During a two-hour forum Tuesday night, four candidates earnestly stated their cases to be chosen for one of two open seats on the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board in the Nov. 3 election, answering questions on weighty and wide-ranging topics in rapid-fire succession.
In an event presented via Zoom and co-hosted by the League of Women Voters Pasadena Area and La Cañada Council PTA, the candidates fielded questions ranging from what makes them the best candidate to how they would speed the reopening of schools to improving the online learning platform in use because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also tackled queries on the implementation of any diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, potential changes in curriculum, methods to enhance the school district, ways to improve the LCUSD board, how to serve the students’ social and emotional needs, district policies the candidates may have disagreed with in the past, and many others.
About 226 viewers tuned in to watch the La Cañada School Board Candidate Forum in real time, as candidates were given two minutes to present an opening statement and one minute to respond to each question thereafter. No candidates were allowed to preview the questions, compiled in advance by the LWVPA. Due to the high volume of prepared questions, very few spontaneous questions by viewers were presented.
The following is a summary of key responses by candidates, who are listed in alphabetical order:
Anderson said that what sets her apart from other school board hopefuls is her long record of volunteerism in the district. She has served in every level of PTA at Palm Crest Elementary School, currently as president; as a parent representative on the district’s reopening committee in grades 7-12; and, for six years, in the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, of which she was president as well as a member of the bond and parcel tax oversight committee. The cumulative volunteerism, Anderson said, “has given me a broader vision of the district and its needs. I’m a passionate volunteer who believes in making sure that all teachers, students and parents have a seat at the table as initiatives are implemented across our schools.”
As LCFEF president, Anderson said, she spearheaded a campaign to raise funds (earning an unprecedented $200,000) for La Cañada High School’s Wellness Center, which she sees as critical to the social and emotional wellness of students while at school and during distance learning.
“The social and emotional well-being of our students is paramount. We need to work together as parents and teachers to ensure they are getting what they need academically but also emotionally,” she said, noting, in response to another question, that she continues to see student wellness as an area for improvement.
“We’ve made great strides in bringing this to the forefront of one of the first districts to partner with ‘Challenge for Success’ programs and push back the school start time. The Wellness Center is now virtual and available to all students, parents and teachers. We know we have students who are struggling. As we move through this pandemic, the services and resources are critical as we adjust to a new reality.”
Anderson pointed to her years of service as bolstering her ability to work with people with a wide range of opinions, and bringing others together to “get things done.”
As to whether she foresees the reopening of schools in 2020, Anderson stressed that the decision to return to in-person instruction isn’t made by the district, but by the county. “I would love to go back to school, who wouldn’t? But only when it is safe for our kids and teachers to go back. Our focus at this time should be on how we can make distance learning the best for our kids. … And look ahead to make sure all the steps are being taken to prepare to reopen when the time comes.”
Regarding her thoughts on the implementation of a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative in the school district, Anderson referred to her Pacific Islander heritage and belonging to a multiracial family. During her time as a volunteer, she created outreach to the Chinese community and recruited other diverse PTA members.
“I am 100% in support of DEI. We need to make sure the district’s DEI initiatives are clear and not muddied with misinformation. I know conversations regarding DEI and the work that surrounds it is uncomfortable. But it is extremely important that we address this because it enables the district to protect all students and teachers from harassment and bullying.”
Arnold, whose campaign slogan is “Investing in Our Future, Protecting Our Legacy,” emphasized three priorities: Getting students back to campus for in-person instruction, addressing the district’s looming fiscal challenges, and making sure children have a safe and secure learning environment on campus. Although he doesn’t have the breadth of volunteerism in the schools as some of his colleagues, he noted, his professional experience in the technology start-up sector and activity as a real estate investor make him stand out from the others, he noted.
“It just so happens that those two sets of transferable skills align well with what our district needs right now. We are in the midst of a pandemic; we’ve become more dependent upon technology than ever before. My tech skill set lends toward addressing those new needs,” he said. “My real estate skill set also translates well because it’s given me exposure to the construction side of real estate, and we’re about to set out upon some major modernization projects.”
Arnold said this distinctive background would make him an asset to the board: “My life experiences are very different than what we’ve seen from other board members. I feel a departure from status quo is very important. There is an inherent and intrinsic experience that is very hard to replicate and I would love to bring that experience to our board.”
As for his thoughts on DEI implementation, Arnold said he wants a diverse and inclusive learning environment as much as the other candidates. However, he said, he differs in his approach, and prefers “equal opportunity versus controlled outcomes. It’s very important that we as a district take a step back and consider what is our primary objective, that being to provide an excellent education for our kids.” He emphasized focusing on the core aspects of education that have made LCUSD outstanding and also noted that GreatSchools, a nonprofit that provides information about PK-12 schools and education, gave the district a 10 out of 10 in “equity.”
Regarding a return to
in-person schooling, Arnold said he would like to see students get that opportunity in 2020. He also drew upon the fact that the city’s local infection rate would permit the return to in-person instruction, but that the district is hemmed in by Los Angeles County’s numbers, which are still too high. Although schools are allowed to apply for waivers to return on campus, the county has given priority to districts that serve a higher number of low-income families, which would put the higher-income LCUSD at the bottom of the list for a waiver.
“This provides an excellent opportunity to explore the concept of equity,” he noted, earlier emphasizing that his rearing in inner-city schools and attending UCLA on a merit scholarship has also given him a unique perspective on the DEI initiative. He does not agree with using any curriculum development resources using theories or ideas seen as objectionable or radical, he added.
Arnold noted he would also focus on board transparency and holding more public discussions, and communicating those discussions to community members at large to improve relations with them.
“It’s very important that the board acts on behalf of its constituents,” he said. “We need to take the community’s position on things very seriously.”
Epstein asserted that his personal, professional and educational experience make him the perfect candidate. He has a degree in public policy, giving him “the ability to see the macro,” and a master’s in fine arts that has taught him how to be “empathetic and understanding.”
As a professor at USC, he said, he’s experienced and tuned in to distance learning as it affects the teachers and the students. He is also the father of three children, currently at all three levels of school in the district, which he said makes him acutely aware of the unique challenges at each level of education. Epstein has also been heavily involved in volunteerism across the district for the past 11 years, worked as president and been a six-year member of the LCFEF, and co-chaired the bond and parcel tax campaigns. In that capacity, he remarked, he created outreach to hundreds of parent and community members, many of whom he’s now proud to call his friends.
In a nod to some of the divisiveness known to be surrounding the election, Epstein noted that never, in all his years, did political affiliation matter to him: “Together we have strived to raise awareness and raise the money necessary for our schools to have the best resources to be the best they can be. And during all those years, I can count on one hand all those whose political affiliations I was ever aware of or cared about. It didn’t matter because we were working toward a goal that transcended politics and partisanship. We’re all working toward making our schools a better place. … [Let’s] rise above politics and do what’s right for our students and our community.”
In discussing DEI, Epstein said he wanted to refocus the question on how to build support systems for all students and how the district can help all students feel they are seen and heard for who they are. He dismissed any hearsay that regards him as believing in “equality of outcomes,” noting that merit-based results are deserved and hard work should be rewarded.
“The real discussion lies in what people are saying about equity. … How do you make sure every student has equality of opportunity at the starting line?” he asked.
Epstein also noted that he agrees with supporting a curriculum that reflects all students. As of now, he said, students in AP Language Arts do not read any core text by any nonwhite, male author until the 12th grade: “You don’t need to radically rewrite curriculum to fix this. There are easy changes here. We don’t need to rewrite history to offer our students an expanded world view, which would be for everyone’s benefit.”
As for issues he would like to improve at the district level, Epstein pointed to improving communication.
“There’s been a lot that [the district] has done well, so I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel. … But I think the community is not always informed about the why’s and the how’s of decision making and that is really important. I’ve appreciated that the district has gotten better over the years at communicating with stakeholders but I think we can still improve on it.”
Citing not only her education and career as an engineer, Randolph said another key point also makes her particularly unique and qualified for the job. For more than a decade, she has attended board meetings in person, taking catalogued notes and helping to inform other parents and stakeholders of relevant, upcoming decisions. This has been her preferred method of volunteerism, she explained, and one she excels at.
Randolph has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from UC Berkeley and a master’s from Stanford University, and works as an engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory developing software for the Mars 2020 Rover operations. She is goal-oriented, a meticulous planner, and loves being involved in policy-making progress and oversight within the LCUSD, she told viewers.
“For those of you who don’t know about engineering, it’s not just math and science, it’s problem solving, which is something this district drastically needs. It’s also planning operations and planning sequence of events, and that is something that will be needed for COVID planning. It’s also a lot of intense reading and analyzing of documents and textbooks, which is also incredibly important for reading budgets and board policies.”
Randolph is passionate about STEM education, even STEM in extracurricular education, and has consistently reviewed course descriptions and textbooks, as well as working toward the enforcement of board policies on matters such as teacher feedback, anti-harassment and anti-bullying, improved discipline processes and conflict-of-interest situations, she also asserted.
As a parent of two boys, both of whom have graduated from LCHS, she has experienced hardships related to the public school system that have helped her become an advocate for families with special-needs children and other unique issues, she said.
“We’ve had tough times, we’ve had bullying, a serious injury, homeschooling, 504s; these experiences have opened my eyes to understand what was going on in other people’s lives,” she said, adding that she is close to families with members who have special needs and opened a private Facebook group for those wishing to have a safe place to discuss their challenges.
This flows over to the DEI initiative, which she supports, Randolph emphasized. She supports nearly all of the 23 recommendations made to the district by a DEI consultant, and also supports hiring such a consultant to help move the district forward “in a very systematic way” on the initiative.
Regarding improvements at the district level, Randolph noted that she would advocate for continuing Zoom coverage of board meetings, which have made them more accessible to parents and stakeholders across the board. The sound quality via Zoom is also better than at the district office, where the sound has long been insufficient.
“There are more parents and stakeholders watching meetings than there ever has been in the past 10 years and that is exciting because the board represents the community,” she said.
Separately, Randolph noted that the expectation that parents listen to hours-long board meetings has become untenable. “I have a graph that shows the progress of these meetings over the years and they have gone up and up and up” in duration, she said.
Meetings could become more concise with better preparation among board members, which she noted she is prepared to help them with in advance with appropriate documentation.
To watch the LCUSD candidate forum and learn more about the candidates, visit the Youtube link: “La Cañada School Board Candidate Forum.”