Editor’s note: This is among the articles on local candidates in advance of Tuesday’s general election. This story focuses on Santa Barbara Unified School District board candidate Dan La Berge. The News-Press reached out to his opponents — Efigenia Banales and Gabe Escobedo — for interviews, but they didn’t respond.
Dan La Berge, the executive director of the Mothers’ Helpers nonprofit and a former member of the Adelante Charter School board of directors, is one of three candidates seeking to replace incumbent Kate Ford on the Santa Barbara Unified School Board after her decision to not seek re-election.
He is running against retired educator Efigenia Banales and Santa Barbara Planning Commission chair Gabe Escobedo.
If elected, Mr. La Berge told the News-Press that his top three priorities will be to better connect parents to their children’s education, improve how the district manages its budget and human resources, and work with other board members to address complicated issues that “are not black and white.”
“I’m running mostly because of what I’m seeing our children endure at the moment,” Mr. La Berge said of his decision to pursue the open seat for SBUSD Trustee Area 1. “They have gone through the kind of disruption that no child really can really make sense out of, let alone come out the other end and thrive. We see that nationwide with our students, achievement scores are dropping dramatically.”
“But even prior to (the COVID-19 pandemic), we saw that the achievement was not at ideal levels — it’s been dropping since the late 70s, and it’s a multi-headed problem,” he continued. “I have reached the point both personally and professionally where I had an opportunity to give back … and schools seemed like the most prudent and best opportunity for me to apply both my experience and my zeal.”
When asked what K-12 education should look like in our contemporary era, Mr. La Berge stated that schools should work to ensure that students are meaningfully engaged and feel connected to the curriculum.
“Kids (in grades K-3) are going to operate best through hands-on interaction, trial and error, and experimentation — not rote memorization and repetition,” he said. “They’re going to learn by applying things and they’re going to be most engaged by things that create interest, create fun, create excitement, and create opportunities for them to use their own personal experiences as well as the combined experience with their peers.”
“But then when the kids get older, one of the things that I see just slipping and then when we look at the drop off of engagement, we look at the drop off of scores — well, your key is right there: The kids aren’t engaged. They’re not connected to the program anymore because all our budgetary efforts and teaching limitations have gone to just teaching the core academics,” Mr. La Berge continued.
“When I was a student, many years ago, you had lots of other avenues for kids to learn. Whether this is tech programs, whether this is shop programs, home economics — things to allow kids to engage, but then tie in academic components to that.”
Mr. La Berge also believes that schools need to do a better job of ensuring that parents are connected to their children’s education, pointing to the local example of Franklin Elementary School’s success in bringing parents back to the table.
“(Franklin Elementary) has overcrowding issues, lack of resources, they have a very high population of not only emerging language learners, but they also have a high population of what are deemed homeless students,” he said. “And their current principal, Ms. Kilgore, has turned that school around, and she’s done it from many ways — but one of the biggest key components is she chased parents down to get them engaged. She’s committed to making sure parents are involved one way or another … she’s doing whatever it takes, and that’s the kind of attitude we need in all our campuses.”
In terms of the impact of teachers unions on K-12 education, Mr. La Berge stated that he saw them as being a “net neutral” necessity.
“With any union, you get mediocrity for some,” he said. “But what we see here in our community (is that) we have people that have sacrificed their entire careers to our school district only to retire and not even be able to afford to live here … So if an employer, in this case the district, can’t create compensation that provides a reasonable standard of living for its employees, then unions are necessary to speak with a unified voice to make sure that they’re protected.”
Having put his own students through charter schools in the area, Mr. La Berge is a strong supporter of the alternative educational model as a means to provide “customizable and unique programming that can provide opportunities for students of all different needs and representation.”
Mr. La Berge, who did not begin college until the age of 24, also supports moving away from the “college for all” mindset that has defined American educational objectives for the past two decades and called for more “exposure to other forms of professional access … (such as) auto shop, HVAC, plumbing, wood shop, and home economics.”