Incumbents in the two contested races for the Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees were no shows Thursday at a candidate forum hosted by True North Organizing Network.

Meanwhile, though he did attend the school board forum and was invited to participate, Don McArthur declined, saying said he was focused on campaigning for Measure C, the proposed Transient Occupancy Tax increase that would benefit the Crescent City Harbor District.

McArthur is running unopposed for the District 1 school board seat.

The incumbent in the race for the District 2 seat, Angela Greenough, said in a Facebook post Oct. 7 that prior commitments would prevent her from attending the forum. Jamie Forkner, the incumbent for the District 5 seat, could not be reached Friday for comment despite several attempts.

Challengers Janet Wortman and Kris Casas fielded questions on the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), educational equity, suspension rates, teacher recruitment and retention and support for teachers and classified staff that work with special education students.

Wortman, owner of the Requa Inn, is challenging Forkner for the District 5 seat. Casas, the current president for the Parent Teacher Student Organization at Bess Maxwell Elementary School, is challenging Greenough for the District 2 seat.

Although the candidates running for office must live in the trustee area they want to represent, which corresponds to the Del Norte County supervisor districts, everyone in the county can vote for them. The Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees also serves as the Del Norte County Board of Education.

Local Control

Accountability Plan

Ryan Kober, one of the co-facilitators for True North’s Whose Schools? Our Schools! group, kicked off the question-answer period with an inquiry about how to improve and expand opportunities for all families to participate in helping the district formulate its LCAP.

The district’s LCAP is a plan for how it will spend extra state dollars it receives to provide services for English language learners, homeless, foster and low-income students. The 2018-19 plan was drafted with input from students, teachers, classified staff, administrators and parents. The school district also issued an online survey focusing on the LCAP.

Casas, who said she has been involved with Whose Schools? Our Schools!, noted that after being involved in forums and meetings around town related to Del Norte schools, family engagement appears to be lacking. If elected, Casas said visiting each school site would be one of her top priorities.

“I’m very familiar with Bess Maxwell and very familiar with Crescent Elk and I have a working knowledge of some of the other schools,” Casas said. “One of the things I really found working at Bess Maxwell is understanding a lot more how important education and outreach is to the families with regards to helping them understand auxiliary organizations like the PTSO, helping them understand what the school site council does.”

Casas noted parents and families may benefit more from becoming involved in school site councils than simply attending school board meetings. She also called for having school board meetings at each campus in the district as well as holding monthly board member town hall meetings.

“Also developing relationships with different school communities,” she said. “Because we do represent, even though I live in District 2, we do represent the whole district.”

Wortman, who gave a brief definition of what the LCAP is, called for better training for parents who serve on school site councils and parent-teacher organizations. Wortman spoke of a parent who sat on a site council, attended meetings, helped rewrite bylaws and set goals and plan actions for her school.

“By the time it was all done, she felt like she was rubber stamping the superintendent’s budget and so she didn’t feel like she had local control,” Wortman said. “What we can do to improve (is to have) district wide training for our school site council so everyone understands, what is your role? How much power do you have as a school site council? How much power do you have as a parent-teacher organization?”

Wortman also called for community-wide brainstorming when it comes to formulating the LCAP.

“If we took just these wonderful people in this room tonight and we said alright, let’s make Bess Maxwell the best place we could, we could come up with some amazing resources, amazing answers. But first we need to look at that data.”

Educational Equity

Chrystal Helton, a mother of three Yurok boys, two of attending Margaret Keating Elementary School, prefaced her question about how each school board candidate would ensure educational equity by noting although positive changes appear to be happening at the K-6 school in Klamath, its state test scores continue to be low.

Citing the most recent results of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, Helton noted 61 percent of last year’s third-graders at Margaret Keating did not meet standards in math and that nearly 70 percent didn’t meet state standards in literacy.

Helton also cited CAASPP results for the 6th-graders attending Crescent Elk Middle School from Klamath currently, noting that 75 percent did not meet standards in literacy and 67 percent entered their first year of middle school not meeting standards in math.

“This is not new, in fact this has been the story of our school,” Helton said, adding that Margaret Keating relies on part-time aids in its classrooms as well as a part-time librarian.

“Yes, of course,” Helton said, “we as a community see our children for all that they really are, which is much more than these test scores, however we are also the ones who watch them struggle at a very young age with school and academics, a struggle that leads to a variety of consequences, due to a lack of access to resources and quality education.”

Wortman said she would ensure educational equity by looking at the schools individually. Currently, she said, it appears the school board looks at averages and trends across the whole district.

“We know teachers and principals and administrators are constantly looking at student data, but does the school board understand each individual school’s strengths and areas that need improvement?” Wortman asked. “One of the things I’ve seen is that there’s a lot of schools that don’t have kindergarten ready. Their kids are not ready to come to kindergarten, so what do we do as a school district? What if the school board called up and said First 5 can you come and partner with us? Head Start, can you come and partner with us so that we’re able to change that dynamic from being behind at kindergarten?”

Wortman also called for a method of ensuring the district’s fifth-graders are ready to transition to middle school, but was unable to elaborate because her two-minutes to respond to Helton’s question ran out.

When Casas spoke about educational equity, she reiterated her plan to visit each school site to make sure she has the information she needs. Casas, who said she is a former district employee, spoke of a training session she attended focusing on diversity, but said she felt there needed to be better communication and follow up.

“Talking among my colleagues, it doesn’t seem to be a good barometer to measure the effectiveness of some of the trainings when they’re done from a cost perspective versus a student-driven perspective,” Casas said. “That seems like a harsh criticism, but I feel that’s the reality. It’s difficult to find multi-day trainings and follow ups, which is what is required to acquire new skills and perspectives on the challenging work of becoming a culturally responsive organization.”

Suspensions Rates

Before asking her question about what candidates think is at the root of school suspensions and how they would direct the superintendent to address high suspension rates, Susan McCoy noted at six schools in the district, more than 6 percent of its students were suspended during the 2016-17 school year.

“Schools in California with low suspension rates have a few things in common,” McCoy said. “First, staff treat most misbehavior as a learning opportunity not as deserving of punishment. Positive Behavior Support and Interventions (PBIS), restorative justice and having a growth mindset support this. Second, relationships matter. Staff who know their students’ strengths, challenges and triggers are more likely to understand the underlying reasons for misbehavior and be in a better position to respond.”

McCoy also cited the availability of student support services as well as counselors and staff who feel supported themselves as qualities found at California schools with low suspension rates. These schools also have lower class sizes and fewer special needs students, she said.

Casas, stating she would like to take a closer look at the data for local suspension rates, said reducing them isn’t a quick fix. Reducing the suspension rate will require partnerships with other resources in the community “and possibly beyond,” Casas said.

“I’m a board-certified behavior analyst,” Casas said. “Some of the things I ask people to think about is think about your day a little more. Do you hear more positive comments or are you feeling more corrective negative feedback? Part of the solution is a paradigm shift in thinking from a negative standpoint to a more positive growing perspective. It works, it takes a lot of time, but it really works.”

Wortman lauded both PBIS and restorative justice, saying both techniques are effective at not just dealing with behavioral problems, but addressing those who have been harmed as well. She said she spoke with the principal at Crescent Elk Middle School, who stated that so far he was having a good year because his students were “raised on PBIS.”

However, Wortman said, restorative justice could go a long way toward making students feel teachers, administrators and community members care about enforcing the rules and acting right towards each other.

“You may not have ever seen or heard of restorative justice, but you do know what it means when you have to make things right for the person you hurt,” Wortman said. “If you can teach that in school, I think that’s a worthy subject.”

Teacher recruitment
and retention

Citing a statewide teacher shortage, Amber Tiedeken-Cron, a sixth-grade teacher at Crescent Elk and former president of the Del Norte Teachers Association, said a concern for the district is many veteran teachers are getting close to retirement. Meanwhile, new teachers are overburdened with large class sizes, a housing shortage and can often find higher pay and bonuses outside Del Norte County, Tiedeken-Cron said.

Tiedeken-Cron asked school board candidates how they plan to search for qualified applicants while supporting new and veteran teachers.

Wortman called for a comprehensive career plan for district certificated staff as well as a career pathway.

“This would lead to more fulfilled members of our communities,” she said. “There should always be a recruitment process in place as well as job skill improvement.”

Wortman also noted the school district took part in an equity training for all staff in the district. She also called for more zero-down loans to help teachers find housing.

“Those are things we can partner with the local credit union to get those things done,” Wortman said. “The other one is social networks.”

Having new recruits partner with colleagues who are young and single as well as folks nearing retirement may also help, Wortman said. She said the entire community could also help with this.

“Who out here wouldn’t want to take a new teacher to Port o’ Pints for a beer?” Wortman asked.

Casas said teacher recruitment and retention is on her list of priorities, but her first task would be to continue to research the teacher shortage issue in California, especially in rural communities.

“I read teacher turnover currently accounts for 88 percent of the demand for new teachers,” Casas said. “I witnessed that when I was here at Bess Maxwell. What I got out of that statistic is that teachers are leaving their current situation or leaving the field altogether for something else and I think it’s a reasonable inference that they’re leaving for a more beneficial for them situation. The knowledge that I have on this issue at this moment in time I would focus on the best utilization of our existing resources and prioritizing those that may be needed.”

Casas said she attended a town hall meeting on Wednesday for state Sen. Mike McGuire, which included a presentation by Del Norte County Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Harris. She said she was intrigued by a tentative pipeline for nursing assistants and licensed-vocational nurses between the district, Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods. Casas said a similar program is what got her into the teaching field.

Special education

Sarah Mitchell, who works in the district’s special education department, noted issues plaguing the district’s special education staff include not having enough radios or staff to fill positions to an increase in demand on staff that exceeds the training and support they’re given. She asked candidates how the school board could support special education teachers and staff.

Casas said her focus has been primarily special education.

“I would like to say that we could guarantee permanent increases in funding, but the reality is with the exception of a few small pockets of industries, the majority of education, social, health and human services, they’re all having to learn to do more with less,” she said. “But that turns into being creative and innovative with service delivery to meet expected outcomes because in a sense that’s what education is part of.”

Casas said Del Norte County should look at other rural communities that have been successful in supporting its special education staff. She mentioned co-teaching with general education teachers may be an option as well as investing in classified staff and paraprofessional training.

“Unfortunately because special ed teachers and administrators are overloaded with the amount of stuff they have on their caseload a majority of it falls onto (classified positions),” Casas said. “It’s a lot of work to be expected to do with very little training for a lot of paraprofessionals that come in. By the school district being able to invest more they’ll be better equipped to take on all of the roles that unfortunately they’re being tasked to do in the classroom on the ground.”

Wortman, who stated “God bless special education teachers,” said she recently met a mother of three children whose 6-year-old was autistic. According to Wortman, the mother struggled with the teachers, her child and felt alone. Wortman said the parent was working on starting a support group for parents who had the same problems and challenges.

“She didn’t understand the system,” Wortman said. “She didn’t understand what she could ask for, she didn’t understand the resources that were available to her, she didn’t understand what the individual education plan could do, should do and would do for her and her child. So I think one of the ways I would support special education teacher is to help support the family, help support that parent, so that when they come in they can look at that teacher and go ‘yes these are the goals we’re working for with my child this year and I understand this is where they can go this year.’”

Wortman, citing a study focusing on Adverse Childhood Experiences, said she spoke with others outside the community who state that funding is available for mental and behavioral health issues.

“Again, partnering with our community,” she said. “This community is only as strong as our partnerships, which is only as strong as our schools, so it’s time that we look at comprehensive, making our schools stronger by helping our parents become stronger.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at .