the school district.

Motts said that she was a lifelong resident of Antioch, and the daughter of a former trustee of the school board. She noted her work with the Celebrate Antioch Foundation and the Rivertown Preservation Society. She said that, during her tenure, “We went in a great direction…we’ve done what we need to change the dynamic, to bring excellence [to the school district.]”

Ruehlig also talked about his background, noting his time as a vocational counselor and his former service on the school board. Emphasizing fiscal responsibility, he said that when he last served on the school board, he joined the board at a time when the school district had been placed on the state “watch list” due to a $3 million accounting error, and that he left it with $27 million in reserves. He also said that he had brought more choice for parents with 3 charter schools and 5 linked-pathway academies during his tenure.

Hack noted that he was a long-time resident of Antioch, and had been a teacher and school leader for 45 years. He said that leadership means engaging the community, and emphasized the importance of listening to the needs of students and the expectations of parents.

Vinson stated that she had lived in Antioch for close to 15 years, and had spent her career guiding children. She said that she was a board certified counselor, and, if elected, would be the only board member with that experience. She stressed the importance of developing interests, a “career identity,” at an early age, and said that schools should be linked to careers.

Wright asked the candidates what they considered to be the most pressing problem facing AUSD, and how they would solve it.

All four candidates mentioned school violence as a problem. Ruehlig tied the issue to academic achievement, saying, “You can’t have constructive education without control. Vinson was particularly forceful in addressing the question of violence, noting the recent videos of school violence at Dallas Ranch Middle School that have been shown repeatedly on the news, and saying that “teachers feel unsafe.” Motts emphasized, “underfunding of public education,” but went on to say that you, “have a hard time getting academic achievement if students feel unsafe.” Hack listed violence as one of “multiple issues.”

Payton followed up with a question asking how each candidate would handle discipline problems and put the teacher back in control of the classroom.

Here, a clear difference emerged between the challengers and the incumbents. Vinson said that teachers, “don’t have control of the classroom,” and that, “students need to learn empathy.” Ruehlig followed suit, listing numerous problems currently occurring, including, “throwing [substitute teachers] into the classroom, lack of classroom management training, tardiness, and use of cell phones in class, among other things. He suggested that students should face on-campus suspensions, segregated from their peers, rather than be given a day off for bad behavior.

The incumbents took a different tack. Hack stated that Black Diamond Middle School (BDMS) had problems, but that they had been resolved. He said that Deer Valley High School, “was much worse 10 years ago,” and that it was an, “ongoing process.” Motts said that she disagreed with Vinson’s assessment, and that AUSD had made significant progress with classroom management training and other programs, such as restorative justice.

Another question asked how well each candidate believed the district had handled the Dozier-Libbey charter school petition. Here, again, there was a stark contrast between the incumbents and the challengers.

Vinson said that AUSD leadership had handled the matter, “poorly,” and that the problem would have been avoided altogether if the administration had been exercising leadership and meeting with teachers. Ruehlig concurred, saying the matter had been “botched from the beginning,” and illustrated, “a massive failure to communicate.” He also denounced what he said was the, “uncalled for demonizing of the teachers,” a comment that garnered him applause from throughout the chamber. Vinson, in a follow-up comment, said that she “agreed” with Ruehlig, and that “there was some bullying going on [by AUSD].”

The incumbents, on the other hand, both blamed the Dozier-Libbey teaching staff for the problems. Motts said that a lack of communication from the teacher-petitioners had caused the divisiveness. Hack said that the teachers had acted, “in a clandestine way,” and that, “We reacted because we don’t want [the school] to leave the district.”

The candidates were also asked about the deficit spending that has so dramatically reduced their reserves. Here, again, the challengers and incumbents saw things very differently.

Both Ruehlig and Vinson pointed to the millions of dollars in deficit spending that has been occurring in recent years as a serious problem. Vinson said that there had to be fiscal responsibility

On the other side, both incumbents defended their deficit spending, Motts stating, “We made a conscientious decision to avoid cutting services.” Hack followed up on this theme, saying, “We’ve been one of the few districts not to cut services.”

Other questions included the views of the candidates on Common Core, the televising of board meetings, helping ELL students, and more.

The debate ended, as noted earlier, on the same note on which it began, with the two incumbents, Hack and Motts, lauding current practices, while Ruehlig and Vinson decried numerous problems with current policy and called for a change in direction.

The complete forum can be seen on the Antioch Chamber of Commerce website at and on Comcast Local Cable 24 at 9:00 p.m., September 30 and October 2, 7, 9, 21 and 23.

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Antioch School Board candidate forum

3 Comments to “Antioch School Board candidates challenge incumbents on Dozier-Libbey, violence, budget issues at forum”

  1. Rick says:

    As a parent of two Dozier Libbey students, I saw first-hand how the AUSD bullied parents, students and teachers. They are mean spirited and vindictive, firing a great principal and bringing on a new principal that was unannounced to the faculty. We received phone calls weekly with scare tactics such as your kids can’t attend the school if you don’t sign a form stating your support of the AUSD. They may have also violated the Brown Act by conducting closed door meetings without community input and tranparency. To me the worst offence was having trustees vote against the independent charter and finding out one of the trustees is a spouse of a AUSD board member.

    The AUSD has underfunded Dozier Libbey from the start. They are also trying to dumb down the educational requirements of a high achieving school, one that they should be proud of, but instead are trying to turn it into another low performing Antioch school.

    I would never vote for a single current board member.

  2. Josh says:

    The AUSD responded to the Dozier situation in a very ugly manner. The phone calls and letters home manipulated students and parents into signing paperwork that expressed their desire to continue going to this school, and these documents were then used by the AUSD to feign approval of the parents. With Dozier Libbey being a high achieving school, the AUSD receives funding, however that money is given to the other high schools. In the case of Dallas Ranch, many teachers have come to the board expressing the terror they feel while at work with no assistance from AUSD. Motts is a very rude and condescending individual and I would be petrified if she remained in the board.

  3. Reginald Jamal Brown says:

    They all need to go. AUSD is the biggest failure in the Bay. Get in some educated, smart, and practical people. A lot of these people in the AUSD are connected to the mayor and city council. Just look where Antioch is at. The white city has become a ghetto.

    I support Dozier in their action to become independent. It gives hope to the kids who want a better education and life.

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