JOSHUA TREE — The austere financial times the school district is enduring was a common thread running through a forum introducing the four candidates vying for three seats on the Morongo Unified School District Board of Education.
The forum took place Monday evening, Oct. 8, at Friendly Hills Elementary School.
Incumbents Ron Palmer and Ed Will gave statements and answered questions alongside challengers Ralph George and Karalee Hargrove.
During his opening statement, George explained how he got involved in the local public education process.
“After a while it sort of dawned on me: I can do this too.” With no disrespect toward the incumbents seated to his right, George explained how any candidate for public office should have that feeling.
Hargrove ran for the board in 2010 and is a former classified employee.
“My biggest thing is technology,” was her continuing message. “Make us more competitive with bigger school districts. We need to find companies that will give us money.”
Palmer, a veteran of 35 years in education who served two terms as Morongo Teachers Association president, said he was knowledgeable about school district matters after five years of experience on the board. Palmer said his major goal is to keep the district solvent without dipping into reserve funds.
Will has 12 years teaching experience and nine years on the Board of Education. The current board president said the first issue is keeping the district solvent while balancing the budget and keeping cuts as far away from the students as possible.
Questions posed by people in attendance at the forum and read to the candidates by moderator Michelle Maresh included:
What is your position on Proposition 30 and why?
(Prop. 30 is a temporary tax on the November ballot to fund education.)
Hargrove: “We really need this to pass.”
Palmer said after the forum he is in favor of Prop. 30, “Because of our kids. It’s not that big of a burden on our taxpayers.”
Will: “A resounding yes.”
George said the proposition is the closest thing MUSD is going to get to the state’s providing public education funding. “A quarter-cent sales tax is tolerable.”
What precisely does fiscal responsibility mean to you?
Palmer: “Pay the bills and keep the budget balanced.”
George: “Operating the district within its financial means. Doing the best we possibly can with the finances we have.”
Hargrove: “It’s like running my household. I have to live within my means. Where can we cut? Where can we borrow?”
Will: “Sitting board members are responsible for the stewardship of the budget. It’s absolutely everything. We’re responsible for the income and the outgo and to see that we have money left when we’re done.”
Where do you feel the arts, Regional Occupational Program and athletics fall in the budget continuum?
Will: “They are exceptionally important to keep in the curriculum.” Will went on to explain the importance of each of the three non-core programs to the rounding of a student.
George and Hargrove both said the three programs are just as important as core subjects. Palmer said he would support all three of these high-priority items.
With whom would you meet with, in addition to district administration, prior to making a district decision?
George: “I would hope to get as much information from as many people as possible.”
Palmer: “You always gather as many facts as you can before you make a decision.”
In addition to administrators, Hargrove said she would want to talk with board incumbents.
Will said he would also confer with department heads.
What qualifications will you be looking for in a new superintendent?
Hargrove: “Leadership; someone who wants the best for the district, who can work with all of us. Someone who is good with a budget, and personable.”
George: “The classic things — experience, knowledge, ability to work with others. The ability to convey necessary information without tainting it with their personal ideals or opinions.”
Will: “Strong leadership skills. Stewardship responsibilities. They have to be knowledgeable in school policies. Experience. Supervisory and problem-solving skills.”
Palmer: “Leadership is the major qualification. They have to have the ability to see the big picture and have the ability to work with people.”
Many teachers are concerned about tying evaluations to test scores. Your thoughts?
Will: “Personally I don’t see the value. You have to deal with students as they come to you. Test scores don’t show the entire picture.”
Palmer: “Test scores, 20 percent — maybe.”
Hargrove said she would expect teachers and classified employees to hold her accountable. “I would hope you guys would want to be the same way as well.”
George said he doesn’t think the school district is providing “all of the options available in the California Education Code.”
What do you see as your primary duty as a member of the MUSD school board?
Palmer: “Make sure students receive the best opportunity to get an education.”
Will mentioned the budget, keeping the district solvent and protecting the rights of students to a safe environment.
George: “Foster an environment that provides the best opportunity for students to get the education they deserve.”
Hargrove: “Following board policies and the education code. If we don’t follow that, nothing will work. Top-notch education.”
What specific actions could you or would you take to improve morale among district employees?
Hargrove said she wants to get involved in every classroom and see everybody happy. “I’m there to bring teachers, students and parents together as one unit.”
George talked about the importance of morale, and shared that in his current professional position, he has worked without a contract for 16 months. George said he’ll have an open door and open ear to do what he can to address issues.
Palmer: “Give employees a raise. I would start with a cost of living increase.”
Will: “It’s hard to plan for the future when we’re being held hostage by the state. A raise and assistance with benefits would certainly help. Morale affects everything.”
What would your plan be to increase parent involvement at site and district levels?
Palmer said the school principal is ultimately responsible and suggested they do whatever they can, including, “letters home, go door-to-door if they have to. Creative stuff. Communication. Muffins for moms, donuts for dads.”
Will described how he made one-on-one contacts with parents during his tenure as a school band director.
George opined that parental involvement is critical while Hargrove said she would establish an educational oversight committee and set up town hall meetings.
The state is transitioning from state to national common core standards. Your thoughts?
Will: “I think it’s going to be a great idea, particularly to military family members who frequently transfer from state to state.”
Hargrove agreed that nationwide standards could be particularly beneficial to a high school senior in a military family who transfers.
Palmer also endorsed the plan but said he’d have to see what would happen with testing.
Do you think the school board should take a stand on state or national educational issues?
George: “I don’t see what purpose it would serve.”
Hargrove also nixed the idea. “I want to focus on our students. I’m here for this school system.”
Palmer and Will simply said no.
Share about a school employee who had an impact on you.
Will described Mr. Roger, a custodian in his elementary school who was friendly and would pop into a classroom to listen to a lesson. “He made a mark on me.”
George described his Needles High School counselor, Mr. Wilson, who was available to talk at any time on any subject. “He was happy to do it. He had a great impact on my life path.”
Hargrove described her second-grade teacher, Ms. Peck, with whom she connected. “She greatly influenced my life.”
Palmer talked about his third-grade teacher. Mrs. Shoenberg. “She taught us all kinds of songs, played softball with us, ate lunch with us. I always admired her because she was really smart in math. She was just a swell human being.”
What changes would you like to see happen in MUSD within the next 10 years?
Hargrove: “Bigger, better with more money. Technology. Career fairs. Communication.”
Palmer: “I want to continue to increase our graduation rates and decrease drop-out rates. Return electives to secondary schools and re-open Monument High School.”
Will: “We can’t get away from technology. It’s going to be difficult to keep up. I’m tired of cutting. I want to put programs back in place. Electives. More teachers. Smaller classes.”
George said technology is the theme. “I’d like to arm our students with the technology they need now and for the future.”
During closing statements, Palmer said he was going to stick his neck out by observing public schools are being defunded right before our eyes.
“Unions are being demonized,” the trustee said. “Stick together; tough times are coming down the road. We need you to stick together to get through this crisis.”
Will spoke of the growing chasm between parents and teachers, fostering communication and finding common ground.
George said it’s going to take a board that has the ability to make fiscally responsible decisions.
Hargrove said she wants a chance to serve, to show her potential of what she can add to the board to get students to their fullest potential.
“I want you to hold me accountable. I will hold true to your expectations.”
Afterward, the incumbents and challengers met with their current or prospective constituents for further discussion.
The California School Employees Association and Morongo Teachers Association organized the forum.