Seven candidates running for the Lompoc Unified school board spoke Thursday evening during a forum held by the Lompoc-Vandenberg branch of the American Association of University Women. Mike Phillips, a retired schoolteacher of over 40 years, moderated.
There are three spots on the board up for election Nov. 3. The only incumbent running is Dr. Bill Heath, challenged by Tom Blanco, Janet Blevins, Martin Casey, Gary Cox, Kathi Froemming and Alex Murkison.
While some candidates’ opinions differed, the general sense was that of agreement — especially when discussing frustrations about the current board.
“People want to be sure that they can trust what’s going on,” Ms. Froemming said when asked about administration-teacher communication. “I think there’s been a lot of public discourse around a lack of transparency.”
Everyone echoed the need for transparent leadership.
“I would push for our superintendent to live in our town and visit schools,” Mr. Casey said. “I think that would build trust.”
Mr. Blanco said the website should be easier to navigate for community members, as he finds it hard to access the information on it sometimes.
Ms. Blevins, a retired LUSD teacher, offered her perspective bluntly.
“There is an atmosphere of secrecy, and it is the opposite of openness. There’s plenty of board policies, they’re just not being followed.” she said.
Her answer was followed by a new question: What are effective procedures and/or criteria for evaluating the performance of the superintendent and the board itself?
“The board hired the superintendent, so I’m sure they had criteria,” Mr. Cox said. “So if there’s some disgruntled over the superintendent, it seems the board didn’t do their job.”
Mr. Murkison suggested a survey get sent to teachers.
“We all agree that we are elected by our community, so we need to value what they see,” he said. “If they feel like we’re not doing our job or the superintendent isn’t, we need to really listen to why they feel that way and go forward with the evaluation process.”
Mr. Blanco said it should apply to a range of employees.
“Everybody needs to be evaluated from the top to the bottom; it’s the only way to maintain accountability,” he said.
Dr. Heath said there’s only been one superintendent evaluation during his six years as a board member.
“The problem on the existing board, I believe, is that the superintendent runs the board, and not the board runs the superintendent. He’s very skilled at manipulating how things work for the board,” Dr. Heath said.
Another question addressed recent curriculum changes. Moderator Phillips asked candidates what they thought of ethnic studies programs and comprehensive sex education.
“Learning from our mistakes, the ugly and the truth in our background, we are less likely to make the same mistakes again,” Mr. Casey said in agreement with continuing the ethnic studies curriculum.
But Dr. Heath disagreed.
“Although all these things are part of the curriculum, they are somewhat of a distraction from … reading, writing, arithmetic,” he said. “I think we need to teach the greatness of our country to our children and instill pride in them.”
Other panelists expressed favor for the curriculum but said it should stay an elective instead of a requirement.
“Mandates I would be concerned about because requirements crowd teachers’ concerns already. There’s already so much teachers have to do,” Ms. Froemming said.
Mr. Murkison shared his perspective.
“Nowadays, so many kids are willing to learn more about the history,” he said. “It was a struggle for me in high school not really learning about my background, my peers’ background, especially in a town where we as a minority are depleted.”
A main point of difference appeared in discussion over facility improvements.
“Our schools are in such terrible disrepair that we must pass a bond issue,” Ms. Blevins said. “Before I retired, I had ceiling tiles falling off of the ceiling onto my workspace.”
She also noticed loose asbestos tiles, a material no longer used because of asbestos’ link to critical lung conditions including cancer and mesothelioma.
Ms. Froemming wasn’t as eager to propose a bond.
“The pandemic has altered my perspective on any bond in the near future. I don’t see a bond passing given the circumstances of the pandemic,” she said.
And Dr. Heath didn’t like the idea of a bond measure whatsoever.
“I’m fiscally conservative. I’d like to see the district do better with what it has,” he said.
When asked about reopening, most candidates expressed caution.
“The school district has a plan in place and they’re ready to roll with it. No one wants to risk health,” Mr. Blanco said. “Our teachers aren’t quite comfortable returning yet.”
The district announced Friday its intent to reopen in January. This will be discussed during Tuesday’s board meeting.
After seven questions, the forum ran out of time, so candidates did not get to provide closing remarks.
A recording of the forum is available on the city of Lompoc TAPTV YouTube channel. Simultaneous Spanish interpretation was available on the live webinar thanks to a gift from the Fund of Santa Barbara.