Candidates for Downey school board participated in a forum last week moderated by Downey Patriot staff writer Christian Brown. Questions were prepared by the moderator and also received from the audience and via social media. All candidates were invited to the forum.
Below is a condensed recap of the forum’s questions and answers.
What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment in the 33 years you’ve been on the board of education and why?
Mark Morris: That’s easy. My greatest accomplishment has been no layoffs or furloughs. The silver bullet in education is the teacher in the classroom. I don’t apologize for paying teachers the best because they deserve the best. If you try to do education on the cheap, you get cheap education. That’s not the Downey way.
Parents are perhaps the greatest asset teachers have in the education process, what will you do as a board member to ensure parents stay informed and engaged?
Vanessa Rodriguez: As a parent, I know I appreciate communication -- town hall meetings, letters, and I’m a big advocate for technology. Because I work for a library, I know the importance of technology for information and for resources. I would definitely have something for parents to be able to learn how to use computers.
Why is the DUSD allowing so many non-Downey residents to enter the school system when our schools are already jam packed? If elected, will you encourage or discourage inter-district permits?
Mark Morris: We encourage inter-district permits because we do not want to be a declining-enrollment district. And in the future, I will take all the permits we can stand from students that are well-behaved and want to abide by the rules. People want to bring their kids to Downey because they know it’s the best school district in the area and I don’t want to shut anybody out.
Vanessa Rodriguez: Our first obligation should be to our students to make sure they have enough facilities and resources to succeed. We need to take care of those that live in Downey. We have to look at our budget and make sure our kids have what they need. I understand that everyone should have the same opportunities, but our obligation is to the residents here in Downey first.
Mark Morris: First of all, the tax money comes from the state. All of our money comes from the state. Second, if our enrollment, which has barely increased 1 percent, falls below that then we are not eligible for matching funds from the state on our construction projects. That’s why we want to be a growing school district.
Vanessa Rodriguez: I talk to other women and this subject came up. They told me about the schools being packed. That was one of the concerns brought up: the size of the classrooms. I’m not sure what the ratio is now, but I’m worried about the size of the classrooms.
Last November, 60% of voters passed Measure O, which secured a $248 million school bond for district upgrades. That means 40% of residents were not convinced that this is a worthy expense -- Can you explain why it is?
Tod Corrin: Measure O was very important. Our schools were primarily built in the 1950s and they did not have technology then. Our schools need to be upgraded for technology. We’ve been able to do great renovations at both high schools, but the middle schools have not gotten any funds in renovation and the elementary schools have only had a smattering. This summer we were able to do some quick start projects at most of the schools like paving and landscaping. But you’ll see the bulk of the money going towards the middle schools to make them 21st century facilities.
The city of Cerritos has some of the highest ranking schools in the country, somehow Downey does not. What will you do to bring Downey to this level of success and ensure we have one of the best school districts in the region?
Willie Gutierrez: Downey does have some of the highest ranking schools. Microsoft selected Downey High School as a showcase school, one of 22 throughout the entire United States. And if you look at US News’s list of best public schools, Downey ranked 527 and Warren ranked 502. This is out of 22,000 public high schools throughout the country so we’re doing that. And we’re continuing to strive on making sure every student is college and career ready, globally competitive, and citizens on purpose.
What have you done to combat violence and bullying in our schools?
Willie Gutierrez: We’ve done a lot. It’s amazing what you hear on social media and how it goes crazy. There’s always two sides to every story. We had anti-bullying week at the elementary schools. We trained the students and the teachers. We take it very seriously, specifically incidents that you may have heard of recently. Safety in the school district is a high priority.
Tod Corrin: Safety is one of the most important concerns of our school district for every employee of our school district. And we’re constantly working on how to make the schools safer and how to make the experience better. The Character Counts program that was instituted many years ago has made a huge difference in that because the students are now working on character traits that make them better citizens and members of our community. That’s made a huge difference in the bullying at our schools.
In 2014, a Downey High School teacher was arrested and charged with multiple counts of lewd conduct after coercing a 16-year-old student into a sexual relationship on campus. A lawsuit was filed last week against the district, claiming the administration knew and failed to report the incident to police. As an elected school board member, what will you do to ensure our kids remain safe from future predators?
Donald LaPlante: We keep our kids safe from predators. There’s absolutely no way you can make sure 100% that somebody doesn’t do something improper. However, in the case that you are citing, the day that the district found out about the allegations, the teacher was removed from the classroom and fired the following board meeting. This person had been a coach, clean record, and passed all the FBI checks. He did something very bad and stupid, but we can’t predict when someone is going to go off the rails tomorrow.
Linda Salomon Saldana: In corporate America, where I worked for 20 years, we always had to take sexual harassment trainings to ensure how we worked with our co-workers was appropriate versus what is inappropriate. I’m not aware exactly what procedures are in place, but if our teachers are the best paid in all of L.A. County, I think they can do a sexual harassment training because it will help protect them as well. This is for everyone’s benefit and could help us protect our assets [against lawsuits]. These are our kids. Do we have enough supervision on the playground? We have to be super vigilant and take care of them.
Donald LaPlante: And we do take care of them every step of the way. This district is committed to safety for every student every day. Are we going to be 100% perfect? Is nothing ever going to go wrong? That’s something we can never guarantee. We have sexual harassment training. Every teacher is required to report abuse. They have it every year so we take this extremely seriously.
Will the DUSD continue using the Common Core teaching method? Is it helping our children vs. the traditional way of teaching? We’ve heard that it will turn our children into real thinkers, but are we making them over think?
Mark Morris: Having served for 33 years on the school board, every 10 years, somebody comes up with the next best educational program. This is the third one I’ve experienced. It’s different than all the rest because it focuses on the student thinking and how they get to the answer. Now our teachers have all been trained in this. It’s a state-mandated program so we have no say in it. Part of our training, the teachers collaborate twice a week.
Vanessa Rodriguez: I’m thankful I didn’t have to deal with it. Homework with your child is already frustrating enough, but then to have that difference in how the child is being taught versus how you were taught, I see the frustration in parents. It’s a very difficult thing. I think that if the parents are aware that there’s some kind of help out there, I think that would benefit them.
Mark Morris: Realizing the situation, the board has instituted a CBET academy where we share with them the AG requirements as well as how to help their child in the homework situation. Trust me, our kids are smart. In a few short years, they’ll understand this and be better prepared to go to college. College is content-based so this will help them out.
Willie Gutierrez: We have a parent academy. We do have CBET, which is over 600 students so it exists. Being in the business world, learning how to be collaborative and share ideas is huge. We think we are preparing our kids for being college and career ready.
Vanessa Rodriguez: Well, working at Cerritos College, I see that they’re not ready. Being one that has struggled in math, you go and hear that there are options, but most people struggle with math. My concern is that with Common Core, they won’t even try to go to college because they’ll just get frustrated. The parents will get frustrated. We see students just coming in at 30, 40-years-old that’ll never get their degree because they couldn’t get the help that they needed.
If you’re running for District 4, why are your children not attending a District 4 school?
Linda Salomon Saldana: I went with a school of choice permit and I went to Maude Price Elementary. The reason? I have three kids all spread out over five years so pick up and drop off is a lot easier when everyone is on the same block. My 6th grader next year will be at Griffiths and he’ll walk and meet us over at Price. I also like the idea of an elementary school being K-5 so that was nice having that over at Price.
Donald LaPlante: This proves that our intra-district permit system works. People are allowed to move their children to a school that has vacancies. They want a school that is K-5, we have K-5 schools.
How familiar are you with the demographics of the Hispanic community?
Mark Morris: I’m very familiar with the demographics of Downey, having worked in the city for 28 years. The demographics are fine. Downey is a community that is family-oriented, educational-based, having citizens of strong character. Regardless of the ethnicity or the language spoken, I think it’s great that we have bilingual families in Downey. That’s a plus and to have their children speak two languages is great. Whoever our students are they’re going to learn.
What role does technology play in the district’s education model? What role should it have over the next four years?
Willie Gutierrez: Part of Measure O is going to address technology. One of the things I do within my job is I oversee Human Resources IT finance and accounting and so I know the importance of what the teachers need. My wife is a grade school teacher so I know the issues teachers face in the classroom like bandwidth and Measure O will address that.
How often do you visit the school sites you represent? Please elaborate on your relationship with these school sites.
Tod Corrin: Each of us school board members represent all of the students and all of the schools in the district. It’s not by-area. I represent all the schools. Each year we have a group of us board members who go out and visit half of the schools and walk through every classroom and talk to each teacher so we’re aware of what’s going on. That’s where I get the greatest feedback on Common Core. It’s a group of students collaborating to come up with the best answer.
Willie Gutierrez: One of my goals when I was board president was to visit every school in our district and I did that. You forget how small the kids are. What I’ve been doing this year, I’ve attended some staff-teacher meetings and you get to hear firsthand what’s going on with the kids. I think as a board we need to do more of that.
Donald LaPlante: We do not simply represent specific schools. We represent specific areas of the community, but we are responsible for the schools everywhere in the school district. When we went to the trustee area election system, board members that are currently serving were very conscious in saying we represent the entire school district. We need to continue that type of philosophy or we will turn into a holy mess like Los Angeles Unified where the board members seem to only be concerned with that little bitty area that they represent. As far as visiting, I visit on a regular basis.
Mark Morris: I try to visit all the schools. I’ve attended all of the PTA meetings at the school sites. I’ve gone to various activities including the sports venues from time to time. Recently, I visited the Downey High School PTA meeting and there were like 60 or more people in my theater. They were there to hear about the AG requirement and how they could get their children on this college-based learning system. If a parent knows and sets the course, the child will follow. I think our PTAs are doing a fantastic job.
Common Core requires our kids to have strong computer skills. How do you propose increasing access to computers both at home and at school?
Linda Salomon Saldana: Well, Common Core doesn’t necessarily ask for more computer time. The testing is now being done on the computer and all of our schools are equipped with enough computers for the testing to occur. As for Common Core, I’ve got to say, they’re going from just using a formula to now explaining how they get to the answer. It’s not about overthinking, it’s about think about it, figure it out, and come back and tell me. It’s happening at Price, they’re having math morning and reading morning where parents are coming out at 8:15 a.m. We’re letting the parents go into the classroom and explaining what Common Core is.
Vanessa Rodriguez: Working at Cerritos College, I’d use the same method that they use, seeking finances from grants for computers. I used to work in the library, now I work in research and planning, and we got some grants that helped us to provide computers for students and computers for the public. We have tutors and those evaluating the needs, but I feel that iPads are necessary. At least a few in the classroom that everyone has access to.
How would you deal with teachers that don’t care enough to help struggling students in their classrooms?
Tod Corrin: We have very good teachers, but there are some that probably need to move on to something else. We need to supervise and get our administrators into the classroom so our principals and vice principals know what’s going on in each classroom so we don’t lose those students. Teachers that are successful put in tons of hours both at school and at home to make a difference in the life of kids.
Is there any hope of reducing the price of the bus ride to Williams Elementary School? We are 1.5 miles away and I see parents walking their kids to school in the rain and heat because they don’t qualify for help and they can’t afford the annual fee.
Mark Morris: We would like to do a ton of things that we’re not doing, but we can only afford to do certain things. We made the decision years ago that walking area was increased because we saved money. While it may be inconvenient for some it’s needful for the budget to balance. When I went to school, we had buses rolling all the time even to high school. The fact is, we just don’t have the money. We put our resources where they matter most and I don’t think it’s such a bad thing for a parent to walk their kid to class.
With the recent lockdowns at some of the schools, do you believe it’s time to have an armed guard/police officer at each school, not just at the high schools?
Donald LaPlante: No. I don’t think it’s time for that at all. We don’t need to turn our schools into armed camps. The lockdowns that occurred have been related to outside activity. None of the lockdowns that I’m aware of have anything to do with what was happening on campus. We lock down and close the campus for the safety of our students so an armed guard isn’t going to change that one bit. The reason we have police at the high school campuses is so that the kids can have an interaction with them. So they see the police as not these mean guys driving around in cars, but as someone they can communicate with and they know what’s going on. Obviously on these campuses, you’re dealing with 14-18 year olds so you’re going to have people who do bad things and it helps there too.
Why are we spending money on an election with only one item on the ballot? Will you ever commit to rescheduling elections like this to even years to maximize our money?
Mark Morris: Personally I think it’s fine the way it is because the people interested in schools will vote. During the general election, a lot of people don’t understand the issues or don’t care to be informed on the issues revolving around the schools. I do think we can do a better job of informing parents about the issues in their schools. It’s astonishing that you can talk to someone whose kids graduated from the school district and then they say, it doesn’t matter to me. Yes, it does. You have grandkids, neighbor kids, every child in Downey is your responsibility.
Donald LaPlante: It’s important to note that when you go through all of L.A. County, you see that nearly all school districts are having an election. It’s because Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder won’t allow us to move those elections. There’s a reason. Years ago, people asked can we go to even year elections. They said, “Nope, don’t have the ballot capacity. Have a nice day. Goodbye.” The only districts that were able to do it were charter school cities that they weren’t able to turn down. You’ll find that in other parts of the state, school boards do have their elections in even years, but that’s because those counties can handle the capacity.
Do you support or oppose term limits for the Downey Unified School District board members?
Tod Corrin: I oppose term limits. I used to support term limits years ago for the city, but I learned that it really takes so long to become aware of all the little nuances. It makes us a much stronger school board than we would be if we did not have term limits. We know what’s going on in the schools because we’ve been there and seen it for a number of years.
Willie Gutierrez: I agree with Mr. Corrin. It does take time, but I feel like everyone here feels like Downey is doing a great job. We’re not stagnant. We’re moving forward because of the existing school board that we have and we know the issues the students are facing so we know what to do. Experience counts so I would be opposed to term limits.
Linda Salomon Saldana: I am for term limits. I think that a position should be held for the right intentions, with the right investment, if it’s 12 or 16 years. Yes, maybe my kids won’t be there and another parent who’s coming in needs to take that role. Yes, it’s hard to get through all of the information and jargon, but if you’re learning it, living it, and there at the campus, it’s not rocket science. I think a new person can come in every so often and do a good job.
Donald LaPlante: No shock, I’m opposed to term limits. All we have to do is look at what term limits have done to the legislature and this state. A state that was semi-functional is now a dysfunctional mess in Sacramento because of term limits. The city has term limits [eight years] because someone got mad at someone and wanted to get them out of the door. Term limits don’t function in the way they were intended. They’re a mess and actually end up driving out the people who are the best.
Vanessa Rodriguez: I’m for term limits. I think that you need fresh perspective. Things are constantly changing. We can’t do things by ourselves.
Mark Morris: I’m against term limits, that’s what you have elections for. It’s just another way around the election cycle. If someone needs to be replaced, trust me, the election is the place to do it.