By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The issues motivating the five candidates vying for the Santa Rosa school board range from making smart budget choices to expanding pre-school education to fostering stronger ties between local schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.
But one gut-wrenching issue this year — the decision to close Doyle Park Elementary School and cede part of the campus to the new French-American Charter School — has spawned key discussions among most of the candidates. These include, among other things, the need to bridge the gap between the school district and Latino parents, ensuring that no school is ever closed without a thorough public process and doing more to address student segregation in the district.
In the case of attorney Jenni Klose — one of two challengers running for the board — the Doyle Park episode was in some ways the catalyst for her candidacy. Her sister taught at Doyle Park for 14 years and her family has over the years maintained strong ties to the school.
“In watching all the (board) meetings, Doyle Park was referred on numerous occasions as a failing school,” Klose said. “The questions was never posed, ‘should we find out why?”
Brian Noble, the other challenger and also an attorney, said Doyle Park’s closure unnecessarily pitted two communities against each other, Doyle Park families and the families of children who had signed up for the French charter school. Noble’s two children are among the school’s 245 students.
“A school closure needs to have a due process,” he said. “Pitting communities against each other … that should never have happened.”
The school board voted in March to close Doyle Park, citing declining enrollment and low test scores. Doyle Park supporters filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, the decision was unfair to Doyle Park’s majority Latino students.
The lawsuit was ultimately settled, with both sides agreeing to share the school for the 2012-2013 school year. But the following school year, the French charter school will take over the entire campus.
School district officials argued that low enrollment put the school’s expenses during the 2010-2011 school year at $180,000 over revenues. It was one of many budget dilemmas school board members faced this year.
Sonoma County’s largest school district has lopped six days — including five instructional days — from the current school year, which equates to a 3.25 percent pay cut to teachers. The board also has moved to increase class sizes, slash transportation funding and drop its reserve budget from 3 percent to one percent of total spending.
In all, the 16,500-student district cut $8.3 million — 6.4 percent — from what had been a $130 million budget for 2012-13 and could be faced with $13 million in additional cuts if Proposition 30 fails Nov. 6, according to district officials.
For some, the Doyle Park controversy drove a wedge between the district and the school’s supporters and parents, many of them Latino. Latino activists viewed the move as unfair to Latino and immigrant students.
There are four board seats on the ballot. Three of the five candidates, Larry Haenel, Donna Jeye and Laura Gonzalez, are incumbents who said they have unfinished business on the board. Haenel and Jeye both voted in support of closing Doyle Park while Gonzalez voted against it.
Asked whether he would do anything different the next time a possible school closure comes up, Haenel said it is “always valuable to examine our process and to learn from our experience.” But he said sometimes tough decisions based on fiscal responsibility have to be made for the good of the entire district.
Haenel, who taught English at Montgomery High School for 32 years and has served as president of district’s teachers association, has been board president for six of his eight years on the board.
He credits the current board for hiring the district’s new superintendent, Socorro Shiels, the former assistant superintendent of educational services in the Morgan Hill Unified School District. The move, he said, will help the district more effectively reach out to its growing Latino constituency.
“She will understand our families and be able to involve them in a new way,” he said, adding that he would also like to strengthen ties between district schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.
Jeye, who joined the school board in 2004, said the issue of whether or not to close Doyle Park because of declining enrollment and the issue of finding a facility for the board-approved French charter were two separate issues and should have stayed that way.
“They unfortunately came before the board at the same time,” she said. “I think the timing was bad and we could have handled things better in terms of timing.”
Jeye said that moving forward the board could “improve communications with the parental community and give far greater notice to the community concerning major issues coming before the board.”
Jeye, who grew up in New Jersey, attended a career-focused college in Manhattan where she received an associate’s degree in accounting.
She said one of her priorities is to expand career technical education in Santa Rosa schools, as well supporting the district’s Kinder Academy programs, which are aimed at young children whose parents cannot afford to send them to preschool.
Laura Gonzalez became a board member four years ago when she ran unopposed. She is a 7th grade teacher of English and Social Studies at Windsor Middle School. She and board member Ron Kristof strongly opposed closing Doyle Park.
Gonzalez said that with Latinos now making up 50 percent of elementary school students, she brings a unique perspective to the board. The educational needs of so many non-English speaking children are crucial to the district’s success, she said.
“What are the best ways to make them fluent, to teach them English to make sure they flourish while they’re learning English?” she said. “We need to have an understanding of cultural competency — how to relate to people of a different culture.”
Doyle Park, which for years has suffered a “revolving door” of school principals, was not given a fighting chance, she said.
“I would not have voted for closure of Doyle Park until one principal had been there for at least four years,” she said.
Noble, one of the two challengers, said he decided to run when incumbent Tad Wakefield chose not to seek re-election, thus potentially leaving the board with no member with children attending district schools.
“I thought that left a gap in that sense,” he said.
Noble said the school board must deal with continued budget constraints, particularly if propositions 30 or 38 are not approved by voters. Noble said he’s been visiting district campuses to hear directly from teachers about various options for stabilizing the budget.
“Would it be furlough days? Would it be class size increases, reductions in staff, teachers or administrative staff, reductions in extra-curricular activities, sports activities?” he said. “Or if the teachers would prefer trying to seek support for a parcel tax.”
“It’s been mixed. I’ve heard some teachers that say, ‘I would much prefer furlough days over having increased class sizes,” he said. “I’ve heard teachers say we can’t afford any more furlough-day cuts. ‘I’ll have to get another job.’”
Klose, the other challenger, grew up in the district and graduated from Montgomery High School. She said that over a period of months she watched closely the board’s actions leading up to the Doyle Park closure.
The way it was handled, she said, created a rift in the community that for the most part broke along ethnic lines. She said that during the process the school was repeatedly referred to as a “failed school,” based on state test scores.
“Watching the Doyle Park process actually got me really interested in standardized test scores,” Klose said, adding that she then researched the subject extensively throughout the spring.
She questioned the way test scores were used to bolster support for closing Doyle Park. Standardized test scores are often only a snapshot of a school’s performance on the day the tests are taken, she said.
“We have to be very careful that the numbers we’re using are correct and accurately portrayed,” she said.
(Contact Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)