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Monrovia School Link ~ Number 68 ~ Oct. 23, 2003

Well, was that ever fun! If you missed the candidates forum tonight, I hope you are able to catch it on KGEM. Also, I must say the chairs at the Clifton Middle School auditorium are a lot more comfortable than at the district office. Maybe they oughta hold board meetings there instead.
~ Brad Haugaard (brad@sacklunch.net)

THE FORUM ~ Right off, you could see a couple broad themes: Incumbents Francie Cash and Betty Sandford and challenger Ed Gililland emphasized their status as long-time Monrovians. Challengers Clare Chesley, Brian Wong and Alex Zucco emphasized their status as parents with children in the district schools. Zucco said it would be nice if board members occasionally attended PTA meetings. Gililland touched on the parents topic too, saying that it is fine for parents to be involved at the board level, but it is "critical to get parents involved at the site level ['site level' is education-ese for 'school']," which, he said, "is most important." Also, all four challengers hit on communication and leadership, two topics I regard as critical.

Chesley, Wong, Zucco and Gililland said the board has a problem with communication. Wong said the board needs active debate, Chesley said the meetings need to be more engaging with more parental involvement and Zucco even closed her comments by describing her difficulties in simply trying to attend a meeting about a topic that interested her. The Web site was out of date; there were no phone numbers or email addresses on it, and when finally managed to get the information about the meeting, she showed up and, she said, the question had already been essentially decided in a study session. Gililland agreed about the lack of communications, and also wondered "How does the board communicate with areas that don't get KGEM?"

Regarding communication, Cash said the board has "heard loud and clear that communication has not been as clear as it should be." She said the board has "been efficient but not effective in communication." I've been thinking about how the board can be "efficient but not effective" and am not quite sure what that means. And while I'm glad the board has heard "loud and clear" that its communications have been inadequate, I have to wonder what has been the matter with its hearing for the last few years when I've been complaining about it. Perhaps my communication has been efficient but not effective.

Sandford said she is out in the community "almost daily," meeting with networks and organizations. She said she hopes the other school board members do the same. She suggested the board should occasionally meet at other places, by which I guess she means schools. Ya know, that's not a half-bad idea. But she's had four years on the board and as far as I know this is the first time she's ever suggested it. Why didn't she push for this years ago?

Then, responding, I guess, to criticism about the lack of serious discussion at the board meetings, Sandford said that - and I'm not making this up, as Dave Barry would say - "Perhaps we could take 15 minutes out of every board meeting to discuss an important issue." Hello? Isn't the *whole* board meeting supposed to be about important issues? Do you think the board can really afford to cut 15 minutes out of the trivia? Yikes! I hope that was just a silly slip of the tongue.

Gililland emphasized his abilities as a leader, highlighting his involvement getting lockers back in the high school and his current project getting a new snack bar and rest rooms at the high school, plus his years as a manager in the Forest Service.

On the financial front, nobody, wisely, promised the moon. The state provides the money and what it gives is basically what the district gets. Wong, as someone who works with finances for governmental agencies and for a non-profit agency, seemed most knowledgeable to me, and he said there'll be "no easy answer." The others were basically of the same mind. Sandford added that she wished the board had more input from the community on budget issues. She said she has taken budget issues to community organizations "and they don't give us an answer."

The inadequacies of the GATE program really seemed to hit a nerve. Sandford said the program for advanced students is "not quite what it should be." Some teachers, she said, have the ability to provide GATE teaching and others don't, so she suggested putting all the GATE students in a separate room for part of the day. Cash noted that question of the GATE program came before the board last night and the board "agendized it" (i.e. put it on the agenda for a coming meeting). Chesley said it's not just the GATE program that has a problem, but also special needs students and those whose parents don't speak English. She said it took the parents to organize and press the district for a meeting about GATE before it happened. Gililland said GATE needs a committee of concerned parents to give the board guidance. Wong said if the board had parents on it, the board members would know that there is a problem with the program. He said Duarte has a "fantastic" program, and "why it hasn't been tapped into, I couldn't tell you." Zucco added that trying to figure out how get your child into the program is "tedious." She said Pasadena Unified's Web site spells it all out nicely. Monrovia should do the same, she said.

And how about the balance of power between the board and the superintendent? Sandford said it is at an appropriate level. She said if the superintendent does not perform the work laid out for her, she'd be fired. Maybe so, but since I've never heard the board ever lay out any work for the superintendent, I'm not sure how the board would know if she had accomplished it or not. Gililland said Superintentend Louise Taylor is "highly respected" in educational circles, and added that the board needs to partner with her and not dictate like in a communist country. Wong said everybody seemed to be in agreement about "how the board is supposed to work, but I'm not at all sure that's how it does work." He got some chuckles out of that. He added that the relationship should be that of employer to employee, and while it should be a good relationship, the board needs to take the leadership role. Zucco said the current board is "passive." She said she thinks the roles of superintendent and board have been reversed. Chesley was even stronger. She said the board has "abdicated its leadership role to the superintendent, and that's plain wrong." She said the board simply accepts what the staff has to say instead of digging down. She said the board should be curious, asking how staff members arrived at their conclusions, and she said that should occur in plain view of the public.

In closing, Sandford said the job is very complex, and involves working with people from the city, chamber of commerce and state legislature. "I urge you to reelect me to the board of trustees," she said. Board of Trustees? Here I thought she was running for the Board of Education. Cash said she tries to treat people with respect and kindness (I'll vouch for that; she's even smiled at me on occasion, and Lord knows I've given her no reason to) and she has developed a high level of trust with the staff. Gililland emphasized his experience and leadership in the community. He said he wants other districts to look at Monrovia and say, "If Monrovia can do it, we can too." Wong said there is a lack of communication and "I don't see that communication is getting any better." Zucco told the story I mentioned earlier about the difficulty of simply attending a meeting on a particular topic, then finding it had already been decided. Chesley said the district excuses low test scores by saying the demographics of district parents are low. She challenged that, describing amazing results in the Inglewood School District, where, she said, 80 percent of students were on the free lunch program, but the students had very high scores on the standardized tests.

OOPS ~ I've been writing Ed Gililland's name as "Gilliland." I saw his name written on his name plate up front and wondered if they had it wrong. When I got home I tried to look him up in the phone book but couldn't find him, so after I'd already changed into t-shirt, shorts and sandles, I had to go out looking for one of his signs. For the record, it's "Gililland," and I apologize. Someone with a last name of "Haugaard" should be more sensitive to that.

NICE GUY ~ Retiring Board Member Roger Graziani sat behind me briefly and I got to speak to him. It confirmed my earlier decision not to chat with the board members. I liked him. He's a nice guy. A conversation or two more like that with him and I'd have found it very difficult to say anything critical about him. He said it felt odd to be sitting in the audience, and said he's moving out of Monrovia, and may even spend a year or two in Great Britain or Australia on a Fulbright scholarship. Well, I hope he enjoys it very much.

Copyright (c) 2003, Brad Haugaard. Also on the Web, when I get around to putting it there, at: http://www.sacklunch.net/MonroviaSchoolLink