Every year during West Sacramento's local election season, the News-Ledger invites each candidate for local office to a sit-down interview for publication in our pages. This year was no exception. Over the past two months, the News-Ledger has published an interview with each of the candidates running for mayor, city council or school board. The only exception was Walt R. Bowman, a candidate for a trustee's seat on the Washington Unified School Board, who declined an interview.
If you're a News-Ledger subscriber, you've probably already seen these interviews. But if you are not, or you missed one, or you just want to reacquaint yourself with the candidates, scroll down for a look at three people running for two seats on the Washington Unified School District Board of Trustees on Nov. 2, 2010.
And if you're not a subscriber, we invite you to consider a subscription to support local West Sacramento journalism. Just call 371-8030; the cost is just $20 per year locally.
HEATHER WRIGHT, challenger for WUSD Boart of Trustees
From the News-Ledger, Oct. 13, 2010 (copyright News-Ledger 2010)
By Steve Marschke News-Ledger Editor
Heather Wright has noticed that West Sacramento has been getting a lot of good press lately.
“But the only thing we haven’t been in the news for is our schools,” she commented. “I would like to see the community care more about the school system.”
Wright, 34, is running for a seat on the school board of Washington Unified School District. She’s a single mom, with kids in 7th and 8th grades, and has lived in the city since she was 12.
As a legislative assistant in the state capitol, Wright believes she has the skills needed to help make things happen in WUSD.
“”Politics and government are based on personal relationships,” said Wright. “When you are able to get along and to grasp issues, it comes easily.”
Working under different bosses at the capitol, she has also worked on different legislative issues.
“I like education and foster care,” said Wright.
The Southport resident is chipping away at college coursework as well, hoping for a college degree and a future as a math teacher. One of her kids attends Southport Elementary School in WUSD, and the other goes to school in Clarksburg because of a program lacking at Southport Elementary.
“I drive my kid 22 miles round-trip because we don’t have a band program at Southport,” she said.
As a board member, Wright feels she can help WUSD reach out to bring in both new ideas and new money from outside the city.
“I’ve been involved in my children’s education, and because I come from a politics background, I feel I have a large number of friends and contacts,” Wright said. There is a lot of stuff going on in other places, and I would draw from that. A board member’s job, I think, is to constantly stay educated on what is working well, to stay in touch with the community, to make sure the budget is as streamlined as possible, and to find creative ways to find the money for things that will help.”
Wright also wants to be a bridge between the town and the district.
“I would serve as a liaison between the school district and the community,” she said.
Two seats are open on November’s ballot, and only one incumbent (Sandra Vargas) is in the running for one of them. What does Wright think of the performance of the current WUSD school board?
“They’re doing a good job,” she said. “I think the board we have right now has done a fantastic job of getting us through this economy. We’re going through huge changes, going to the K-8 (elementary school) system, and we’ve had about four superintendents in six years.”
How are local students doing on standardized test scores?
“I believe we’ve improved at all our schools,” Wright answered, “but we haven’t improved enough to bring us out of (state-monitored) ‘program improvement’ status. What I’d like to do is find out what other countries are doing, because we’re around 23rd or 25th in math and language arts. . . (but) the state and federal government really dictate a lot of what we do.”
How does the district’s budget look?
“It’s a big challenge,” said Wright. “However, there’s money out there. We can write grant (proposals) for different projects, whether it’s reading programs, or field trips, or other programs, to fill the gap.”
Meanwhile, she added, the district can do better at sharing information about teaching techniques that work.
“There can be better communication in every direction – between teachers from one school to another, from the district to the schools and to the public, so we all know what’s going on.”
Is the district doing a good job preparing kids for a future that, for some students, doesn’t include college?
“I do know that when they built this new high school, they did not include or bring over any of the shop programs, which was a huge disappointment to many families,” said Wright. “I think now there are ideas floating around as to how to reinvent the campus. There are lots of different things that help keep kids interested in school, and that’s one of them.”
Wright said that local high school rates can be improved, and that WUSD can also learn from charter schools both inside and outside the district.
“We have a charter school in our district, and there are other things going on in education outside West Sacramento,” said Wright. “It comes down to having our superintendent visit those other places and ask questions and come back here and implement what’s working.”
Wright’s past community involvement includes service on a WUSD site council at Westmore Oaks Elementary School, and three years on the board of the local swim club.
Two of the school board’s five seats are on the ballot for November. Only one incumbent, Sandra Vargas, is running again. Also on the ballot are challengers Adam Menke and Walt R. Bowman.
ADAM MENKE, challenger for WUSD Board of Trustees
from the News-Ledger, Oct. 6, 2010
By Steve Marschke News-Ledger Editor
“A board member’s job is to hire and fire superintendents, manage the superintendent, and set long-term direction,” said Adam Menke.
Menke is a 35-year old engineer who designs bridges and other projects for Caltrans. He’s married and is stepfather to two kids at Bridgeway Island Elementary and River City High, as well as father of a toddler not yet in school. A graduate of UCD, he has been in West Sacramento for about six years. He’s now running for a seat on the local school board.
“I think (as a board member) you can set a direction and have ideas, and say ‘we’re going to be more open,’” said Menke. “Our kids will invariably do better if their parents are involved. As I walk around talking to people, I often hear comments like, ‘I tried to go down to the school and they didn’t want to hear from me.’”
Menke said he’d like to see Washington Unified School District encourage more parent-teacher communication to remedy that.
Does he have any particular criticisms of WUSD other than that, such as the way the district is currently implementing its necessary budget cuts?
“I haven’t really had an issue with that,” he answered. “I’ve read the budget. It took me a couple of days to read it. I asked some questions. I would have liked to see the cuts be a little more spread out. The classified employees got hit pretty hard, and textbooks and materials got hit pretty hard. I wish it could have been spread out to administration and other areas.”
“A board member has to understand budgets and how to work in a budget,” he said. With a grounding in math and familiarity with budgets, he believes he can do that.
How important are the results of standardized student tests?
“Test scores (in the district) have come up in the last year, and that’s a good thing,” Menke answered. “Most of our schools are still in ‘program improvement,’ which means they didn’t come up as much as necessary. Test scores are important – they’re a barometer of what we’re doing as a whole.”
Are enough kids graduating from high school in WUSD?
“Our community is very diverse,” he said. “I would love for every child to go to college, and I would like to produce an education that provides an opportunity for every child to go to college. But the truth is that not every child will go to college. We have a working class society in our community, and we need to be able to train them in the trades – show them there are great jobs available, but you have to take and pass algebra.”
Math, in fact is one of Menke’s favorite things. He’s a part-time math instructor at a community college.
“I love math,” said Menke. “I would teach math for free.”
As a board candidate, he isn’t running “against” the current direction of the school board.
“I think they’re doing okay,” he said. “They’re doing the best with what they have.”
He is concerned about a recent decision to use government financing to build a large solar energy system at River City. Menke isn’t convinced the project will “pencil out” and produce energy cost savings.
“I’m concerned that in a time of big budget cuts, we’re going into a project that could cost us money,” he said. “If it does make money, that would be a great thing.”
One thing he’d like to promote as a board member is improved campus safety, he said.
“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers down there at our high school and a lot of kids say it’s not as safe at our high school as it should be. Some parents are taking their kids to Christian Brothers or Delta (high schools) because of it. I think some of the concern is founded, but it’s not as bad as they think. The biggest thing that hit our school was (last year’s) food fight, when the principal got hurt. And students can say (inappropriate) things to staff and there are no repercussions. That shouldn’t happen.”
As a board member, he’d like to see the school board “have a backbone so (staff) knows they are going to be supported” in discipline issues.”
West Sacramento voters will vote to fill two seats on the Washington Unified school board on November 2. Menke’s competition includes incumbent Sandra Vargas and fellow newcomers Heather Wright and Walt R. Bowman.
SANDRA VARGAS, incumbent WUSD Trustee
From the News-Ledger, Oct. 20, 2010
By Steve Marschke News-Ledger Editor
The Washington Unified School District, like a big ship, takes a while to change its direction, said Sandra Vargas. She is seeking election to a second school board term at WUSD, and believes the district is now turning in the right direction.
“I definitely think we need some continuity on the board,” she told the News-Ledger. “I want to stay on and lend some of my experience and wisdom because we have been making steady progress. We still have a lot more work to do, and I think that if we were to slow the momentum because of turnover, something would be lost.”
The school district has in recent years made “almost revolutionary” changes, she added.
“We built K-8 (kindergarten through eighth grade) schools, with higher expectations, higher standards and better facilities for our students. Before K-8, there was no question that some of our schools were neat and clean, and some were not. The K-8 (program) helped us get closer to the goal of parity.”
Vargas, 33, is married. She and her husband don’t have kids yet. They run a lobbying firm, where she works on educational issues and other matters.
Now a resident of the “Rivers” neighborhood in the north area, Vargas was raised by a single mother in a bad neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“I went to L.A. High School,” she recalled. “It was one of the lowest performing schools down there. But I didn’t just survive, I thrived. I concentrated on my studies, and went up to Chico (State University) – that was my haven.”
She studied French and Spanish, then taught in Elk Grove Unified School District for a couple years.
“Teaching was so fulfilling to me, and it reminded me of my childhood,” said Vargas. “I wanted to help children who need a push.”
What does she bring to the current WUSD school board?
“I like to think I’m good at listening and at providing my perspective,” she said. “Coming from a state-wide (lobbying) level, it’s really interesting to see how, when a law is implemented, it affects the local level.”
The current board “works together rally well,” said Vargas. “We’ve had some differences of opinions on some things, but the big decisions have been unanimous.”
Vargas believes that board decisions in recent years, such as the K-8 program, are just beginning to pay off.
“We’ve seen some glimpses of progress,” she commented. “The hard decisions have been made, and this is where we start to see the effects. The next four years will be very telling.”
How has WUSD weathered its financial storms during the recession?
“We’ve always been conservative,” she answered. “We have received positive certification again from the county – they said we are fiscally solvent. Our approach has been that if we have to make cuts, we make them as far away from the classroom as possible. It’s very sad to me that it’s come to this point, and it doesn’t seem to me like the economy is turning around maybe in the next two or three years.”
How have local kids been performing on standardized tests?
“Our district API (test index) went up 20 points this year – that’s really hard to achieve in one swoop,” said Vargas.
Is WUSD doing a good job preparing kids for a future that may not include college?
“At the new high school, we definitely need to revamp our career technical program,” answered Vargas. “I think there’s a lot of interest from students and parents in providing options for students who may not want to pursue college, at least right away.”
Vargas said she helped bring a scholarship from a local carpenters’ association to the high school.
“Now, we’re talking about bringing in internship opportunities. I would love for us to have something similar for career tech.”
Is the district’s high school graduation rate good enough?
“We do have some work to do,” she allowed. “Statewide, we lose 30 percent of our kids and some schools lose half their class some time after their freshman year – but that could be through dropouts or transfer. Our graduation rates (in WUSD) are something we need to improve, and our college entrance rates are something we need to improve. But our dropout rates are better than the state average.”
Vargas said that if she has another term, she’d like to continue trying “to bring everybody up, not just one school at a time.”
“For Elkhorn Elementary School, I took the lead in applying for a grant,” she said. “They now have extra money -- $2 million – that will help with reducing class sizes, providing development for teachers and improving the facilities. There were a lot of strings attached, and it was kind of scary, but I said we absolutely need to have Elkhorn apply for this grant.”
The school’s test scores just went up afterward.
“Just this year alone, we saw an increase of 23 points in Elkhorn’s API score,” said Vargas. “That’s unimaginable. They were able to move mountains.”
Vargas’s opponents include challenger Heather Wright (whom she supports), along with Adam Menke and Walt Bowman.