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Del Mar Union School District candidates participate in forum
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Del Mar Union candidates talk TK, special ed, enrollment at forum

DEL MAR — Seven candidates vying for three open positions on the Del Mar Union School District board of trustees shared their views on top issues facing the district in a virtual forum ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

Incumbents Trustee Doug Rafner and Trustee Scott Wooden, both of whom have served 12 years on the board, along with Trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick, who is finishing her first term, are all running for reelection against four challengers. Cinda Peck and Bill Porter are both retired district teachers, and Maniza Sheikhani and Danielle Roybal are both parents of students in the district’s special education program.

Trustees are elected via an at-large process rather than via election districts. The top three vote-getters in November will win seats on the board.

At an Oct. 24 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters North County San Diego, candidates faced questions regarding implementing transitional kindergarten, declining enrollment, engaging stakeholders and their priorities for the board.

Del Mar Union is currently one of a few elementary districts in California that have not complied with the mandate to implement transitional kindergarten. While all candidates agreed TK is necessary, they had different ideas on how and when it should be implemented.

Rafner claimed that the district’s status as a basic aid district, which relies mainly on revenue from property taxes rather than state funds, means they cannot make the program happen right now without pulling resources from other programs.

“The issue is the fiscal responsibility of implementing that program,” Rafner said. “As a basic aid district, the state that requires those programs does not offer funding for those programs.”

Roybal argued that the district could allocate funds toward TK and other programs from other budget areas, noting that the community possesses healthy reserves. Fitzpatrick, a vocal proponent of TK in Del Mar Union, agreed that the district should prioritize it and said that it is not hurting for money.

“I would like to see our school district make some progressions that I think we are still lagging with many school districts — the majority of school districts — in the state, and offer more early educational opportunities,” Fitzpatrick said. “(Unlike) those given state dollars based on average daily attendance, we get so much more in property taxes that our students receive more than most of the surrounding ADA districts. We are a very wealthy district.”

Wooden stated that with declining enrollment, the district should have more funds to allocate toward implementing TK and other programs, such as fully funding teachers for the district’s STEAM+ programs.

In August, district leaders said they were keeping an eye on decreasing enrollment in local schools, a phenomenon consistent with state and national trends. Several candidates at the forum agreed that trust in public schools needs to be built up again to bring students back.

Sheikhani, a local real estate agent, said there are also specific issues in Del Mar Union causing many families to leave.

“We don’t look at the fact that families are leaving because they are unhappy with the curriculum; they are unhappy with the special education. I’ve gone doorknocking, and I’ve listened to a lot of families and concerned community members that are just not happy with public education,” she said. “I came to the conclusion that this school district needs a new direction and needs valuable parent input.”

Wooden, however, emphasized his belief that the district’s leadership has ushered in an era of excellence for the district.

“My goals when I was first elected were to bring stability to the district at a time of turmoil, providing mutual respect, trust and leadership principles that focus on what is best for children. I commit to that again today,” Wooden said. “The Del Mar Union School District is one of the best elementary districts in the state, due to the board. This board works, and it has since I joined it. Let’s keep it moving forward.”

The forum also fostered discussions about gathering teacher input and addressing fears of retaliation among staff members who speak up about issues in the district. Several board meetings in the spring were dominated by teachers and other staff calling for greater respect from district officials, leading to board members and Superintendent Holly McClurg committing to including more staff feedback in the district’s development of its strategic plan.

Peck, speaking from her 25 years of experience as a Del Mar Union fifth-grade teacher and music teacher, said there need to be more opportunities for staff to provide anonymous feedback that will be used to shape decisions.

“In the past, our surveys have not felt very anonymous,” Peck said. “We need to include our teachers in all those ground-level decisions, not just when the decisions have been made, because our teachers are an incredible resource with their expertise and their experience.”

Porter noted that he has experience working as a special education teacher in Del Mar Union and as a teacher and administrator in the Vista Unified School District and has experience working on teacher contract negotiations.

“I want to work on trust, respect and true collaboration, especially with teachers, because currently, I don’t believe they feel that they are being heard right now, and that troubles me,” he said.

Along with addressing teacher concerns, candidates discussed how special education is run in the district and the need for improvement.

Parents, including Roybal and Sheikhani, as well as special education advocates, have spoken up throughout the past year about the district’s lack of services for students with individualized education plans and the leadership’s combative nature when it comes to working with special education parents.

“We escalated concerns all the way up to Tony Thurmond … superintendent of all of California schools, and in some instances, we were turned away or redirected and told, ‘It’s the school board that’s in charge of taking care of your concern.’ Well, what do you do when you can’t make a change on the school board? You run, and that’s why I’m running,” said Roybal, who also has a background in finance.

A survey among staff working in special education shared with district leadership by the teacher’s union earlier this year claimed that staff face high-stress levels and are asked by department leadership to complete unethical practices.

Among the three incumbents, only Fitzpatrick said she believed there should be improvements to the district’s special education program, adding that she would like to implement a committee focused on this topic.

Wooden claimed that the survey among special education staff was “not a very good one” due to the questions being centered on hearsay and said that all the issues raised by special education staff had been resolved.

Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Ryan Stanley confirmed in October that he had completed an investigation into the allegations in the survey and that the concerns had been addressed, but offered no further details.

A full recording of the forum is available on the YouTube page of the League of Women Voters North County San Diego.