Distance learning, the selection of a new superintendent and college and career readiness were among to top topics discussed by the San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD) Board of Education candidates during an online forum hosted by the League of Women Voters on Thursday, Sept. 17.
Eight candidates running for the four board positions up for election on Nov. 3 participated in the forum, answering questions from the league and high school students. A video recording of the forum is available for viewing until Nov. 3 on the League of Women Voters San Bernardino YouTube channel at youtube.com/watch?v=bqVX2385Kus&feature=youtu.be.
In addition to answering questions fielded by the moderator, each candidate provided relevant background and a statement on their priorities for the district should they be elected.
The candidates include incumbents Gwen Dowdy-Rodgers, Scott Wyatt, Margaret Hill and Mike Gallo and challengers Joette Spencer Campbell, Tressy Capps, Mayra Ceballos and Heather Johnson.
Campbell is a 27-year employee of the district. She began as a clerk at Vermont Elementary and now serves as a sociological services specialist who responds to children and families in crisis. She’s the mother of three district graduates and the grandmother of five current SBCUSD students.
During her self-introduction she said, “I want to give back to the parents and teachers that helped me to navigate what was a difficult situation for me and my children. I was a pregnant minor at 17 and it was a difficult struggle.”
She also stated that she wants to help closes inequities in education, a goal that has grown more challenging with the closing of school campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“School closures heightened existing inequities in our education system and introduced new ones,” Campbell said. “Without a thoughtful, targeted response these inequities will turn [an achievement] gap into a canyon.”
Capps is a district grandparent with experience working with school districts as a parent. Previously, she was part of a parent–led effort to restore busing at the Etiwanda district. As a grandparent she participated in the San Bernardino Leadership Academy of 2019.
She emphasized that she would not be a “rubber-stamper” but provide diversity of opinion and ask the questions necessary to make the best decisions.
Ceballos is a parent of a SBCUSD student with disabilities. She said this experience along with her own difficult educational path gives her a profound understanding of the challenges many families in the community face, as she faced them herself.
She shared that at 16 she dropped out of a SBCUSD high school after being misplaced in an emotionally disturbed special education class. She obtained a high school diploma through Job Corps, graduated from University of California, Riverside and is now in her last year at Cal State San Bernardino to become a school psychologist.
She hopes to provide the district a fresh view and help raise the quality of its parent engagement.
Gallo, president and CEO of Kelley Space and Technologies, was first elected to the board in 2011. He’s a governor appointee on the state workforce investment board and is a leader on the career pathways committee for the state. Gallo also helped found Technical Employment Training, Inc., a non-profit career-training cooperative that focuses on manufacturing and machining skills.
“What I’m interested in is to inspire and engage our students in hands-on project-based learning that can equip them with the skills and abilities to effectively compete for occupations within our demand industry sectors,” Gallo said.
“The focus of my life has been to see that others have the opportunity to succeed and thrive in the greatest country on this earth,” he added. “One key that creates the passport to prosperity is education. So, it’s a core focus for building a healthy community and economic development. Almost 44 percent of our population is on government assistance of some kind. The key intervention is education, to see that they are qualified to effectively compete for demand occupations in our region.”
Hill is a life-long educator who worked in the SBCUSD for 32 years (she served as principal of San Andreas High School), as assistant superintendent for county schools for six years and has been on the board for nine years.
“I’m running because the work’s not done,” Hill said. “I want every student to be safe, every parent to be comfortable and not worry when their kids are with us, and I want every teacher to care for every student they come in contact with. If I can be instrumental to help lead us to the next step that’s my goal.”
Johnson is the lead counselor for the San Bernardino Valley College First Year Experience Program. She said she decided to run for the school board after seeing that many first year college students are not college or career skills ready.
“A lot of our students are coming in not ready to do college-level English or math. They then feel discouraged and eventually drop out,” she said. “So, I’m doing this for my students.”
Johnson has a masters in educational counseling. She is also faculty advisor for the SBVC LGBTQ club, a part of its behavioral intervention team and a chair for an equal employment opportunities program.
Johnson believes that coming from a community college background will allow her to bring to the board a unique and valuable prospective on what happens to district students after graduation.
Rodgers was appointed to the SBCUSD board in 2014 and elected into a new term on 2015 and now serves as its president. She comes from a 20-year background in corporate finance and 10 years with the county, working with foster youth with mental health needs. She is also the president of Arrowhead United Way, co-chair of the San Bernardino Drugs and Gangs Task Force and the San Bernardino County African American Awareness Subcommittee.
She aims to continue the district’s work on parent engagement, fiscal accountability, transparency and equity.
“During the five years together with the board we have reached a 93 percent graduation rate, and I was instrumental in developing a parent engagement strategic plan, a counseling plan and the wellness centers,” she said. “I want to remain on the board because there’s still more work to be done, especially in closing the equity gap.”
Wyatt is vice president of the SBCUSD Board of Education after being elected to the board in 2016. He has been an educator for 26 years and has worked in K-12, juvenile court and special education programs. He has a doctorate in educational leadership and educational justice.
“The main qualification I emphasize is being a parent,” he said. “My first and foremost responsibility is being a parent…That’s always been the premise for me running for school board, to ensure we have quality school programs for all our children.”
Wyatt’s goals as a member of the board are to increase parent engagement, increase the level and accountability of special education services as well as mental health services.
When discussing the district’s employment of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and when to reopen schools to students, Gallo advocated reopening with a hybrid system offering online and on-campus learning under appropriate precautions, as parents see fit. Many other candidates agreed.
“We have provided every student a laptop and complete Internet access for free. Headphones and other supporting equipment are available,” Gallo said. “Regarding returning to school, my proposal is to provide parents with choices. Some parents may never feel comfortable returning to schools. Other parents feel comfortable doing that now. Same with our staff and teachers.”
Johnson proposed giving students and parents additional technology-use training in order to close the digital divide some students are experiencing while distance learning.
Wyatt pointed out that many students are stronger in the use of technology then their teachers and recommends increased training for teachers and staff.
Hill stated that she would not be willing to reopen until she is comfortable that the district would not be risking one student’s life.
The candidates also discussed the district’s programs and addition support for students with special needs.
Johnson stated she wanted more one-on-one support for special education students as well as transitional programs for students leaving their education.
Gallo and Wyatt emphasized the importance of hands-on learning to keep students engaged and developing their life and career skills.
Campbell and Ceballos emphasized the need to develop stronger relationships and support for parents of special education students.
Hill advised building on programs that have proven effective and focus on the areas where students excel.
As Dale Marsden resigned as SBCUSD superintendent in March, those elected to the board of education in November will take part in the selection of the district’s new superintendent. Each candidate was asked to name the top three qualifications they would be seeking in a superintendent.
Capps, Rodgers, Ceballos and Hill each listed integrity as a top priority. Leadership skills and experienced success as a leader were prized by Capps, Rodgers, Hill, Campbell, Gallo and Wyatt.
Transparency was a top priority for Johnson and Campbell.
Hill said she would seek a leader who would strive to achieve the district’s motto of “making hope happen” for all students.
Johnson added that she prized good communication and the ability to build partnerships with staff, the board and community.
Ceballos emphasized the need for emotional intelligence and the ability to understand and connect with people.
Gallo stated that he wants a superintendent who has a heart for the students and has a commitment to the community adding that a strong demonstration of such commitment would be the willingness to live in San Bernardino.
Wyatt agreed with Gallo adding that the superintendent would also need to be culturally relevant and sensitive.
College and career readiness
On the issue of college and career readiness, the four incumbents highlighted the district’s strong career pathway efforts, including more than 50 career pathway programs within the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.
Rodgers and Hill added that the district needs to continue its efforts to give students a voice in the district ⎯ the student board members and the student advisory groups ⎯ so the district can learn the students’ concerns and interests and develop career prep programs accordingly.
Ceballos feels the district needs to become more involved with the larger community to insure that jobs are available to graduating students.
Hill believes increased use of college visits will better connect students to higher education.
Johnson wants the district to create a secondary-to-postsecondary bridge to further aid in the transition to higher education.
Wyatt stated that he knows the career pathways are effective as his son is in the cybersecurty program, and he feels the programs should start preparing students earlier in their education with more programs at the elementary level.
Gallo stressed the importance of linking instructional programs to on-the-job training and industry-recognized certifications.
Capps shared that greater emphasis of life skills, such as budgeting, would also benefit students’ career readiness.