Six candidates running for two open positions on the Santa Maria Joint-Union High School District Board of Education shared about how they plan to support students, address racial disparity and ensure academic achievement during a digital bilingual forum on Tuesday.
Incumbents Jack Garvin and Amy Lopez are running for another term in the Nov. 3 election against challengers Angie Marie Bolden, Jennifer Melena, Gabriel Amaro Morales and David Baskett. Unlike the City Council, members are not elected by district, meaning voters will choose from the pool of candidates for both seats.
The Zoom forum, which was attended by 50 community members and garnered an additional 500 views on Facebook, was led by Future Leaders of America and the League of Women Voters of Santa Maria Valley, with Spanish interpretation available.
Questions submitted by attendees asked candidates what they believed to be the biggest issues in the district, why they should be on the board, how they planned to address racial disparities, and whether they supported Proposition 15 and certain graduation requirements.
Both Lopez and Garvin highlighted their years of experience on the board as reasons to retain their positions, explaining their hard work over the past five and 16 years, respectively.
"I'm consistent and I'm reliable," Lopez said. "I really understand the population that I work with."
Garvin argued that his long tenure on the board gave him important knowledge needed to solve problems in the district.
"I have that institutional intelligence of knowing how things were and how we've improved them," he said.
Melena, a kinesiology professor at Hancock College, and Bolden, a co-advisor for the Black student unions at Righetti, Santa Maria and Pioneer Valley high schools, both highlighted their continued commitment to working with youth as the reason why they would be a good fit.
"Since I retired in 2008, I have not stopped working with the kids. I'm a go-getter. I'm on each campus at least once a week," Bolden said. "It's time for the board to be more diverse than what it is, and for kids to see that, you know, 'if Ms. Bolden made it, we can do it also.'"
Morales, director of PathPoint in Santa Maria, argued that his work with students in school districts throughout the state of California as well as his experience in social services would benefit the board.
Santa Maria Public Airport Board member Baskett said he greatly values discipline in the classroom, and that his military background has provided him good experience.
When asked about the most pressing issues facing the district, five out of six candidates identified COVID-19 as the most pressing. However, Baskett said that COVID-19 would be a thing of the past in the next couple years, and that the district should prioritize English-language learning.
Candidates had varying responses when asked about addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the district.
Garvin and Lopez both said that the district needs to stand by its promise to require ethnic and gender studies courses, with Lopez also advocating for cultural competency and trauma-informed training among district employees.
Bolden said the district should not be afraid to talk openly about race, while Morales and Melena said the district should recognize the social factors that contribute to these disparities.
"When we change and start to look at that perspective, instead of offering specific programs or protocols ... we take a bigger perspective, and we try to change from a stance of social justice to make things right and equitable," Melena said.
Baskett agreed that other factors outside of a student's school life need to be considered when thinking about student support but that there should be a standard for achievement in the district.
"We need to have a standard that everyone is open to and everyone tries to achieve. Some students, because of the individual makeup, it has nothing to do with race or culture ... will make it with ease, and some will have more difficulty," he said.
Proposition 15, which would increase funding for public schools through increased commercial and industrial taxes, was supported by Garvin, Lopez, Melena and Bolden, while Baskett and Morales said the district should seek funding elsewhere.
Candidates were similarly split when asked about A-G requirements, which are general courses such as math and English required for the University of California system, that students need to graduate.
Morales and Bolden said they were in favor of A-G requirements with the right level of student support.
"I think that's the beginning of a good employee, when we provide that passion and bring back that joy of learning to our students by providing the proper support," Morales said.
Garvin and Baskett opposed the requirement, stating that it is not the right system for every student, while Lopez and Melena said it's a process that would involve more changes in the district.
Editor's note: This article was updated to correct Gabriel Morales' title. He is the director of PathPoint in Santa Maria.
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