The seven candidates for the local school board made the most of a two-hour forum at which they stated their cases for election while a large audience listened Monday evening, when the San Marino City Club hosted them at Huntington Middle School.
Voters will have to narrow their choices to three candidates by Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The candidates for the SMUSD Board of Education are Corey Barberie, Jane Chon, C. Joseph Chang, John Gabriel, Mike Killackey, Shelley Ryan and Steven Sommers. They were tasked Monday with answering the same seven questions, then took turns drawing unique questions for themselves and having them drawn for them.
A video of the forum will be made available on the City Club’s website, sanmarinocityclub.com.
A career financial controller, Barberie said the school board would strongly benefit from someone with a finance background, particularly because only so much of the district’s annual budget is open for different uses.
“Sitting through a lot of board meetings, and the way the district and the school board has handled a lot of issues lately, has really caught my interest,” he said. “There needs to be a financial voice on the board.”
Barberie said he thinks the hiring of a superintendent, such as SMUSD seeks since the departure of Alex Cherniss, should be based on the most pressing need for the district and that, he feels, is planning and integrating innovative programming to reach more students more effectively.
“I feel especially at the high school level, we’ve largely rested on our laurels,” he said. “We really need someone who can move the district forward and find creative ways to solve these problems.”
On other issues, Barberie said the board should prioritize deferred maintenance and capital projects together and also should broaden its focus from being the top academic district in the state to stand out in other aspects of student success.
“The problem we’re having lately is, because we’re not offering some of the new programs out there, students are leaving our schools,” he said. “They’re going to private schools and it’s tearing down our community.”
For Chon, developing a facilities plan and passing a bond to fund it will have to consider programming first, not least to help prioritize what families and students actually want. It’s the best way to get a 75-80% pass rate, she said.
“We need to match our budget to meet those priorities,” Chon said. “We can’t just come up with facilities without figuring out what we’re going to do with those facilities. My experience has been to constantly evaluate what these programs are going to mean for our students.”
Chon, whose career has involved both teaching in the classroom and analyzing educational development, advocated a search for superintendent candidates not only from California but throughout the country. She said students should have options to pursue passions and also know the demands of courses for which they sign up.
Chon added that the district should move on from focusing on standardized testing, through which it has earned status as No. 1 in the state.
“That’s not what’s going to attract students and families to San Marino,” she said. “What’s going to attract them to San Marino is innovation. I don’t want to be the No. 1 school district because of test scores. I want to be the No. 1 school district because we are implementing a districtwide student wellness initiative and other innovative programs.”
C. JOSEPH CHANG
Chang, who seeks his fifth term, cited his various accomplishments throughout the past two decades, which include establishing the Academic Advisory Committee and ushering in numerous capital projects, in asking voters to elect him one final time.
Someone with experience and expertise, he said, should help guide the district in climbing out of its deferred maintenance hole.
“Eventually, if we don’t resolve it, it will begin eating up the general fund,” he said. “Anyone who becomes a school board member, they need to understand how to operate a school district.”
Having sent his children to district schools, Chang said he wishes to continue helping SMUSD stay on the roWad to high academic achievement and help pick what would
be his fourth superintendent. A board working in tandem with a superintendent,
he said, is the best path to continued excellence.
Chang said he also believes the district should expand offerings to students while also keeping their wellness in mind.
“We need to consider each kid’s ability,” he said. “For the last 10 years, what we have been doing is adapting to the kids’ abilities. I would like to encourage the kids to take more [Advanced Placement] classes, but only if they are able to do it.”
Gabriel said he wishes to serve the San Marino community, much in the way he served in the nation’s armed forces, by joining the school board and driving effective change. Now specializing in business turnarounds, he said picking the best superintendent will involve selecting those who check all the boxes of the board’s criteria and homing in on the best fit from there.
“I have years and years and years of experience in doing just that,” Gabriel said.
On the much ballyhooed No. 1 ranking for the district, Gabriel said academic achievement was certainly an important statistic but he had his eyes set on greater achievements.
“For me, simply being No. 1 [academically] isn’t enough,” he said. “We need to be able to see that ranking in the lives of all of our children. That doesn’t just mean great scores. That means an appreciation of art. That means good mental health. That means a happy child.”
Continuing on the topic of workloads, Gabriel said expanding AP or honors offerings was not in conflict with the mindset of reducing high levels of homework in normal coursework.
“I most certainly learn something from my setbacks and failures in life,” he said. “Is that in juxtaposition or opposed to homework? Certainly not. The concern in the community is excessive homework. These are not dueling priorities here.”
Acknowledging the more than 3,000 students in the district, Killackey said he hopes to promote programming that will reach the entire spectrum of students and their various learning abilities. To do that, he said the district has to continue supporting its faculty to empower them.
“You need to have support to the teachers and support to the administration,” he said. “Providing support is crucial and that comes in the form of constant professional development.”
Killackey, an attorney who owns his own firm, said he has made a point to reach out to former school board members to gain insight into the inner workings of a school district. He also has met with local leaders such as Police Chief John Incontro to discuss different aspects of student safety.
“Our discussions have focused not only on facilities, but also on cyber-bullying and cyber security, where people try to reach our students from outside the community,” he said. “We need to be able to provide the student mental health skills that allow them to deal with the stresses of life. That is a safety issue.
“I have a lot of experience when it comes to working with tight budgets and thinking up creative ways to solve problems,” Killackey added. “It really is important to have experience when it comes to working within budgets, having foresight and having active communication with all parts of our community.”
This year’s board president, Ryan said she, as a school administrator, has a unique understanding of public school bureaucracy that remains valuable to the district.
“I am here for your children,” she said.
“I understand LCAP and LCFF. I’m able to navigate and traverse through the requirements of the state as well as keep us fiscally sound. I’m the only candidate that knows directly about that.”
Ryan, who is serving her first term on the board, lauded the team effort that results in such high achievement for the district in spite of limited financial contributions from the state. She also pointed out innovative programming like the student wellness initiative, a humanities collaboration with the Huntington Library and the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) collaboration with Caltech as moving the needle.
“We’re No.1 because we have the best kids,” she said. “We’re No. 1 because we have the best families and community. We have started innovations in the areas that no one else has. We also have the best teachers.”
In moving forward, Ryan said it was important to consider current expertise and research when it came to how to challenge students.
“One of the things we need to look at is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all for our students,” she said. “Another thing we’re looking at is how full our students’ plates are. In the middle and upper grades, we need to leave it to experts to dictate what’s in the classroom and in real homework.”
Sommers, an educator, fundraiser and wealth manager, earned quick applause upon criticizing the yearly refrain of SMUSD’s being the No. 1 school district.
“We’re not No. 1,” he said. “I’m sorry, folks. We’re No. 1 on the test scores. Other districts are going beyond us now. They have pathways that are preparing students better and more effectively for college placement. This has been acknowledged by our leadership. Complacency is the death knell of an organization.”
The key to staying ahead of the curve, Sommers said, was seeking a superintendent with the right leadership qualities, and he added that to do that the community would likely benefit from a fresher slate of school board members. He cited ongoing issues
like deferred maintenance and campus security represented a leadership issue for the district.
“We rise and fall together as a community and as a school district,” he said. “We need people there who are going to hire a different kind of superintendent than was hired before. We need a superintendent who will foster truth, transparency and decorum in our community.”
Success, Sommers said, was not just doing well on tests, but also in creating an innovative district that others hope to emulate.
“The way we measure success is providing an education that truly prepares our
children for success and advancement in life,” he said.