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  • Alicia Cruz

  • Mary Leland

  • Coby Pizzotti

  • Katie Villegas

  • Dave Westin

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  • When: Thursday, 6 p.m.
    Where: The Center for Spiritual Awareness, 1275 Starboard Drive, West Sacramento
    What: The West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce and Soroptimist International of West Sacramento are sponsoring a public forum with City Council and school board candidates.

Seven seek three seats on West Sac's Washington Unified school board

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 - 5:06 pm

Improving the relationship between the school district and city, raising student achievement and ensuring equal educational opportunities are among the issues school board candidates said the Washington Unified School District is facing.

Seven candidates are running in the Nov. 6 election for three seats in the West Sacramento district, which serves 7,600 students at a dozen schools.

Those running in the at-large election are Walt Bowman, Alicia Cruz, Mary Leland, Coby Pizzotti, Roy Siañez, Katie Villegas and Dave Westin.

"I think the district is moving in a very positive direction," said Westin, an incumbent, who served as board president twice in his eight years on the board.

"The No. 1 issue facing school districts is having competent administrators running the district and school sites," Westin said.

Washington Unified's student population has grown by 15 percent in the past decade and primarily consists of Latino students (43 percent) and white students (34 percent), according to the California Department of Education.

West Sacramento's schools have the same poverty rates among students as Sacramento City Unified, with 67 percent of the districts' students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

Between 2007 and 2011, the district's API scores rose from 700 to 766, including a 26-point increase last year.

"We still have big challenges," said West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. "There are still significant gaps between expectations and student achievement in some areas in the city, particularly at elementary schools north and south of the freeway. That's a huge problem not just for the district, but the city."

Westin and Cabaldon have a strained relationship, with the trustee saying the mayor and City Council have not been receptive to invitations meant to build a collaborative relationship.

"Our school board is supplanted with political slates and agendas," Westin said.

Cabaldon said he reached out to prospective board candidates but did not recruit anyone currently running for the board. Cabaldon is endorsing Villegas and incumbent Leland.

Cabaldon said that until a year ago, Westin was a developer in town who "had difficulty distinguishing his roles as a developer with requests before the city from his role as a board member."

Siañez, who moved to West Sacramento in February, said he thinks being new to the city will help.

"I don't have the history of the rift and so my approach is a fresh approach to bring both sides together," said Siañez, a legislative policy director.

Siañez said he is concerned that the school district does not have trustees who reflect the demographics of West Sacramento.

"There is a large Latino population, and when I look at the school board I asked who is representing those Latino students?" Siañez said.

Cruz said if, after the election, the board does not reflect the community's demographics, the district should look at moving to elections by trustee area, with candidates elected by the communities in which they live instead of by the entire district.

"I'm the only person from the north side of town," said Cruz, who was raised in West Sacramento and graduated from River City High. "We are the older side. There are fears that if I don't make it, our community will be forgotten."

Villegas said West Sacramento has high-density poverty rates and the district needs to do a better job of bringing in resources to provide services to struggling families. Villegas said she has brought in millions of dollars to West Sacramento though her work as executive director of the Yolo County Children's Alliance.

"The school board can change overnight," Villegas said. "It's been personality-based instead of issue-based and that's been frustrating to me as a community member. Personalities are getting in the way and the kids lose."

Bowman said he also would like to see a change on the school board. Bowman, a retired truck driver, said he didn't agree with decisions the board has made, such as cutting school busing.

"I'd like to see them get rid of the excess property they have," Bowman said. "I was really going after closing one of the schools, but I backed off that. I will leave that alone right now."

Incumbent Leland said she is running for a third term in order to keep stability and continue momentum on academic achievement.

Leland said the current board has different views on how to govern, but that members balance each other.

"I really feel like there is still a lot of work to do," said Leland, the chief fundraiser at Sacramento City College. "It almost takes until the third term to get a grasp at what changes are needed. I feel I have a much broader view of what we can do and what we've tried that didn't work."

Pizzotti said his decision to run for the board has a lot to do with looking ahead. Pizzotti, a lobbyist, said the birth of his first child in March prompted him to want to be a part of improving West Sacramento's schools.

"One of the things I want to push is getting parents more involved in their child's education," Pizzotti said. "You can't drop your child off at school and expect them to be the next Bill Gates. There needs to be more outreach to parents to get them more involved."

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