Seven candidates vying for three seats on the Lompoc Unified School District Board of Education in the Nov. 3 election faced off last week during an online debate that illustrated the adverse impacts of the digital divide.
Candidates called for improved mental health services in the city’s schools, annual reviews of superintendent performance, a focus on increasing math and English basics, and building better communication between administration, staff, students, parents and the community at large.
The Oct. 8 debate, sponsored by the nonpartisan American Association of University Women Lompoc-Vandenberg Branch, was simulcast online, KPEG 100.9 FM and ComCast Channel 23, and recorded for later viewing online. It was broadcast in English and Spanish with closed captioning.
Retired Lompoc High School teacher Mike Phillips served as moderator in the debate, which included Janet Blevins, Gary Cox, Tom Blanco, Martin Casey, Kathi Froemming, Alexander Murkison and incumbent William “Bill” Heath. In addition to the seat Heath currently occupies, there are two seats open as Jeff Carlovsky and Richard “Dick” Barrett reach the end of their terms.
The terms of Steve Straight and Nancy Schuler-Jones do not expire until 2022.
As education has turned toward technology over decades, it has been said a digital divide has widened, leaving behind families with limited computer and internet access. The COVID-induced online schooling has exacerbated this divide, illustrated Thursday when Blanco was repeatedly dropped out of the conversation as his internet connection cut out.
Even where technology is accessible, the district could better use its website to communicate, said Blanco who spent 38 years as a teacher and athletic trainer at Lompoc High School. He also has served on a variety of committees, groups and projects at LHS including fundraising, planning and construction of Huyck Stadium Renovation Project.
“The district’s website is hard to navigate. The information is there. If I dig far enough, I can find it,” he said.
He said the district also could improve communication by maintaining a superintendent, school board and administration willing to “get out and walk the schools and talk to people.”
“Top-down management is not going to get us the results we need,” said Froemming, a 60-year resident of Lompoc, graduate of Lompoc schools, and 20-year employee of LUSD where she’s served as teacher, principal and assistant superintendent.
She added that district goals and priorities could, as she’s seen with other districts, be posted on the district website.
Casey said families should be included in conversations about education and the district’s superintendent should live in the city he serves. He noted the district’s distance learning schedule, “which was dictated to us with random lunch times,” wasn’t conducive for family time and added stress in the home.
“Visiting our schools, getting to know teachers would help build trust,” said Casey, an access technology expert whose two children attend Lompoc schools. He said he has volunteered as a chaperone for student functions and with the school site council.
He said the district should have a clear, defined review process for the board itself as well as the superintendent. Cox recommended the board develop a meeting policy to bring together administration, staff and the board “to make sure we’re all on the same page and have their input.” And Froemming said the district should “communicate more regularly, even the bad news” as well as solicit input from “stakeholders.”
Heath said the “superintendent runs the board currently, not the board running the superintendent.”
“He’s been very skilled at manipulating how things work,” said Heath, a Lompoc native, Cabrillo graduate and dentist. Heath has served as scoutmaster to Boy Scout troops 166 and 266, coached youth soccer, baseball and basketball, served on the basketball board for 10 years and is a lay leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Heath said that, during his six years on the school board, the superintendent only has been evaluated once in spite of a district policy that calls for an annual review.
Blevins said that was because, as she understood it, there hadn’t been the votes on the board to move forward with the annual evaluation.
“There are plenty of board policies; they’re just not carried out,” said Blevins, who brings 33 years of classroom experience to her candidacy, including 23 in Lompoc schools.
She claimed Superintendent Trevor McDonald gave pink slips to every principal in the district when he was initially hired, leaving administrators “nervous about whether they’d have a job or not.”
“There’s no transparency. There’s no accountability,” Blevins added.
Froemming said the board’s accountability comes from voters and that the superintendent’s accountability comes from the board.
“The superintendent is the CEO of a school district and he answers to the school board, so it really is incumbent upon the school board to evaluate the superintendent every year,” Froemming said.
Froemming said 2019 test scores showed 44% of Lompoc students met English-language arts standards, and 29% met math standards.
Blanco said student achievement could be addressed by refocusing efforts in the earliest grades to establish a strong foundation in English. He recommended early interventions, “more ability to check out books” and making sure that “kids, if they fail, aren’t shunned and are given a second, third, fourth chance.”
Murkison agreed with the early intervention recommendation, and added that he’d seen, firsthand, the effects of students falling behind incrementally.
“We don’t realize it as a student, that we’ve been falling behind over the years,” the 19-year-old Lompoc High School graduate said.
Murkison, who served as student body president and student liaison to the board, said he hopes to improve youth representation on the board, foster stronger relationships between students and the district, and offer better representation of local diversity and socioeconomic makeup of students and families in the district.
His key interest, repeated as answers to many problems facing the district, is to establish “better mental health support.” Murkison said students who are provided mental health services would learn to be happy with themselves and their environment, and thereby would achieve at a higher rate.
Heath called for a return to basics, seeing a need to “focus on English and math and not get distracted from different learning programs that fill time.” He said teachers should be allowed to choose what’s best for students in their given classrooms using the resources available.
“The district needs to get out of the way of teachers,” said Casey, adding the district should listen to “teachers who are on the front lines,” “remove busywork for teachers” so they can focus on teaching, and provide intervention teachers in early grades.
Blevins noted that students have differing learning styles.
“You can’t adopt a reading curriculum and expect all students to learn from it,” she said.
At various points in the debate, Cox, Froemming and Blevins conflated student ethnicity with their language skills.
“Seventy-five percent of students in Lompoc High School are Hispanic, and if they don’t grasp the English language at an early age, they won’t have continued success,” said Cox, a graduate of Lompoc High School and longtime Kiwanis member active in fundraising for youth activities and community groups.
He further called for “English immersion in K through 4.”
Blevins said she would like all board meetings to be translated into Spanish in an effort to increase parent participation in the decision-making process “since two-thirds of our district students come from Spanish-speaking homes.”
In fact, according to the California Department of Education, while 67% of the district’s students are identified as Hispanic or Latino, just 15.9% of the district’s students are identified as English Language Learners.
Candidates differed slightly on their approach to controversial state curriculums introduced to address social change, including the 1619 Project, ethnic studies curriculum and new health curriculum.
Heath called the state-mandated courses “a distraction” from the basics candidates had agreed were greatly needed: math and English.
“We need to teach the greatness of our nation, the good things that have happened, and instill the pride in our country in our students,” he said.
Cox, Blevins, Blanco and Casey supported the ethnic studies and history curricula in concept.
“If you ignore parts of history, you’re bound to make the same mistakes again,” Casey said.
Murkison and Froemming also supported the ethnic studies course as an elective.
“I think ethnic studies is a very big thing for the time we’re in right now. There’s an amazing movement right now where so many young people want to know more about social issues going on and their history,” Murkison said.
Murkison, Casey, Blanco and Cox supported the state’s health curriculum, noting parents can choose to have their students opt out. Cox also pointed out that only two students at Lompoc High School had opted out of the program.
“At one time, Lompoc had the lowest pregnancy rage in the county, third in the state,” Blanco said. “That was because of some far-thinking teachers that started a realistic conversation with our students at Lompoc High School and, later, Cabrillo. It’s mandatory, in my judgement, that we offer that subject.”
Neither Blevins nor Froemming addressed the sex education curriculum.
All candidates called for safe reopening of schools as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge families and the education system. They called for following the county health professionals’ direction, providing proper protective equipment on campus, requiring social distancing, and seeking input from students, staff and the community at large.
Casey added that parents needed to be provided the district’s “clear and concise plan” in order to make informed decisions based on their own unique situations.
Blevins recommended schools open first to kindergarteners and first graders “because those are the students who have the most difficulty with distance learning,” but would first like to ensure more testing is available.
“How do we know there’s not COVID in the family and that a student might come with COVID?” she asked.
Cox agreed with the need for further testing, not only of teachers but students as well.
“Until we can get all testing for all people, it’s impossible to go back and keep teachers safe,” he said.
Froemming said she has gone so far as to visit a school site that started with transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students on a campus, which had plans in place not only in the classroom but also affecting access to the parking lot, student entry onto campus and a tent for quarantine. She added the district must keep in mind teachers’ personal circumstances that may prevent them from returning to the classroom, including comorbidities, sick children or sick parents of their own.
“It’s not all or nothing,” she said.