Santa Ana School Board candidate’s forum watched by few

The Santa Ana School Board candidates’ forum that took place on Thursday night this week, at Santa Ana High School, was not well attended, with perhaps 30 in attendance, but it will be televised on channel 31, according to the organizer of the event, Bernedette Medrano of the Santa Ana Education Foundation.

All of the candidates were there, and the event was moderated by the erstwhile League of Women Voters. A last minute translator stepped up from the audience, Teresa Mercado-Cota, from the Rancho Santiago Community College District, as the candidate’s were asked to translate their answers into Spanish. As it turned out, the one non-Hispanic candidate, Dr. Audrey Noji, did not need a translator, as she spoke Spanish fairly well. But incumbent John Palacio did. Eventually he asked Medrano to have the translator handle everyone’s responses, in Spanish, to be fair, and she did.

One of the candidates provided a bit of humor early in the forum, when Cecilia Aguinaga pulled out a chili and a jar of salsa and said that she brought them because she figured to be eaten alive. Aguinaga previously had said she would not attend the forum, but after changing campaign consultants she became available.

Aguinaga was the focus of a question posed by the moderator, that appeared to have been written by someone in the audience. The moderator asked the candidates how they felt about sending their children to private school. Aguinaga confessed that she indeed had sent her kids to a Catholic school, ostensibly because she wanted them to be taught about their religion and to learn morals. Palacio and Noji, to their credit, said, essentially, that this was a personal matter and that trustees should do what they think is right for their children. However, both of them also said they supported the public schools.

Palacio sounded like a Republican at times. One of his key issues is teaching English – ironic given that his recalled colleague, Nativo Lopez, was a major impediment to that objective. Palacio has apparently learned from Lopez’ experience. He focused on substantive issues on Thursday, including the importance of graduating students with diplomas instead of useless certificates of completion. He also mentioned quite often the need to preserve parental rights and to inform them of same.

Noji focused on student achievement and making the SAUSD budget process open and transparent. When asked how she would involve parents in improving student achievement, she did have a bit of a strange answer, “I wanted them to bake cookies, but that’s not going to work.” She then noted the usual pablum about checking homework, monitoring TV, bringing books home, and looking at parents as equal partners.

In response to the same question, Palacio said that parents should been seen as part of the solution, not as part of the problem. He also, oddly, maintained that it should be mandatory for all schools to have PTA chapters. (Who is going to enforce or support that?!?). Palacio also noted that the district should communicate about the students, to parents, ever six weeks, which also seems difficult to pull off.

Aguinaga acquitted herself well, for the most part, except when she was asked to answer this question: “The district has been focused on political and construction issues, what are you going to do to change the focus to instruction?” The question itself was ridiculous, but Aguinaga seemed flustered by it. She asked those present to give her a chance to get on the school board first, so she could have a chance to learn about the issue and be in a position to do something about it.

Several of the other questions were similarly inane. For example: “What critical components are needed to create and develop an effective team?” Huh? Who cares? I don’t expect political candidates to join hands and sing “Kumbaya” after they get elected. The best we can expect is that they will work hard, study the issues, talk to all stakeholders and then make the best decisions they can, always serving the community, not themselves. Failure to serve in that manner is what cost Lopez his seat on the school board.

Palacio complained early on, and afterward, that he was never told that the questions would be posed in Spanish. He was clearly not ready to speak in Spanish. Noji, oddly, appeared to be reading from prepared notes, when she spoke in Spanish. Did she have previous knowledge of the questions, and was she told to be ready to speak in Spanish? Some have hinted, in the blogosphere, that Medrano is helping Noji’s campaign. In fairness, Medrano appeared to have spent a lot of time on the event, and it was well-run, with the exception of having to find a last minute translator. I almost ended up serving in that capacity! Mercado-Cota did a great job though, sparing me the chore.

I also noticed, when reviewing the index cards that the questions were written on, that many of them were written by the same person, with regard to the penmanship, and they were numbered. I don’t know who wrote them. Others were written in pencil, and appeared to have come from the audience. One of those questions asked “What are you going to do with the gangs in schools?”

Noji said we need to identify which students are in the gangs. She also mentioned that a parent hotline would be a good idea. Aguinaga said we need people who really care for the kids. Palacio then said that he led the charge to try to stop reduction of cops in schools. He called on the district to educate parents to learn the early signals of gangs and he said that the district Truancy Center has kept kids in school, not in the street.

When asked about stabilizing the budget, Palacio said that the district pays too much to consultants and that the district wastes money on new carpet and new offices when it should be giving raises to the teachers. Noji again called for an open process. She said we need to expand the budget committee. And she noted that we should work with Medrano’s education foundation to find more money for programs. Aguinaga said we should look at managerial positions more carefully. She said that often we can find a current manager to do the job instead of hiring another one. She also cited the problem of having to pay too many consultants. She added that we cannot afford to cut any teachers.

The candidates were given an opportunity to make a closing statement. Aguinaga asked for the opportunity to help, Noji said she does not see herself as a politician and that she too wants to help the community, and Palacio said there is a reason why he has the endorsement of so many local politicians. He cited Loretta Sanchez, Jose Solorio and Mike Garcia in particular. He again called for the district to make teaching English a priority. And he said we need a board that will ask questions.

I’m still a bit shocked by the low turnout. However, to be fair, there were several candidate fundraisers that evening, and Com Link also held their regular, monthly meeting. Hopefully the voters will watch the forum on television, or seek more information about the candidates online or in the papers.

I did have a chance to chat with Sergio Verino afterwards, at the nearby Memphis Bar and Restaurant. He agreed with my contention that Armando De La Libertad would make an excellent appointment to the school board, should current incumbent Sal Tinajero end up getting elected to the Santa Ana City Council, in ward 6. I had never met Verino before, and had previously written that he and Roman Reyna are not qualified to serve on the school board. I’m glad he did not take that personally. He is an affable character and he is very dedicated to his current job as an inspector for the City of Santa Ana.

My personal philosophy is that school board mem
bers should either: a) be highly educated, b) be education professionals, and/or c) be parents of children in the district in question. In this election, I am supporting Aguinaga, although admittedly the choices are rather limited this year. I think that Palacio has come a long way from the candidate I ran against in 1998, but he supported the project labor agreement that was placed on the district’s construction bond measure. That I cannot forgive. And I am not inclined to look kindly on any of the incumbents on the school board. That is why I am not supporting Noji. Also she is supported by Mayor Miguel Pulido. Kiss of death! I won’t support anyone that Pulido endorses, for any office.

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"Admin" is just editors Vern Nelson, Greg Diamond, or Ryan Cantor sharing something that they mostly didn't write themselves, but think you should see. Before December 2010, "Admin" may have been former blog owner Art Pedroza.