School board candidates face
by Kelly Feser Eells
The five candidates for Ojai Unified School District's board
of trustees faced off against each other and tough questions
at a forum Monday.
The forum was sponsored by the Nordhoff Parent Association and
moderated by the League of Women Voters. Challengers Chuck Craig,
Pauline Mercado and Jeff Ketelsen, along with incumbents Rikki
Horne and Kathi Smith, were present to field two prearranged
questions and a host of questions from the estimated 75 members
of the audience. Donald Humer has withdrawn his bid.
The questions rotated through the field, so that each of the
candidates had a chance to answer the questions, in their turn,
and were timed by League volunteers.
The first question was about what incident or event prompted
the candidates to run. Chuck Craig, a local real estate agent,
said it wasn't any one event, but his involvement with the Parent-Teacher
Organization at Mira Monte School, and having been asked to run
by several teachers. Kathi Smith, the current board president,
said that Muriel Lavender's retirement after her many years on
the board prompted her to run as her replacement. And, as a parent
of three district students, "I have a keen sense of how
policy and budget decisions affect three important groups - parents,
teachers and students."
Rikki Horne said she was motived "by my deep and longstanding
belief in public education," while Pauline Mercado said
her long employment by the district through the 1980s and into
the 1990s gave her insight into district workings. "I worry
about the next several years, that there's a threat to that (from
declining enrollment and subsequent budget woes)." Jeff
Ketelsen said he has lived and worked in the Ojai area "all
my life," and said, "I will talk to you. I am an advocate
for equal access to education for everyone."
The second question - what do you want to do accomplish during
the next term on the school board - brought a range of responses.
Smith said she wanted to get "parents more intimately and
importantly involved in the decisions at school," and cited
the recently formed calendar committee as an example. Horne said
she wanted to maintain the high quality of Ojai Unified School
District schools during the budget and enrollment crisis. She
also said safety was a key concern. "An environment where
students feel safe was conducive to learning," she said.
Pauline Mercado stressed the ABC's of education: Academic excellence,
balanced budget, and community and parent involvement. This,
she said, "was the framework from which we can foster good
Ketelsen said he wanted to get "OUSD more fully integrated
with the community." Chuck Craig said he wanted to see more
cooperation between all levels of staff. "When I leave the
board, I want them (staff) to be more in tune with each other,
to work together."
All the candidates favored charter schools, especially as the
Valley Oak charter school for homeschooling students was structured.
Horne said, "I admit to having been nervous," fearing
"responsibility without authority," but "I'm always
interested in seeing new ways of kids getting an education."
Mercado said that charter schools "allow a lot of innovation
and creativity ... it gives parents a choice." Craig said
this reservations about the scuttled plans for Doniphan Oaks
charter school did not apply to Valley Oak. "It brings kids
into the district." Smith said she voted yes for the charter,
and had worked on a charter school committee before joining the
school board in 1998.
Asked what their first order of business would be in the face
of declining enrollment and budget, Mercado said she would consult
with other school board members, and seek to develop a strategic
plan. Ketelsen said he "was much more optimistic about this"
and didn't feel declines in enrollment would continue at as steep
a pace. Craig said he work with other districts to see how they
were making cuts without causing impacts on educational quality.
Smith said the goal "is to keep cuts away from the classroom."
Horne said that "there are lots of areas to think about,"
including boosting enrollment by appealing Ventura Unified School
District's pro forma denials of students applying to transfer
into Ojai's schools. The newly formed grant committee can also
seek outside sources of money to help with financial constraints,
A question about the importance of arts and music education and
libraries brought a chorus of approval from the five candidates.
Ketelsen said he would seek funding for afterschool programs,
while Craig said the district "should work hand in hand
with private donors ... it's funding thing, again." Smith
said music and arts "are an essential part of education,"
and that she would support a performing arts center, and to preserve
funding for librarians. Horne viewed the district's two elementary
school music teachers as a positive step, as well as the partnerships
with such community groups as the Ojai Music Festival's Bravo!
program. Mercado said that arts and music "are a wonderful
way for teachers to communicate their love of learning to children."
A question about drug and alcohol abuse at Matilija Junior High
School and Nordhoff High School brought out different response
Craig said he's lived in the Ojai Valley since 1961 "and
things have changed." The hiring of Bud McCracken as on-site
police officer was a good start, and "parental involvement
at the schools" helps curb drug use, he said.
Smith agreed, saying parents need to get more involved with their
childrens' lives, "and that's something the school board
can nurture ... and stave off some the alienation that lead to
drug and alcohol abuse." Horne mentioned last year's substance
abuse forum moderated by John Perry that was "woefully underattended,"
while Mercado said that the recent collaboration between the
school board and City Council to work on the "40 developmental
assets" should be vigorously implemented. Ketelsen said
that the Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs should be extended
from elementary schools into Matilija and Nordhoff.
The fact that the majority of high school graduates are not college
bound was the focus of another question.
Smith said the district already had the largest selection of
Regional Occupational Programs, designed to expose students to
career choices, and athletics provide another positive incentive
for students "to do well, keep their grades up, and stay
on the team."
Horne said that it didn't matter if students were college bound;
"all kids need academic skills." She also mentioned
that many programs and projects of Nordhoff's Career Counseling
Center, such as job shadowing. Mercado said the important thing
was to expose students to as many opportunities as possible through
field trips, job shadowing and counseling, while Ketelsen said
that Ventura County's three community colleges and the new California
State University at Channel Islands provided career outlets for
All candidates agreed with a question that reduced class sizes
would benefit students past the state-mandated third grade. Horne
said the audience should write state legislators to urge legislation
to pay for expanded class reduction. "The most powerful
indicator of learning is the student-teacher ratio," said
Mercado, while Craig said that class-size reduction is a state
issue and "it has to be budgeted." Smith said the district
pays $1.3 million on class size reduction, of which only $850,000
comes from the state.
A question about test scores brought varying responses, with
Mercado, Craig and Smith cautioning that test scores are only
part of the puzzle, and Ketelsen mentioning that Nordhoff test
scores fell last year and Horne supporting testing as "test-taking
skills are useful throughout life.
Vouchers were denounced by Craig, Smith "they impoverish
public schools," Horne "they threaten separation of
church and state and diminish diversity in our schools"
and Ketelsen, while Mercado gave a guarded defense. "All
parents deserve choice" but if the school district "is
responsive, parents may not have to seek outside sources of education."
In their closing remarks, Smith said that balancing the budget
and improving parental involvement were the keys to continuing
OUSD's successes. Horne said that "parents are the first
and most constant teachers of their children" and that she
was "committed to supporting (public education) with all
my energy." Mercado made mention of her volunteer contributions
to the Red Cross and Ojai Valley Youth Foundation and on the
Ojai Parks and Recreation Commission. "I have had a lifelong
passion for working with children," she said. Ketelsen
said, "There's a revolution going on here. Sameness of treatment
does not always equate with equal treatment." Craig said
"I will be on the campuses and out in the public."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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