Five candidates for the San Juan Unified school board are vying to govern a suburban Sacramento County district that has a new superintendent and faces increasing challenges with poverty, English learners and aging campuses.
The Nov. 4 election for two at-large seats comes as the district tries to move past fallout from former Superintendent Glynn Thompson, who resigned last year after facing accusations that he bullied female employees. This summer, the district settled with most of the women for $3.2 million.
Trustee Larry Masuoka was implicated in the Thompson episode for mishandling complaints when he was board president. Fellow trustees censured him, and he opted not to run for re-election, which means at least one new San Juan trustee will be elected this fall.
The candidates are two-term incumbent Greg Paulo; Paula Villescaz, a policy consultant for the Assembly Health Committee; business owner Michael Alcalay; real estate broker Michael Miller; and Michael McKibbin, who worked for the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing for 27 years.
Paulo, 73, was instrumental in bringing the Thompson allegations to the full board, first giving a heads-up to the San Juan Teachers Association and consulting with the district legal staff. He has campaigned on his experience and a need to maintain stability in district leadership.
Paulo received an endorsement from the teachers union, which called him a “fair and thoughtful advocate” for district employees and students. He has raised about $16,000 from teachers’ political action committees in the form of campaign mailers and postage, part of the $25,000 he has raised overall this year.
He said new Superintendent Kent Kern has long received high marks from district leaders. But Kern has had a fast rise to the top, going from Andrew Carnegie Middle School principal seven years ago to superintendent of the area’s second-largest district. Paulo said a stable Board of Education would help Kern in his early years at the helm.
“He needs a lot of support,” Paulo said. “This is a relationship business. Those relationships don’t happen overnight.”
Paulo said he doesn’t oppose teacher tenure, a hot topic after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in June declared two-year tenure rules, layoff procedures and seniority-based layoffs unconstitutional. But, he said, “Maybe we need to evaluate how it’s working.
“I look at that two ways: I don’t have any problem increasing how long you have to teach before you get tenure. On the other hand, if the administrators are doing their jobs,” they should be able to make a hiring decision within the first two years.
A growing problem for the 75-square-mile district is the rise in poverty, particularly in the west end. The district has 49,000 students, including nearly 9,000 who are enrolled in charter schools. San Juan serves Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Fair Oaks, Carmichael, Arden Arcade, Gold River and portions of Sacramento.
Over a five-year period from 2008-09, as the recession gained steam, the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch grew to 50 percent – up from 37 percent, according to the California Department of Education. During the same period, the number of English learners in the district grew 16 percent.
Miller, 47, said he believes that San Juan is a successful district but that many parents believe “this proud old district has lost a step, and it is not listening to individual school community needs.”
He said his business background would help him direct district resources where they are needed. He called for increased emphasis on existing schools, particularly lower-performing campuses.
Miller, formerly a teacher, said the district must find ways to encourage strong teachers to stay at schools where students need extra support. He said one idea is giving teachers a pay incentive if the contract allows it.
He said he sees the charter school movement “driving innovation in education” and considered the Vergara decision “a good thing.”
“We need to shake up the tenure rules,” he said. “The part that intrigues me is trying to make it easier to get rid of the flagrant offenders.”
Miller has raised more than $18,000 in cash and loans and won endorsements from Realtor and charter school groups.
McKibbin, 71, wants to make better use of parent volunteers. He proposes that schools establish a specific focus to draw students and counter enrollment declines.
He said Vergara v. California, the June court decision, could give the district a chance to “rebalance” classrooms with experienced teachers mentoring new teachers. Currently, the most senior teachers choose where they want to teach, he said, and many gravitate toward campuses with the strongest academic records.
“Frankly, I didn’t get their endorsement on exactly this issue,” McKibbin said of the teachers association. “At least the plurality if not the overwhelming majority of these people are probably protectionist. Within that leadership group, there are people that, if we could just change the dynamic, we could do some absolutely amazing things, like a really strong workforce. We can’t do it without the bargaining unit.”
He said teachers and administrators working together “can indeed turn us into a professional workforce.”
McKibbin’s campaign filings show no contributions through August of this year. He apparently carried forward nearly $6,000 from previous fundraising efforts.
Both McKibbin and Villescaz serve on key San Juan advisory groups focused on curriculum and on strategic planning.
Villescaz, 25, is a graduate of Mira Loma High School’s acclaimed International Baccalaureate program. Villescaz also received an SJTA endorsement and has raised more than $45,000 this year, including $17,500 from teachers’ PACs.
About 20 donations of $250 or less came from residents of the Sacramento area. Many more contributions came from the state Capitol community where Villescaz works, with a donor list that includes lobbyists, legislative staff and Democratic Assembly members Richard Pan and Joan Buchanan.
On tenure, Villescaz said dismissal procedures already exist in the SJTA contract for poor performers, starting with a peer review process. “While they take time,” she said, “they provide for appropriate due process” before a dismissal.
She said there is a growing need to reach out to communities where students speak languages other than English – such as Russian, Korean and Iranian – and need guidance in navigating the school system.
“We have to increase parent, student and community engagement,” she said. “We need to let go of this notion that everything happens when a kid is in a classroom.”
Michael Alcalay, 52, who owns a communication company, said he hopes to restore district stability and continuity so the district can focus on education basics: Every child should come to school well-nourished, schools should provide healthy and safe environments, students should have the right tools to learn and be allowed to follow their own paths to jobs or colleges.
He did not provide specifics on pursuing those goals. “To me, it’s more of a philosophy,” he said.
The challenges, Alcalay said, include a “lack of full-fledged engagement” with students and parents. He said the district needs to restore leadership stability after the Thompson episode so the district can “get back to focusing on the education of our children. Period.”
Alcalay raised more than $11,200 the first nine months of this year, most of it from dozens of local contributors. He also received $250 from Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters.