School Board Election Winners Aim to Respond to Voters’ Mood

Unless provisional votes and mail-in ballots make a herculean impact on last week’s election results, residents of the San Marino Unified School District will have four more years with C. Joseph Chang and Shelley Ryan on the board of education, along with rookie Corey Barberie.
Chang pulled out a particularly resounding victory on Nov. 6, with 2,204 ballots propelling him well atop the list of seven candidates vying for three seats and sending him to his fifth and self-imposed final term on the school board.
“It’s been a quiet campaign,” Chang said in a phone interview, comparing it to his first campaign in 2000. “This one, to me, is especially important because I am running on established values. I think that they trust me after the last 17 years, which I really appreciate. I think compared to neighboring school districts, we’re in pretty good shape. Smaller school districts always have difficulty with finances, but our community is unique.”
Ryan, who is finishing her first year as board president, will return for a second term after receiving 1,702 votes.
“I think despite some of the negative campaigning, some of the residents and stakeholders really valued continuity and consistency,” Ryan said, citing criticism by other candidates about board actions this year. “I am very happy to continue to serve and I’m very grateful that the community is choosing to continue in the right direction in terms of how we advance the school district.”
With three open seats and only two incumbents running (Nam Jack did not seek a third term), the election guaranteed there would be a newcomer to the board. Four of the five remaining candidates ended up within 300 votes of each other, with Barberie emerging with 1,471 votes to claim the third open seat.
“It’s good that voters saw the value in putting someone with a finance background on the board,” Barberie said, asked about what distinguished him from his competitors. “Maybe that’s not the first priority for everybody, but certainly enough people in town had that point of view.”
Barberie, a financial controller for a Hollywood production company, focused his campaign on striving to increase the community’s access to SMUSD financial records and improving the district’s budgetary efficiency.
“[Finances were] certainly something that was an easy discussion to have with people,” he added. “With five other candidates who are parents, part of our position is similar: we’re trying to do the best for our kids. I do think that the finance perspective is maybe what raised me above the new faces. We all had a lot of similarities. There certainly is a group of people in San Marino who are concerned about the finances of the district, and that group of support certainly helped me.”
Even without an election, SMUSD has had a news-heavy 2018, and not all of it was the usual adulation over the district’s academic success. Considering the district’s misfired attempt at selling a $148 million bond proposal, a divisive investigation spurred by then-Superintendent Alex Cherniss of board member Chris Norgaard over misconduct allegations, and Cherniss’ sudden departure to a larger district almost immediately after Norgaard’s subsequent lawsuit was settled, Chang and Ryan as incumbents likely had to factor some public relations into their campaigns against five unaffiliated candidates, some of whom were holding the bullhorns in criticizing the district.
“Definitely we hear the voices in the city,” Chang said. “Even though we always say we’re No. 1, there’s room to improve. We compete with ourselves and in the next term, we definitely need to make more improvements. I think there’s a need for more communication. We need to find different ways to address this issue.”
Ryan said she, too, wished to improve the flow of information regarding the school district to residents.
“We’re looking at that and how we can communicate,” she said. “There are great things happening in San Marino, from the academics to the arts and the athletics. It’s easy to criticize, but we need to stay positive [with messaging] and stay focused on the children and improving our school district.”
Barberie said he predicts the bond proposal will return to discussion before long. He said he favors a capital improvement plan in spirit but would like to modify the district’s approach in selling it to the residents who would vote on approving funding it.
“The bond that was shelved is going to come to the forefront,” he said. “I don’t think the district is in a position where they understand what the voters will approve. Any bond proposal needs to have capital improvements tailored together with the deferred maintenance so the community can understand the full needs of the district. The two of those need to be looked at together, and the district does a disservice by looking at them separately.”
Barberie cited a recent bond renewal approved by voters in the La Cañada Unified School District, which held dozens of workshops and community meetings to dive into the meat and potatoes of the plan and modify it according to residents’ priorities; more than 70% of voters ultimately voted for the initiative.
“I think we really need to look more at that model to really understand what the community will support,” Barberie said.
Hiring a new superintendent will be a priority for the school board in the spring.
That is experience Chang has in spades, having had a voice in the previous four hirings.
He said he felt the experience
in interviewing so many candidates throughout nearly two decades will serve him well in choosing a fifth person to lead the charge.
“You need to find the one with the character to be more open and have easy access [with parents],” Chang added. “Each superintendent has strengths and weaknesses.”
Barberie said he hoped to identify a superintendent well versed in implementing curriculum changes. During the campaigning, he said a plethora of parents made it known how important issues such as dual enrollment, block scheduling and the implementation of CTE Pathways, among other programs, were. (CTE stands for career technical education.)
“While I’m not an expert on those, I’ve read a lot about them and I know they’re really important to a lot of parents in the district,” he said.
Ryan said she hoped to solicit important input from community leaders on the type of superintendent they wanted the board to seek and hire.
“We’re going to look to
engage our entire community at various levels throughout the various clubs and organizations so that we absolutely do have all of the voices and so we get the best candidate possible,” she said.
As an assistant principal in another school district, Ryan is uniquely positioned among her board peers in experiencing the direct impacts of policy shifts for schools and their classrooms. She said she felt the continuing changes helped voters decide to bring that perspective back for another term.
“We’re constantly looking to improve,” she said. “Probably 4½ years ago, they were looking at implementing Common Core with English and mathematics. Now, moving forward, we’re looking to implement NGSS” — next generation science standards — “and also social studies. Now the state has outlined CTE, and we’ll be looking at how to grow our current offerings with that.”
The school board next meets on Tuesday, Dec. 11, at which point the three victors will be sworn in for their terms. The board also will select its president, vice president and clerk at the meeting. Assuming the informal rotation holds up, Lisa Link, the current vice president, is likely to be the 2019 board president.

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