Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, Oct. 1 @ 6:13 p.m.
School Board Candidates Field Questions At COVID-Appropriate Forum; Topics Included Special Education, Equity, Collective Bargaining
Contenders for the local school board faced their would-be constituents Wednesday in a COVID-19-appropriate manner — via Zoom.
Though the pandemic was part of the conversation, True North Organizing Network’s Parent Power Committee also touched on equity, special education and family engagement among Del Norte schools at the first local forum of the Nov. 3, 2020 election cycle.
“I am a member of the Parent Power Committee,” said Angela Stanley, a parent of three children. “We are a group of community members dedicated to teaching families how much power they have in the school district, in schools and the education of their children.”
There are two seats on the Del Norte Unified School District Board of Trustees up for election on Nov. 3. Local businessman Frank Magarino, the incumbent for Trustee Area 3, faces challenger Sheryl Steinruck, a member of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation who grew up in Del Norte County.
Del Norte Senior Center executive director Charlaine Mazzei, who was appointed to the board in March, is running unopposed for Trustee Area 4.
Though the candidate for the DNUSD Board of Trustees must live in the area he or she is looking to represent, they will be elected by all Del Norte County voters on Nov. 3. The DNUSD board also serves as the Del Norte County Board of Education.
The third candidate running for the Trustee Area 3 seat, Billy Hartwick, did not participate in the forum Wednesday. According to Stanley, the committee reached out to Hartwick, who indicated that he had dropped out of the election.
Though he had mentioned wanting to drop out, Hartwick’s name will still appear on the general election ballot, Del Norte County Clerk Alissia Northrup told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Thursday.
“Once you’ve hit a certain point, you’re committed,” Northrup said.
Melissa Endert, a mother of four whose husband is a special education resource specialist at Smith River Elementary School, introduced the topic of special education by telling candidates about her son Zachary, who was born “with his eyes closed” on Jan. 25, 2008.
Zachary, who was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism, couldn’t get his needs met at a Head Start program in San Bernardino where the Enderts lived, his mother said. Endert said she enrolled her son in a preschool class for children with moderate to severe disabilities. She said she felt Zachary was receiving the help he needed when he wound up at Loma Linda Children’s Hospital after having a grand mal seizure, which led to an epilepsy diagnosis.
Endert said she dedicated herself to being her child’s advocate when her family moved to Crescent City, including serving on the community advisory committee for the Humboldt-Del Norte Special Education Local Plan Area.
“I learned of several discrepancies between what is offered and provided for families in Humboldt County versus what is offered here in Del Norte County. I felt Del Norte was getting under represented and under served,” Endert told candidates. “The question I would like to ask board members is, ‘How will you address the lack of funding provided here for our students with disabilities due to not having our local SELPA, but being tied into the Humboldt County SELPA?’”
Magarino, the first candidate to answer this question, acknowledged that though the district is always seeking grants and funding opportunities, Del Norte County’s isolation often means it gets ignored. This includes recruiting professionals to provide services for the district’s special needs students.
“We’re always trying to figure out what’s the best we can do to provide the needed help that our special ed kids and students need,” he said. “It’s a tough predicament we’re in and we continually seek opportunities, we continually try to recruit individuals that have the skills that could provide that service and it really is a tough predicament that we’re in.”
Magarino said a lack of money is also a challenge DNUSD deals with when it comes to ensuring its special education students have access to services.
“I wish we could recruit more people — we could recruit folks that have particular expertise — but it’s a difficult task to do,” he said. “Trust me, we bring the subject up all the time and we try to do whatever we can to provide the services we can for all our students.”
Del Norte has always been a satellite of Humboldt County, Steinruck said, using Del Norte County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates program as an example. DNUSD needs to pool its resources and look at how it’s spending its money, she said.
Steinruck noted that programs exist to help special education students. What’s needed, she said, is to determine if those services are getting to all the students in need.
“I’m very interested in getting to know Brooke Davis,” Steinruck said, referring to DNUSD’s Director of Special Education. “And different staff members to help us come up with viable solutions. I know we have them there.”
Mazzei, whose son is autistic, said she’s not opposed to Del Norte forming its own SELPA separate of Humboldt County. She noted that throughout her career in the nonprofit and government sectors, services that encompass both counties are often based in Humboldt County.
However, Mazzei said, losing the expertise of the current SELPA director, Mindy Fattig, could be detrimental to Del Norte.
“I think we do have a deficit in expertise in Del Norte County, in the school district, in special ed, that I don’t want to imperil,” she said.
Mazzei also noted that there are resources DNUSD can tap into, but she’s not sensing on the district’s part to take advantage of them.
“There has been a huge expansion in the types of services and the types of service providers that are now allowable to bill to MediCal,” she said. “That can expand the amount of funding that’s available to these special services even down to behavioral health intervention that has not been billable in the past. To me, that is the most urgent funding for special ed we need to be pursuing — making sure every penny we can bill to MediCal is being billed.”
Klamath Glen resident, Chrystal Helton, who has two boys at Margaret Keating Elementary School and another at Crescent Elk Middle School, brought up the issue of equity in education.
A lack of special education services and extra curricular opportunities often drives Klamath families to enroll their children in schools outside the area, Helton said. They feel their children aren’t receiving what they need to be successful, she told candidates.
“Margaret Keating is still the lowest performing school in the district,” Helton said, referring to standardized test scores. “This is not because our children aren’t great, but from a parents’ perspective this is due to a lack of equitable resources and support at Margaret Keating. When families drive their students to town and back, it takes its toll on those families as well as disconnects students and families from each other in the community.”
Helton asked candidates how each would ensure equity in their decisions as a school board member.
Steinruck, noting that her husband Don Steinruck taught at Margaret Keating, said as an American Indian whose people lived through massacres and boarding schools where they couldn’t practice their language and culture, she feels every school should be treated equally. She referred to the graphic novel, “How Did We Get Here?” which details Del Norte County’s diverse cultures and history, calling the area a “blended community.”
“We have cultural diversity, economic depression and then, you exacerbate it with the fact that we have a rural community miles away,” Steinruck said. “I think we are called unified for a reason. It’s a unified school district, and that means every school should be treated exactly the same. Each one of these children who enter our doors should be guaranteed the best possible education they can get.”
Though she said she hasn’t been on the Board of Trustees long enough to understand the “reasoning behind some of the decisions” made on behalf of Margaret Keating, Mazzei said when she was in school, the campus hosted students through 8th grade. It’s currently a K-6 school.
Mazzei called for a closer look at whether the district could work with the larger Klamath community to improve the resources available at Margaret Keating.
“There was no bussing of middle school kids to Crescent Elk,” she said. “They had a sports team when I was in the 8th grade. The Smith River Wildcats played the Margaret Keating Golden Bears. I don’t know what has happened in the interim.”
When he was elected to his first term as a school board member in 2016, Magarino said the school had a principal that was only there half of the time. It now has a full-time principal, he said. There are more teachers and more money filtered into the school, Magarino said.
Magarino also mentioned that the district is pursuing several grant opportunities, including one that will go to schools that are struggling academically. Magarino also spoke to the Redwood Coast Indian Career Pathway program that is exclusively for Native American students.
“There are kids that would make a great living just doing career, like owning their own business, owning their own plumbing company or whatever,” Magarino said. “I, for one, I never got a degree because I knew it wasn’t for me. I’m a very successful businessman because I chose a different career.”
Tamera Brooks, whose husband is in the U.S. Navy, asked trustees if they would support the graphic novel, “How Did We Get Here?” being taught in Del Norte schools.
Steinruck, who alluded to the novel prior to taking Brooks’ question, said she knows a lot of the people represented in the book, including Yurok Chief Justice Abbi Abinanti. Another person who plays a major role in the novel is Steinruck’s younger brother,
Loren Bommelyn. “How Did We Get Here?” represents Del Norte’s cultural diversity, she said.
Steinruck added that other cultural sensitivity programs — she mentioned Project 1619 specifically — should be taught in Del Norte schools.
“We live in a very divisive country with white supremacy taking over,” she said. “Unless we as a district grab the bull by the horns and pull ourselves together, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble here.”
Magarino drew on his experience as a 7-year-old child fleeing Cuba for frigid New York City when Fidel Castro came to power and later living in Miami. He said he knows what it’s like to be bullied for his culture.
“I was picked on and called words that I couldn’t quite figure out what they meant. Wop — without papers,” he said. “It was a real struggle. And, moving on to Miami, it was the same thing.”
Magarino said “How Did We Get Here?” resonates with him because of his upbringing, which includes being in the foster care system and living in boy’s homes.
“The terrible things that happened to the Native Americans up here is just unbelievable and it’s something that can never happen again if we rise up, work together, educate each other and try to put an end to this nonsense,” he said.
Mazzei praised the art in “How Did We Get Here?,” which was created by Oakland illustrator Robert Love. She said she not only thinks local history should be taught in Del Norte schools, but trustees and education advocates have to re-examine the curriculum across the board.
“I’m Zooming into my son’s 5th-grade history class and we’re still talking about Columbus discovering the Americas,” she said. “I knew about the relocation of kids to the Indian schools, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I realized that was happening up until the ‘50s and ‘60s. I had always learned that it was way back in the way back and to find out that it was parents of kids I went to school with, it’s intolerable.”
Mazzei said the issue she struggled with when reading the graphic novel was the idea that Del Norte County is “just an awful place to live.”
“I would love to have that conversation about how can we make it more positive. How can we highlight the kids that are successful here, that do come back and make this community their home?” Mazzei said. “I think it’s a great tool to start conversations with and I think we need to be looking for more stuff like it.”
The forum’s final question touched on the collective bargaining process in public education. Though it was asked by a member of the local California School Employees Association chapter, which represents Del Norte County’s classified staff, the candidates spoke to both classified and certificated staff.
The question comes after the Del Norte Teachers Association and DNUSD agreed upon a contract after declaring an impasse, working with a state-appointed arbitrator and teachers holding demonstrations in protest of the district’s actions.
Magarino said he wishes he could give staff a 20 percent raise, but he also wishes the state would give DNUSD “tons of money” so they could pay their teachers well and keep everybody happy.
“It is our responsibility to negotiate a fair contract we can afford as a district,” he said. “We cannot negotiate something that we cannot afford and put our district in a deficit spending predicament, which we are in. If you go into that direction and you go bankrupt, well, guess what, the state’s going to take over and you lose local control of the district.”
Steinruck said staff working without a contract is unacceptable.
“If we don’t have happy teachers, if we don’t have happy workers, we’re not going to have a happy school,” she said.
Steinruck referred to a previous job as manager of the Fuel Mart in Smith River, saying that she made sure her employees smiled and treated their customer with respect. She said she herself made sure to treat her employees with dignity as well.
“They’re the ones that make us look good,” she said.” They’re the ones in the trenches every day doing things to help our children learn to become productive citizens of society. It’s important we get the unions in order and (work) with our district so we are in lock step when we’re looking at our budget.”
Mazzei drew on her experience working with the Del Norte County Department of Health and Human Services for seven years adding that she was involved with the union that represented county employees. The Board of Trustees does need to address how negotiations are structured, she said, but it isn’t always one party that’s unreasonable.
“I think we need to look at the bargaining process,” Mazzei said. “I think we need to look at the MOU and see if there are ways to clarify some points that tend to be pain points, and if we can get them in writing so they don’t come up every single time.”
Mazzei also noted that sometimes the challenge isn’t about money. Communication is also a challenge, she said.
“Sometimes the answer is no,” she said. “Sometimes the answer is we don’t have the money to do what we would like to do for you.”
Before True North wrapped its forum, timekeeper Denise Doyle-Schnacker pointed out that early voting starts Monday and that all Californians will receive their ballot in the mail this election.
“Your postage is paid on all ballots in the state of California. You don’t need to add a stamp to it,” she said. “If you don’t want to mail your ballot, you can drop them in a secure drop box in the county clerk’s office as well as at City Hall. A third option will be to go to any of the 18 precincts and surrender your mail-in ballot to vote in person.”
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. For more information about local elections, including precinct locations, click here.