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Agreement and disputes on display school board forum

VISTA — Six contenders for three Vista Unified School District, or VUSD, board seats answered public questions at a forum held at Washington Middle school Oct. 9. The race had essentially boiled down to two slates after the VUSD classified employees union and the VUSD teachers union endorsed candidates Angela Chunka, Elizabeth Jaka and Steve Lilly. The remaining three, Patty Anderson, Eileen Fernandez and Dr. Stephen Guffanti, became a de facto team as a result.
The differences between the two groups were clear from the outset. When asked how they would address the high district drop out rate, Anderson and Fernandez gave strong support for the Lindamood Bell Reading and Thinking program, asserting that getting children interested in reading at an early age is crucial to keeping them in school through graduation. Jaka, who has been critical of the program’s cost in the past, argued that Lindamood Bell doesn’t help the students who need it the most: Hispanic immigrants.
“Lindamood Bell does not teach English,” Jaka said. “It is a good program. It offers some great benefits to some students, but it does not teach kids to read or write or speak English.”
All six candidates did agree that it would be a good idea to expand the district’s Encuentros mentoring program, which connects Hispanic students with successful Hispanic role models.
The six candidates also found common ground with respect to charter schools. “Excellent charter schools provide value added to the district and poor charter schools damage the reputation of the district,” Lilly said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The candidates responded with varying degrees of heat when asked why Mission Vista High School in northern Vista, scheduled to open in late 2009, has taken so long to build. The school was authorized as part of a 2001 bond measure to alleviate overcrowding.
“There is no more difficult issue in any school district than siting and building a new high school,” Lilly said. “If we could go back and do it with hindsight, there are probably some pitfalls that we could avoid. But we have made steady progress.”
Jaka said the strict language of the bond measure calling for dual magnet schools on the same property was part of the problem. Jay Kowano’s Bonsall property was the original site choice, but when two of the trustees refused to condemn the property so that it could be acquired through eminent domain, the district had to look elsewhere. Chunka described the process as “very ugly” and blamed the situation on a few board members holding out for their own agenda.
Anderson argued that the Kowano property would never have been suitable, citing its lack of sewer and the inability to do proper environmental testing there. She said the district ignored another property on which the city had a lease-to-buy option. “We could have had the property for less than a million dollars, but because they wanted a bond, they let the lease option go,” Anderson said.
Anderson also blasted the trustees for allowing the contractor fees to spiral out of control, resulting in a severely-over-budget school.
“We didn’t even give the developer a signed set of plans,” she said. “Basically we gave them a blank signed check. That’s a disservice to the taxpayers.”
Discussing the economic climate of the district in general, Lilly said there was no major wasting of funds that could be eliminated. He praised the citizens’ bond oversight committee whose goal, he said, was to provide quality control and spending control.
Dr. Guffanti pointed out that the committee had been over budget on 31 out of 32 projects. Jaka replied that the committee couldn’t have known that the construction market would become so unfavorable. Despite this, Jaka said, the district still planned to complete all of its capital projects without asking for more money.
Anderson recalled the bond oversight committee meetings being contentious and unproductive when she was a member, though she conceded things might be different now. In response, Chunka described the oversight committee meetings as on task, honest and successful. Jaka agreed.
The candidates were in accord on wanting more extracurricular activities to keep students interested in school. Jaka and Lilly strongly espoused vocational education. Anderson, an avid science enthusiast, pitched the environmentally themed “No Child left Inside” program as well as General Atomics’ offer to send physicists free of charge to the classroom.
This concluded the first and only school board candidate forum, but Lilly said he thought the public dialog was valuable and he wanted to see it continue after the election.
“Forums need not only be campaign events,” Lilly said. “We probably ought to have forums every couple of months.”
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