VISTA — There will be at least one new face on the Vista Unified School District Board of Education.
However, there are a pair of incumbents up for re-election as part of the three competitive races for the board. And schools are one of the hottest topics due to the COVID-19 pandemic re-opening plans, plus unrelated issues the district has been grappling with for several years.
As for the races, incumbent and current board President Rosemary Smithfield is being challenged by Matt Simpson in Area 1, while incumbent Cipriano Vargas faces William (Bill) Faust in Area 4 with a trio of fresh faces — Julie Kelly, John Murphy and Mads Noesgaard — squaring off in Area 5.
Smithfield said several of her goals is to strengthen the special education curriculum and secure funding from the state or federal government to reduce class sizes. She highlighted the success of the dual-language program at two elementary schools but said the budget rules all.
For months, and even over the past several years, Smithfield has stressed to residents and parents to lobby the state for increasing education funding. She noted how the district requested $22 million for additional teachers in response to COVID-19, but those funds have not come through.
Still, culinary and broadcast programs have been a bright spot, along with magnet schools in drawing more students. Public school districts receive much of their funding from enrollment.
Simpson, meanwhile, said the district must continue moving forward with in-person school, saying between 40-50% of parents want their kids in school. He also chided the board for its decision last spring to forego grades and rolling with a credit/no-credit system.
Simpson also took aim at the project labor agreement with Measure LL, the $247 million school bond passed in 2018, saying it will increase costs.
Vargas said he wants to continue being a voice for the students, noting short- and long-term plans for the pandemic and after it is no longer an issue is critical. He said continual assessments and using data to drive decisions will help push the district forward.
As for the budget and declining student population, Vargas said it is important for VUSD to continue to institute new programs and offerings to draw students. Specifically, he noted the success of the dual immersion program at Grapevine Elementary School, while highlighting the second program at Alamosa Elementary School as examples.
Those programs, plus others are critical to the district’s long-term success. As for Measure LL, Vargas said the district will have to get creative to maximize the funds.
Faust, a former VUSD employee in finance, said the board has done the best it can with its COVID-19 response, although Faust said he would have liked a hybrid model included.
With the budget, Faust said some difficult roads lay ahead as the district has already cut $20 million over the last several years. During the pandemic, though, Faust said educational achievement has taken a back seat, and the board must act in the best interests of the students.
As for the budget, the district has already taken big cuts, and more may be on the way. Faust said nearly 90% of the budget is due to salaries, but if enrollment continues to decline, then more drastic actions are inevitable.
Kelly said the board must listen to the teachers and classified staff, two endorsements she sought out and received. Once the district emerges from the pandemic, Kelly said decisions must be based on facts so the district can stop aiming for the floor.
As for the budget, Kelly, who co-chairs the magnet school committee, said the district should pivot to more of those programs, noting the district raked in $7.5 million last year compared to $3.1 million in expenses for the schools.
Additionally, she said if Proposition 15 passes it will help better fund education, so districts like Vista can close achievement gaps.
Murphy said the board has lost trust with parents and balance is needed on the dais. He said the board must become parent-centric, and less controlled by the teacher’s union.
As for the budget, he noted with a 20% decline in enrollment over the past 20 years, the headcount at the district has increased by 30% and school site administrators have increased by 20%, thus acerbating the budget shortfalls.
Murphy also railed against the PLA, saying Vista residents voted against their inclusion in a countywide measure about 10 years ago. He said the agreement will inflate the costs and the project will be lost.
Murphy said the board must also challenge the equity versus equality debate, which includes helping low-income students and identifying what is working and applying those tactics to struggling students.
Noesgaard jumped in the race because of the control unions have over the board, he said. Also, strongly against the PLA, said it is unlikely to reduce costs for a bond already in jeopardy.
Noesgaard also said the district must focus on struggling students, saying numerous high school students read at fifth or sixth-grade level. The drop in enrollment also present an issue on the budget and academic achievement, he said, but with the pandemic changing the face of society, including a permanent virtual model to recruit those students who thrive online is an area the district must take seriously.