Topics discussed at an Oct. 11 forum for candidates for the Poway Unified School District board of trustees included mental health treatment, military service and parental rights.
The forum, organized by the Poway Chamber of Commerce and the Green Valley Civic Association, was moderated by Mark Burdette and held at the Mickey Cafagna Community Center.
Those showing up for Zone B include incumbent Ginger Couvrette and challengers Frida Brunzell and Dave Nelson. Patrick Batten and Heather Plotzke run in Zone C. Incumbent Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff, who did not attend the forum but answered questions via email later, is challenged by Janet Bremseth.
Applicants were first asked to indicate their top priority and how they would implement it.
Brunzell said it was literacy for all children. She said her son struggled to learn to read in Poway Unified and ended up going to private school. As trustee, she said she would ensure the district follows changes he has made since then, she says.
Couvrette said his priority is technical education and dual enrollment in high school and college at the same time. She said she would work to fit in more college classes in the high school curriculum.
Nelson said parental rights are his top priority. He said Couvrette, the incumbent, ignored the voice of the parents. “It’s very important to get parents involved again,” he said.
Batten said going back to basics was key. “The focus should be on education and only on education,” he said.
Plotzke said the hiring crisis was his top priority. The district is struggling to hire classified and credentialed personnel, she said. “They’re at rock bottom,” she said. To get better job candidates, civil servants need to get to colleges earlier in the year, according to Plotzke.
Bremseth said his main priority is to support parents, guardians and students. She said schools needed to get rid of ‘critical race theory and teachings about sexual orientation’ and get back to basics.
O’Connor-Ratcliff said in an email: ‘My top priority comes down to continuing the positive momentum I’ve helped build in the District. This includes efforts to strengthen student inclusion and belonging, close opportunity gaps, encourage innovative programs that inspire students to be creative, independent, and critical thinkers, and improve participation, contribution and community buy-in to district initiatives.
The second issue concerned communication between the board and the parents and the board and the superintendent. How would you improve communication, candidates asked.
Plotzke said she would support a cross-briefing after school board meetings. She also said she would suggest the district issue a press release about the topics discussed at the meetings by parents.
Batten said he had a background in communications and awareness. He would respond to parents and ensure communication was led by parents and students, he said.
Bremseth said the board needs transparency with parents and allowing parents to view the district’s agenda.
Couvrette said his goal was to establish a parent’s bill of rights. Getting parents back to schools by volunteering in the morning will help with communication, she said.
Nelson said he would increase communication. “We need to re-engage parents,” he said.
Brunzell said that as a longtime member of the PTA, she thinks the best way to open up communication is to volunteer. It encourages more volunteerism, she says.
O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote that one of her primary roles as a board member is to communicate with parents and district stakeholders. “I do this by being very involved in school and community organizations where parents can tell me what they think,” she says.
The third question was what changes to the program would they suggest.
Bremseth said these types of decisions should be made with input from teachers and administrators. “I wouldn’t want to make this decision on my own,” she said.
Nelson said 59% of third graders in San Diego County were not up to par with their reading level. He said he would work with the superintendent to improve this.
Brunzell said there were many issues with the curriculum. Through the PTA, she said she has access to lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. “We need to change the rules in Sacramento,” she said.
Couvrette said 80% of grade 11 students in the district have achieved their expected literacy rate. “We’re doing enough, but it’s still not enough,” she said. She suggested more after-school and summer programs.
Batten said he would collect feedback from teachers and parents to modify the program. “We have to influence Sacramento before they impose it on us,” he added.
Plotzke said the district’s agenda is set. “What we have is to figure out how it’s taught,” she said.
O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote that teachers are the curriculum experts and she trusts their professionalism. “The State Board of Education adopts most teaching materials for public schools, and teachers review and adopt others that align with state standards. I’m glad to see updated texts, even online, in some areas and more diverse narratives to support state standards.
The fourth question was about a bond measure that failed in 2020. Candidates were asked if they would support another bond and if so, how would they garner votes?
Brunzell said the district is one of the least funded in the state. “Our schools are aging,” she said. Brunzell said she would go to Sacramento to try to secure financing that way and not through a bond.
Couvrette said she is against bail at this time. “Grants are available,” she added.
Nelson said he opposed a bond.
Batten said that because the link failed, parents are now being told that’s why there is no funding available for the projects. “We have to stop this. We have to make sure that the money we spend is spent wisely,” he said.
Bremseth said she doesn’t support a bond because grants can help cover aging buildings.
O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote that it would depend on favorable conditions, but the PUSD must pass an obligation. “Our facility needs are significant, and state matching funds are only available to school districts that pass facility bonds.”
The fifth question asked about the mental health of students and staff and the applicants’ plans to address this issue.
Plotzke said schools have hired school psychologists with COVID money, but she can’t get an answer on how long that funding will last. Another problem is bullying in colleges, she said, adding that there could be more suicides if the problem is not addressed.
Batten said mental health issues are increasing on district campuses. Schools need access to more county resources that are available, he said.
Bremseth said mental health is important and officials need to look to the future after the traumatic COVID experience.
Couvrette said officials have already nearly doubled the number of student services. Disciplining bullies is one response to empowering students, she said.
Nelson said parents need to be more involved and have access to more resources.
Brunzell said his parents told him it was difficult to get help. “If you don’t feel good, you can’t learn,” she says.
O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote: “The board has prioritized expanding mental health supports for students over the years, adding counsellors, student support specialists, psychologists and social workers. ”
The final question for school board candidates was how to encourage students to think about joining the military.
Bremseth said it’s important to have military as part of an education.
Nelson, who is a Navy veteran, said he would work with recruiters to involve more students.
Brunzell said she came from a country where all boys had to join the army for a year. She suggested making it more attractive by offering education in return.
Couvrette said he lived on military bases most of his life. She said the district should work with recruiters such as those at Poway High School.
Batten, a Navy officer, said the increase in military service is “incredibly significant.”
Plotzke said her husband is a retired sailor.
O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote that it is important for students to be introduced to a wide range of opportunities for their future. “Military service is certainly part of it. The annual PUSD college and career fair always includes representatives from the military branches and service academies,” she added.
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