Natomas school board election taps into discontent

Published: Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

Ten office seekers, two slates and numerous candidate forums have made the race for the three seats on the Natomas Unified school board one of the most competitive on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Eight challengers are hoping voter discontent will help them unseat two incumbents and fill an open seat on the board.

"There is not a lot of community trust right now, and that is something we need to rebuild," said candidate Vina Guzman, director of district and financial services for the California School Boards Association. "We need to reach out to parents and communicate with them."

A number of candidates cited a board decision to reduce the time each person can speak during public comment at meetings as an example showing the trustees don't listen to the community.

"Once they started to limit public comment to two minutes is when the trust factor tanked," said Guzman, 34. "Their decision-making had a lot to do with it, but limiting their (the public's) voice was a big issue."

These sentiments were echoed by the other challengers interviewed by The Bee. All say they will improve communication between the school board and community if they are elected.

"Is this the sentiment of a small group of parents and teachers or is this the sentiment of the entire district?" asked incumbent Susan Heredia, 60. "I don't think the latter is the case."

Heredia said board members are out in the community and available to residents, especially by email.

Bruce Roberts, last year's board president, said he asked to reduce the time each person could speak from three to two minutes because he felt people were "talking to the clock instead of the point."

The public comment period was often as long as 60 to 90 minutes, pushing everything later on the agenda, said Roberts, 49.

The campaign comes on the heels of a tumultuous year of change in the district. The district began to reorganize in January after a board-commissioned report by School Services of California Inc. blasted Natomas Unified for a "culture of entitlement" in which employees took excessive sick days and managers failed to hold staff accountable.

The district immediately approved some of the report's recommendations, including reducing class sizes, reorganizing some departments, raising the salaries of some managers, adding administrators and laying off staff.

Challenger Karen Bernal says problems with the board go beyond communication. "It's very apparent," said the 54-year-old community organizer. "I've been there when the public has spoken. I can see what is described as contempt."

H.K. Allen said increased parent involvement will repair the relationship between the district and the community. The 35-year-old health care analyst would like schools to have parenting classes on campus.

"Parents need to realize that it isn't just their kids' campus, it is theirs as well," Allen said.

Ryan Herche, a legislative analyst, said mistrust of the district also stems from a series of poor decisions from the board that include "a bad land deal, and a never-ending stream of consultants and attorneys."

The Natomas Teachers' Association's endorsement of only challengers underlines employee dissatisfaction. District officials and union leaders had months of contentious negotiations this year.

The teachers union is endorsing three candidates – Bernal, Michael Bedrosian and Allen. Union members have been walking the district with door hangers promoting the candidates, Bernal said.

Incumbents Heredia and Roberts also have been working together, with a joint website and election materials.

For years charters, which are also free public schools, have been siphoning students off from district. The result has been fewer students and the dollars that accompany them.

"Every student we lose to another district or private school costs us $5,000," said Scott Dosick, 41, a business owner.

He said that district officials should not blame charter operators for opening schools in the district. "You don't get mad at Honda for stealing Dodge's customers," he said. "You build a better car. We need to offer the programs that parents need and want for their kids."

District officials recently added all-day kindergarten, and ramped up International Baccalaureate and Science Technology Engineering and Math offerings to help address the problem, Roberts said.

"We need to join with the charter schools," said Bedrosian, 42. "The current board has divided it – charter schools vs. public schools. We need to work together instead of against each other."

Herche, 27, said the district might serve its students better by turning some low-performing schools into independent charters. "We owe it to our kids to make sure they can compete in the world," he said.

Bernal said the problem is more fundamental than just adding more advanced programs like IB and STEM. "The other reason it is happening is there is special education, physical education, libraries – basic things gone wanting. The needs of the students haven't been met."

Day care provider Briza Trujillo Cardenas, 46, said the district isn't just losing students to charter schools. She said many are enrolling in nearby school districts because "they aren't receiving the services they need from the district."

She says the schools in South Natomas – the less affluent side of the district – are failing because they have been neglected by the district. "The district's responsibility is to take care of all the kids," Cardenas said. "You have to serve us and provide an education for our kids."

Herche says academics, particularly the minority achievement gap, are the biggest hurdle facing the school district.

Many candidates were prompted to join the race because they disagreed with certain board decisions.

Bedrosian said he has had to "jump through hoops" to get services for a 7-year-old son with autism spectrum disorder. He didn't agree with a board decision to lay off some special education teachers, saying it is replacing qualified teachers with people unqualified for the job.

Josh Baker, a cashier, also is on the ballot but has not responded to requests from The Bee for an interview. He also didn't submit information for The Bee's online and print voter guides.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Diana Lambert



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