Packed House at the Conejo Valley Unified School District Candidates Forum 9-27-18

By Diane Hawkins

It was all hands on deck Thursday night as a packed Conejo Valley audience heard from each of the eight candidates vying for just three seats on the Conejo Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees in the upcoming November elections. THRIVE Conejo, a 250-plus-member nonpartisan group committed to “advancing inclusive education within the CVUSD,” hosted the community forum at Cal Lutheran University to highlight the candidates’ priorities on meeting the needs of students of “ALL abilities” in District.

Dani Anderson, executive director of the Independent Living Center, which promotes independent living and full access for individuals with disabilities, moderated the evening’s forum, reading questions from THRIVE as well as several submitted by the audience.

Among the eight candidates, Mike Dunn is the lone incumbent, serving on the Board from November 2004 to the present. Dunn is a retired firefighter who expressed pride in CVUSD’s top ranking among the school districts in Ventura County and prioritizes accommodating the wishes of parents and taxpayers. He believes that inclusion of students of varied abilities requires that the District continue providing information to school principals about structuring classrooms to offer the least restrictive environment for all learners.

Amy Chen, a CVUSD parent holding a doctorate in Pharmacy, serving as CFO of First Ave. Education, Inc., and director of the nonprofit Top Goal Education, is running for the Board on the platform of “children first, parental rights, transparency, and preventing school closures.” Chen’s view of inclusiveness involves serving all students of all abilities in the classroom, incorporating co-teaching as well as learning assessments by teachers and paraprofessionals.

Patrissha Rose Booker’s goal as a Board trustee would be to serve as a “voice for the voiceless.” Booker is a CVUSD parent who believes the way to speak for students and parents is to go into communities and meet with families to find out what is important to them in their school and learning experiences. “Inclusion” is a problematic word for Booker, who worries that it could result in “assimilation,” which she believes is a poor alternative to students maintaining who they are as individuals.

Cindy Goldberg is the parent of two CVUSD graduates and a self-described education advocate and parent leader, with a twenty-year history of school-site volunteering and committee work to help inform District policies and develop student-first programs and resources. She views inclusion as a mindset by which each pupil thrives supported by outreach, school-day planning, observation-based standards assessment, and both professional and resource development.

Marion Delano Williams is currently employed as a paraprofessional for the District and is “motivated by the students” to run for a seat on the Board. He previously ran, though did not win, in 2016. To Williams inclusion means the adoption of special education into the regular classroom. He believes that programs and interactions whereby teachers collaborate on ideas and students help each other, all children of all abilities stand to benefit.

Angie Simpson, a CVUSD parent, former high school English and dance teacher, and current Thought Leader Liaison at a biotech company, plans to ensure that the right educational options are offered to all students across the continuum of abilities. To achieve the goal of inclusion, Simpson would work toward students being welcomed by their neighborhood school to participate in a system that is customized for individual learners.

Bill Gorback, a retired teacher, counselor and school basketball coach with a Master’s degree in School Administration and Supervision and another in Counseling, is a also a former CVUSD parent. Gorback’s commitment to inclusion is to advocate for the placement of students in the best educational setting to meet their needs in the least restrictive environment. He favors greater staff support for the inclusion of special education in general education classrooms.

Jenny Fitzgerald is a Business Consulting Attorney and CVUSD parent to a special needs child. Fitzgerald perceives inclusion to mean that all students feel valued, that the school experience meets each child’s current needs, and that behavioral and social skills are learned. As a Board member she would focus on decreasing the achievement gap between students of all levels of ability by working collaboratively to create quality learning environments.

THRIVE Conejo interspersed the moderated question-and-answer format with video presentations showing some of the challenges faced by students considered to be members of underserved populations in California’s public schools; among these are children with disabilities, English-language learners, and students from low-income families. The videos posed several questions for the candidates.

Responding to the question of how would-be Board members would spend $1 million that landed in their laps to help underserved students, Williams said he would hire additional support staff for these groups, as well as provide meals to those in need: hunger is a problem, he has found. Simpson would use innovative strategies to strengthen support for general education classrooms to ensure more services for special needs students. Chen would use the money in classrooms, adding that the selection of programs should be a function of collaboration among teachers and parents, rather than of Board action alone. Fitzgerald would decrease the achievement gap through innovative technology for English learners and identify students with special needs at an early age.

When asked what place religion should play in curriculum selection, board policy, and decision-making, Gorback acknowledged the diverse community in the Conejo Valley, but believes in observing the separation of church and state.

Showing by way of video how one of four language learners are clustered into just a few schools, and asking how the issue should be addressed, Dunn pointed out that Title I schools are currently given $1,000 more for each Spanish-speaker, but that the money doesn’t follow the student to other schools. He advocates changing that.

Asked what factors contribute to a safe school environment and what needs to be done to keep kids safe, Booker asserted the need for strong community policing and teaching children how to identify people or conditions that might do them harm. Booker has an Associate’s degree in Sociology and a Bachelor’s in Social Science. Goldberg recommends a single point of entry at school campuses, collaboration with local law enforcement, and fostering a social-emotional connection with trusted adults on campus, employing counselors, peer mentors, and others to that end.

Describing declining enrollment as a looming concern, Dunn pledged not to vote to close another elementary school; he also cited the success of Madera Elementary School’s STEM Academy. Chen also committed to not closing neighborhood schools, saying the District lost approximately four thousand students last 12 years, most due to families choosing other options. To resolve the problem, Chen would identify innovations and flexible alternatives to meet families’ needs.

Regarding how to make teachers feel more valued and supported, Simpson suggested a mentoring program for newer teachers, career-development opportunities, and research-based training.

Asked about how to incorporate students’ voices in decision-making processes, Gorback said, “We don’t hear students as much as we should—we don’t pay attention.” He supports listening sessions with students and making them part of a board panel.

Asserting that conflict and disagreement can be beneficial in moving an organization forward, and asking what the Board’s role should be in managing these in the decision-making process, Goldberg replied, “I live for disagreement in polite and respectful ways.” She believes we learn from listening to others with whom we disagree.

In answering the question of what can be done to better serve and de-stigmatize mental health needs of the school community, Williams offered that “community” is the operative word: “We need to make sure students feel safe in and out of school.”

Addressing recent concerns some have raised about the culture of the CVUSD Board (see core literature selection battle) and what changes are needed, Fitzgerald plead for “an end to the culture of divisiveness and fear in the community,” and said “the Board must genuinely listen.”

To reach students who fall in the middle of the ability spectrum, Booker would address those students and families personally: “I’ll advocate for students whether I’m on or off the Board.”

The forum ended with candidates’ closing statements (summarized):

Fitzgerald: Having a child with special needs has changed me. Momma bear came out. As a Board member, it’s important to approach things and engage with others in a productive, non-defensive manner.

Gorback: I have 38 years in teaching and counseling. Standards should be based on what’s best for the student. All Means All (echoing THRIVE’s motto about inclusion in education). We must exhibit compassion.

Simpson: I have a genuine passion for student learning. Tax dollars must be spent wisely. I’ll remain open to new ideas and solutions. Inappropriate social media communications should not be tolerated.

Williams: I’m inspired by children—they are our future. Students need to be aware this. I ask for your vote.

Goldberg: Board actions are not about the individual, but the collective. CVUSD is the best educational choice in the area: exceptional without exception. I will be fiscally responsible and transparent.

Booker: Though I’m a “fish out of water,” my reason for running is to make sure voices are heard.

Chen: I will bring diversity and perspective to the position and be a good steward of District money.

Dunn: I respect parents and taxpayers and will work to maintain the excellence of this school district, to the benefit of all students and the local economy.


Photos by THRIVE Conejo

Diane Hawkins is a citizen reporter and resident of the Conejo Valley

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Deborah Baber-Savalla

Nice reporting, Diane… Classic journalistic writing… just the facts! Much appreciated!