October 2, 2008

School Board Candidates Offer Wide Range of Issues

By Doug Oakley

Candidates running for Berkeley's two open school board seats are offering a wide range of issues they plan to champion if they win in the November election.

While the candidates generally agree that closing the academic performance gap between white and non white-students is important, other issues highlighted in the race include equal access to education among economic and racial classes, keeping music and art classes alive, adding more classrooms and making the district more energy efficient.

Current board President John Selawsky's seat is up for grabs. Board member Joaquin Rivera's seat also is open because he is not seeking re-election

In addition to Selawski, candidates for the two positions include community volunteer Priscilla Myrick, educator and nonprofit director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler and youth services coordinator Toya Groves.

Groves has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.

Leyva-Cutler, who has a bachelor's degree in Latino culture from San Francisco State University, said 10 years ago as a preschool director she had Latino parents come to her and say "my kid is fluent in English, so why did they put him in an English as a Second Language class? It's better now. But that helped shape my views on equity and advocacy." She said good education for children starts when a mother is pregnant.

"Pregnant mothers need good information on what it means to raise successful children and adults," Leyva-Cutler said. "If a student doesn't have housing, how do we make sure they have housing? If they need tutoring, how do we provide that? For some students, they may not have a problem with the academics, but they don't have support at home. All it takes is for someone to recognize they are doing something outstanding." In addition, she said the district needs to make sure all Berkeley families have access to preschool before they enter elementary schools.

Selawsky, who has been on the school board for eight years and who is a youth supervisor at the downtown Berkeley YMCA, said while gauging student learning is important, "there are many definitions for success besides standardized tests.""I want to continue to work on music and arts classes," Selawsky said. "I have been the board member assigned to those programs and will continue to advocate for them." He also wants to continue work on educating kids about the importance of accepting nontraditional family structures like having two moms or two dads at home.

"There needs to be a deeper understanding of family types and we need consistency in anti-bullying policies," Selawsky said. "We have some policies in place at some schools and none at others." Other issues important to Selawsky are making schools more energy efficient by adding solar panels and using green building practices on new buildings and considering subsidized housing for teachers.

"We have a maintenance building at Oregon and Russell streets, and I would like to see staff and teacher housing there," Selawski said. "You go into partnership with a housing agency or a developer and you either build rental units or ownership type places. We could probably provide 20 or 30 units there if they were rentals." Priscilla Myrick, a former financial officer in the pharmaceutical industry and member of the Berkeley High School governance and site councils, said her top priorities in addition to the achievement gap and the budget are classroom space, teacher training and better summer school programs.

"This summer I was a writing coach helping sixth, seventh and eighth graders who failed English," Myrick said. "Four weeks is simply not enough time. I believe more resources and attention should be given to a high quality summer school program for all grades with the goal of bringing students up to grade level before they advance to the next year." Myrick said her work with a group called Writer Coach Connection in Berkeley that supports students and teachers in the classroom fuels her belief that there needs to be a stronger curriculum for reading and writing.

Candidates were asked two basic questions. Their answers are as follows:

Where do you stand on the Berkeley High School plan to create advisory groups of 20 students for each teacher as a way to personalize the education experience and help close the academic achievement gap between white and nonwhite students?

Leyva-Cutler:- I'm very supportive of the advisory groups. It's going to be an academic curriculum and at the same time it's an opportunity for students to have personal contact with someone who cares and knows them.''

Myrick: I don't think the student advisory plan is sufficient and there is not enough budget support for it. I endorse the concept of looking for ways to personalize the high school experience. But the current plan is not workable for the 3,200 kids at Berkeley High School. There is not enough class space to accommodate what would amount to 160 groups being created. There's no curriculum and no money for professional development. The plan does not extend the school day, so time would be borrowed from other subjects.

Selawsky: I have to tell you that the jury is out on student advisory groups for me. A lot of details have yet to come forward. There may be costs attached to it that we don't know. Teachers are going to be expected to pick up more students per day per week, potentially. I don't believe they are going to do that without expecting more compensation. It's a concept but with no details whatsoever. The details will make or break it. We may not even have the space to offer this.

The school district will have to operate this year with essentially less state money than last year when you consider inflation. How do you plan to run the district with less money?

Leyva-Cutler: Our superintendent created a budget advisory committee this year, which is new. He included many people in the district to look at the budget, and people made recommendations, so this is a good way to have an open dialogue to advocate for what's working, what's not working. It's a good way to look at how we are going to work with less money.

Myrick: My professional experience in financial planning and budgeting should be a benefit to the school board. In reviewing any budget prepared by staff, my top priority would be that the maximum amount of dollars be allocated to direct instruction of students and teacher salaries. I would also make sure staff are looking for ways to reduce non instructional or administrative costs through streamlining systems and more efficient handling of business operations.

Selawsky: We've already made about $2.5 million in cuts for this year. We have to monitor that and make sure the cuts hold. We may have to make some adjustments. I've been on the board for eight years, really lean years, and we got through it and survived and we are solvent.''

Reach Doug Oakley at [email protected] Berkeley school board candidates

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler

Age: 52

Education: Bachelor's degree in la raza (Latino culture) studies from San Francisco State University and a master's degree in human development from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, Calif.

Background: Executive director of BAHIA Inc. in Berkeley for last 20 years, a nonprofit school for kids ages 2 to 10. Serves on the First 5 Early Care and Education advisory committee, the Berkeley High School governance council and the budget advisory committee of the Berkeley Unified School District

Priscilla Myrick

Age: 57

Education: Master's degree in business administration from Columbia University, New York; bachelor's degree in religious studies from UC Berkeley.

Background: Former chief financial officer for Oclassen Pharmaceuticals, board member and treasurer of Community Alliance for Learning and member of the Berkeley High School governance and school site councils

John Selawsky

Age: 56

Education: Bachelor's degree in urban education from University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Background: Current president of the Berkeley Unified School District school board, youth supervisor in downtown Berkeley YMCA and former co-chair of the People's Park advisory board

Toya Groves


Education: Bachelor's degree in African American Studies from UC Berkeley.

Background: Teacher and Teen Coordinator at Berkeley Youth Alternatives; three children in Berkeley schools; involved in Four Corners Association, Ashby Flea Market Vendors' Association, Ashby BART Task Force.

Originally published by Doug Oakley, Staff writer.

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