ENCINITAS — Incumbents have largely dominated the previous three Encinitas Union School District races.
But this election has been anything but routine, as the school district has come under fire for a lack of transparency and questions about the district’s spending on non-essential projects.
As a result, the EUSD race includes four candidates — one incumbent and three challengers — for two positions on the board, with two of the challengers running as a so-called ticket that embodies the criticism of the current board and superintendent.
Incumbent board member Patricia Sinay is joined by Anne Katherine Pingree, Leslie Schneider and Rimga Viskanta on the Nov. 8 ballot. Longtime trustee Carol Skiljan is not seeking re-election.
Pingree and Schneider have run on similar platforms of transparency and fiscal responsibility after following district affairs over the past two years and coming to the conclusion that the current school governance falls short in both categories.
Sinay and Viskanta, who are technically not running as a ticket but share like views, have argued that the district is strong, but acknowledge that communication between the district and its parents needs to be stronger to avoid acrimonious situations that have developed over the past few years.
All the candidates said they were impressed that the field was composed exclusively of parents.
“I think it is encouraging to have four parents in the race, because I think all of us are in it because we care about our kids,” Viskanta said. “It helps voters to know that when we are making decisions and have opinions, it is because we are looking out for what is best for our kids and there is no other agenda behind it. None of us want to jeopardize the quality of education our kids would get.
Sinay, who was appointed to fill out the term of Maureen Muir when she was elected to the San Dieguito Union High School District board, is running for her first full term in office.
The nonprofit consultant and former PTA member at Paul Ecke Central Elementary said she joined the board to advocate for the district’s vulnerable populations, including its bilingual and its low-income students.
“I knew things worked in Encinitas, but I wanted to understand the what and the how things worked,” Sinay said. “I also knew that as much of an effort as there was to make equitable education for all students, there were still some subgroups that weren’t performing as well…there are a lot of stories and information behind the numbers.”
Sinay said she felt she has been able to constantly ask questions of the board and administration of what the district is doing to not leave these groups behind, and feels that she’s made a difference.
One small example, she argued, was that she successfully lobbied her board members to include bilingual speaking requirement to a recent administration job posting.
“I believe that I have raised awareness that we do have these vulnerable populations and there are opportunities for us to make sure that everyone is successful,” Sinay said.
If there is an area that the board and district can improve, Sinay said, it’s communication with parents.
She said that many of the recent controversies that have dogged the board — parent backlash over a proposal to use $800,000 to pay for a district yoga program after private funding evaporated and the recent switch of three district principals — are due largely to the district not effectively communicating with parents before the issue reaches a boiling point.
Additionally, she said, the district doesn’t do a great job communicating the separation of powers between administration and the board.
“We don’t explain governance versus management,” Sinay said. “And there are times where we have these issues out there in the community, and they are out there, we have them on Facebook, on the website, but the we’re not doing a great job linking people to the information, and often the board is left trying to do catch-up or cleanup. It’s been something we are aware of and are trying to improve on.”
A large group of parents within the district have been critical of what they call the district’s lack of transparency over a number of items over the past few years.
For Schneider, it was the board’s decision to purchase facial recognition software for its student iPads, which concerned her because of the cost ($189,000), timing (when school foundations were pushing parents to increase fundraising effort) as well as concerns about data breaches associated with the information the software collected.
“So it was confusing and concerning that were spending $189,000 on something that seemed extraneous while at the same time parents being squeezed for money,” Schneider said.
Ultimately, the district canceled the contract, which Schneider credits in part to the parents’ criticism.
Schneider said the next major issue that caught he attention was the district’s yoga program funding item, which ultimately did not pass.
The revelation that the district would earmark $800,000 for the health and wellness program, which Schneider and Pingree said was prioritized ahead of core classroom functions, sparked a large protest that included a petition signed by more than 900 people and hundreds of letters written to the district.
The district ultimately opted to spend $416,000 on yoga and use the balance to partially fund enrichment teachers at the school sites, but both Schneider and Pingree said that a troubling pattern was emerging: mass complaints by parents were falling on relatively deaf ears.
“We had one board member say to the crowd, ‘We have heard what you have to say, we just don’t agree with what you have to say,’” Schneider said of the recent principal swap plan approved at the district level. “So much of what this is about is can you please hear us and respond to what we want in our schools. We are not trying to be unreasonable, or turn back time or get rid of technology and new ideas. We are asking you to take a pause and consider your community before you just bow through and enact what you think might be a good idea.”
Pingree, a mother of four who became active when parents lobbied for district to put filters on the student iPads to block them from viewing pornography, echoed Schneider’s sentiments.
Her main concern with the yoga program was not the program itself, but that the district was prioritizing $800,000 at the same time classroom sizes had increased and parents collectively at the nine school sites were being asked to raise upwards of $2 million annually to fund enrichment classroom programs such as science, arts and physical education to augment classroom teaching.
“I had no ambition to run, but then I thought that surely the board would listen to these parents that are coming to them with a genuine concern,” Pingree said. “When they weren’t responsive, I thought that the only way we would get any change is if we had new board leadership.
“I believe the goal should be educating our kids, and I think the school board has lost sight of that,” Pingree said.
They also argued that the current board has become a rubber stamp for Superintendent Tim Baird, pointing to a statistic provided by a parent that there has only been one non-unanimous vote over the past two years in the district.
Sinay disagreed with both assertions. She said that the district has remained more committed to ever before to providing the top education to the students, and while the teaching is innovative and different, it is no less effective.
“Education doesn’t look like what it did when we were kids, and that’s good thing,” she said. “It is very different and engaging, and teachers are no longer being the sages on the stages, they are more facilitators and creative. They are taught not just to communicate information, but it’s the responsibility of the teacher to make sure the student understands it.
“We have to be innovative because we all think differently,” she said. “What we need to do is make that connection better to parents. How does the farm lab result in better learning for kids, how do solar tubes at the school result in better learning, and I am constantly asking those questions.”
Sinay also argued that parents often believe just because a vote was unanimous that it came without vigorous discussion or debate.
“Our meetings are not short,” she said. “The minutes only reflect the decisions, but many times there is a lot of give and take that leads to consensus.”
Viskanta, the fourth candidate in the race, agreed with Sinay that the district needs to make that nexus stronger, in particular with the farm lab.
“My question is, if (the farm lab) is for educating our kids, I would like to see a more robust plan of how we get kids out there,” Viskanta said. “If they can only go once a year, are we making most of what farm lab can offer? I want to see how does that touch the kids, how will that help their education. I feel like we are in a proof of concept phase where we need to show some results.”
Viskanta said she believes the district is strong when it comes to the objective measures, including standardized test scores, where it is ranked fourth among the county’s lower-school districts, bested only by Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Del Mar union school districts.
She said that the next board will have to figure out how to sustain the district’s innovation initiatives with limited dollars, pointing to an area of agreement among the candidates, that she would like to see the district pick up the tab for all of the enrichment teachers much like it did with the yoga program.
She agreed with Sinay that the district could do a better job communicating, but said that she feels that the argument that the district is tone deaf leaves out a large swath of the population who doesn’t go to the board meetings in protest largely because they are satisfied with the district’s decision making.
This point was made by several speakers in June during the controversy over the yoga program, as they told the board they didn’t feel there was a need to come defend a program they believed was universally appreciated.
Viskanta said when she hear about the yoga protest, she sent an email out to parents at her school, Ocean Knoll, and many were surprised that it was even an issue.
“They weren’t shouting or at the meetings protesting, but their voices needed to be heard as well,” she said. “So many of our parents at the district don’t speak out because they might be too busy at work or with families, but as a board member you have to know how to listen and to take into account everyone’s feelings and interests, not just the ones in front of you at the meeting. And that is not to say that they didn’t have legitimate concerns.”
Viskanta said the district could improve the lines of communications to parents by having schools assign a parent representative to attend the meetings, which would ensure all schools have a voice at the meetings.
Pingree said she believed that the district also needs to televise or record its meetings for the public who can’t attend.