Updated 12:40 p.m., Oct. 19–
Sentinel staff report– Seven candidates are running for three seats on the San Juan Unified School District Board of Education this year, each with unique educational backgrounds and varying views on reopening schools, potential budget cuts and equity.
The district’s five-member school board is responsible for approving an annual budget of more than $500 million and sets policies and goals affecting the education of approximately 40,000 students in the San Juan Unified School District.
During a student-led candidate forum last month, each candidate answered questions ranging from fiscal topics to social justice. A brief bio for each candidate is included below, followed by their answers to several forum questions.
Paula Villescaz (incumbent). Currently serves as the board president. Graduate of Mira Loma High School. Key donor: San Juan Teachers Association ($4,600+). Endorsed by Citrus Heights Councilwoman Porsche Middleton and the Democratic Party of Sacramento County. Website: paulavillescaz.com
Pam Costa (incumbent). Served on the SJUSD board since 2012. Graduated from Encina High School and served in various positions as a teacher, principal and director within the district. Key donor: San Juan Teachers Association PAC ($5,500+). Endorsed by Citrus Heights Chamber of Commerce and the Democratic Party of Sacramento County. Website: pamcosta4schoolboard2020.com
Saul Hernandez (incumbent). Served on the SJUSD board since 2012. Had his four children attend San Juan schools. Has owned a small business for 29 years. Key donor: San Juan Teachers Association ($5,500+). Endorsed by Citrus Heights Chamber of Commerce and the Sacramento County Republican Party. Website: reelectsaul.com
Melinda Avey. 40-year resident of the district, with her four children all attending San Juan schools. Has served on various county boards and commissions. Key donor: Law Office of Jennifer Mouzis ($3,250). Endorsed by Citrus Heights Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.melindaavey.com
Andrew Blan. Graduate of USF and McGeorge School of Law, currently serving as a healthcare attorney. Attended San Juan schools. Mother was a teacher in SJUSD. Key donor: Linda Smith ($2,000). Endorsements: (none listed). Website: blanforschoolboard.com
Riah Skrinnik. Worked for 15 years with the Sacramento Air Quality Management District. Recently served as a school-based therapist and now provides therapeutic services. Holds a bachelor’s degree in health science and a master’s in counseling education from CSUS. Sent her four children to San Juan schools. Key donor: Charter School Association ($500). Endorsed by the Sacramento County Republic Party. Website: voteriahskrinnik.com
Garrett Brewer. 15-year resident of the district. Currently working towards a masters degree in education to become a high school teacher. Key donor: n/a. Endorsements: (none listed). Website: Facebook page
*Note: Candidates who anticipate not spending or receiving over $2,000 during a campaign are not required to file disclosures of donors with the FPPC and are listed above as “n/a.”
During last month’s candidate forum, each addressed a question of whether to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, with all candidates offering a similar response that they supported reopening schools when safe to do so. None of the candidates specified when that would be, except for Skrinnik who said schools should be able to reopen immediately with a waiver and safety protocols in place. She also said the district could currently bring “at least 20% of students” back to campuses.
The board since voted on Oct. 13 to give families the option to return to school for “modified in-person learning” starting on Jan. 5, 2021, or as early as Nov. 5 for students with special needs. Candidate Melinda Avey blasted the decision on Facebook, saying “it’s safe to return to in-person learning, now.”
Candidate answers to several questions from the forum are included below, with minor editing for length and readability. The full forum can be viewed online here.
Question: How do you see the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the district’s budget and finances? And the next few years, if budget cuts are necessary, what would you cut and what would you protect?
Melinda Avey: We don’t know what COVID is going to do to the budget. We figure that it’s going to impact it negatively. So I’m gonna go back to my priorities: my number one priority is providing a high quality education for our students, so cuts that I would make would be as far away from that as I could make possible. And the other priority is protecting the physical and mental health of our students, without that they can’t learn. And that goes for the teachers as well. So that would be high on that list.
To solve some of this, I would again, reach out to the community to community partners, to fill in some of these gaps. There’s no question that we’re going to be doing without some things, but if we work with our community, I think we can mitigate some of that, that harm….
Riah Skrinnik: With the pandemic we have uncertainty, we don’t know how it’s going to unveil and what to expect in January. Even though we try to aim to open schools, we have to take very high measures in providing safety and providing very high sanitation. So in my opinion, I believe that schools need to recreate health and safety protocols. That includes measuring temperature, includes providing PPE, includes distancing…
Also, I believe we have to have finances to allow kids to have school shoes so they can change shoes while they coming to the school premises and they should have scrubs on the top of their clothes. So in this way, we can prevent and provide kids with safety, prevent any kind of unnecessary spread of virus. And we have to bring more janitorial stuff to clean the school and to bring more IT staff to teach kids about computer literacy. I believe those two things are crucial right now.
Andrew Blan: It is a really dependent question, it remains to be seen what type of funding is going to be coming from the state government, what type of funding is coming from the federal government, which administration ends up in office. I think all of those things will factor in what happens downstream at the district.
That being said, I think there are a couple of things that we should keep an eye on. First being, making sure that when we are making cuts that we’re pushing them as far away from student outcomes as we can. And I think there’s things like freezing hiring on positions that haven’t been filled yet. Cutting back district travel, and just taking some steps that don’t necessarily involve cuts, but kind of leaving things how they are now that could help kind of soften the blow.
Pam Costa: We have already started addressing budget needs. Right now we cut travel and conference, we have a hiring freeze in the district. We are looking at what we need to do, not next year, but three years out. And that’s what continuity does, it allows people to start working and work ahead because we always have to be three years ahead.
Where I would not cut: I would not cut anything that’s closest to the classroom. I think our mental health programs such as MTSS are critical for the functioning of our students and our staff members… Finally, we need to reach out to the federal government and to our state government and lobby and say, we need more money.
Garrett Brewer: So I’ll say (with) the uncertainty of COVID, it makes it really hard to prepare for the future. So I think the most important thing is to just be adaptable and be prepared to make changes, whether drastic or abrupt. Hopefully something like Prop 15 can expand the budget and give the school more resources and just expand what they are able to spend on.
If we do find ourselves in a budget crisis of sorts where we need to make cuts, I think it’s important that we prioritize our personnel and make sure our teachers are protected and safe and are able to still take care of their families, as well as the other staff that we employ.
Paula Villescaz: Certainly our biggest challenge in the near and probably extending a little bit into the further future is uncertainty. As the board of education, we actually are required to set and predict the budget up to three years out. Meanwhile, we are provided funds from both the federal and the state government on an annual basis. So it definitely makes it hard on the bottom. We have to maintain a very deliberate watch on our bottom line.
So really most of what we would have to do to prevent significant kinds of cuts and prevent adverse impacts down the future, we’re actually putting in place right now by sticking to some key core commitments. One fundamental one being that we will prevent a structural deficit in the immediate and long-term future by ensuring that as we propose our budget, we are not spending one time dollars on ongoing funds. That is a critical principle, along with many other core commitments that we have all agreed to, that will really set us up for the most success in the future.
Saul Hernandez: Here’s the reality of this: the uncertainty is pretty scary. We know that we are going to have to make tough choices; there’s no doubt about that. However, just, as Ms. Villescaz said, we must maintain those core values, which basically is this: we can’t spend more than we make. When districts do that, they have problems — we can read about those type of districts in the paper.
We’re going to have to work very closely with our labor groups, but I would not cut classroom needs. We are proven stewards of our finances in the last six years, we’ve had positive certified audits and we were able to prove that we can manage our money. We will need to continue with these core beliefs as mentioned before, but we can get through it together with everybody’s help.
Question: How can the district build a culture of inclusion and safety for people of color and other marginalized groups, such as students with disabilities and who are in the LGBTQ+ community?
Paula Villescaz: In San Juan, we believe as a core value that diversity is our strength. And I was just so proud of our efforts to implement the FAIR Act (SB 48) to the fullest extent possible. And though there was a significant disagreement throughout the community, we knew it was the right thing to do.
The first thing that we must do is improve and make students — of all categories in all of our different classifications — every student needs to feel connected to school. And in order to do that, they need a curriculum that they feel applies to them. And that’s why the FAIR Act was so important, and it’s initiatives like that and our work around equity and making sure that at every level that our parents, our students and our staff all feel connected and represented within our community, and can show up as themselves and ready to learn and give their all to their education.
Saul Hernandez: Five years ago, we developed the Department of Equity and they have worked tirelessly trying to meet with our community partners, students and staff. As a result of that hard work just recently in August, the board approved “eight point commitment.” And that eight point commitment is basically… that we treat everybody fairly and with dignity and at the same time, we respect them.
These listening lesson sessions, we learned a lot from that because these were students that were telling us things that were going on their campus that just cannot be tolerated. And so, as a result of this, we are committed now to this eight point commitment and we are going to get better, but the key is basically treating everybody fairly and with dignity and it starts there.
Riah Skrinnik: First of all, San Juan school district has about 46.7% low income families and 10% of kids with disabilities. Those people (are) having trouble right now: they don’t have any visual feedback in the school system right now. We don’t know what’s going on with them.
It’s very difficult to motivate kids to study when they live with parents [with] substance abuse or domestic violence. We don’t know what’s going on. The digital device is a very stubborn thing, and I believe to fix this problem we should have those kids show up in our schools at least once a week to make sure they’re safe, to make sure they have safety protections, to make sure they have social distance and they have more checkups with our teachers, with our staff so they can be noticed and they can be listened to.
Melinda Avey: I think bias is built on ignorance and the antidote to that is education and dialogue. It’s always nurtured by the status quo. We just get used to saying certain things, thinking certain things. So the conversations can be difficult. So again, I think communication is the basis for creating inclusivity for all of our students and our teachers. I think we need to talk about it.
There’s a practice of restorative justice. It’s long to try to explain that right now, but I think that’s a particularly effective way to deal with problems when they come up with bias in the schools. So that is something that I would be looking at very closely.
Andrew Blan: I do want to commend the board and the district for trying to make strides in regards to issues of diversity inclusion, through project equity, the equity task force, the FAIR Act. They are making changes, but that still doesn’t change the fact that, for example, African-Americans rate significantly lower on sense of belonging in school culture surveys, than other students. There is a lot more work to be done in this space.
The two things that I would like to see that the district currently doesn’t do are: one, measuring the hiring and retention of administrators and teachers of color, and then looking at if they do leave, why they left and how we can kind of bridge that gap and make sure that people are staying. Then secondly, a curriculum that reflects the makeup of the district and maybe that reflects foreign languages, maybe that’s ethnic studies, but something that showcases the full breadth of the American experience, different cultures, and making sure that every student feels like they have a home here.
Pam Costa: San Juan started on this journey actually back in 1973, we have continued to address it in many different ways. And I think this last push that has occurred is probably going to be the most exciting and the most productive of any that we have established. It started with listening to heal, a series of sessions with our community, with students, with parents, with community members, with our employees, and then went into in solidarity.
I had the honor of being able to attend every one of those sessions and listen to the thinking that was taking place. From that, the eight commitment points to educational justice came out. One of those is in retention of employees… It also includes having courageous conversations, talking to students, increased student voice. And with all of that, I think we will see great growth in San Juan.
Garrett Brewer: I graduated from Inderkum High School, which is ranked one of the most diverse high schools in the country. And after graduating, I attended university of San Diego, which had only about 8% minorities… So to include diversity first, you have to acknowledge that there is a non-inclusive system and take measures to amend that.
Next I would say is probably a staff that represents the student body, when the teachers can understand their students and know their culture and where they’re coming from. Then they can reach out and make strides in education to bridge the gap. I would say another way to get more diversity in the schools would be equitable education practices.
The full candidate forum can be viewed online here.
*This article has been updated with additional information from Riah Skrinnik, provided by the candidate after publication.