Editor’s note: District 3 Mariposa County Unified School District board of trustee candidates Judy Eppler and Christy Wall answered questions from the Gazette recently about why they believe they are the best fit for the school board. Eppler is the incumbent, Wall is the challenger. The election is Nov. 6. The Gazette was also on hand to cover a debate between the two candidates, hosted by the Mariposa branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). That bonus coverage can be found online at www.mariposagazette. com.
1. Why do you want to serve on the school board?
Eppler: There are several pending and/or unresolved issues currently on the MCUSD table: How bond money is to be spent; the many complex issues regarding transportation; overcrowding at Mariposa and Woodland Elementary Schools; utilization of a middle school campus; ongoing improvements to our special education programs; developing a facilities master plan — just to name a few. I feel I owe it to the MCUSD community team to address and finish these issues. With my many years in education, including seven years on the board, I believe I have the background, the knowledge and skill to help resolve pending items as well as issues that appear in the future.
Wall: I am very passionate about education not only because my children are currently being educated in Mariposa, but for the benefit of Mariposa. Our children are the future of Mariposa, and our greatest treasure. Their education is a major part of their foundation as they grow into prosperous adults. MCUSD currently ranks below 50 percent in a state that ranks 48th out of 50. I think we can do better. We need to offer more support to our teachers, our bus drivers, our coaches and our staff to improve our school district. I will use my many years of extensive background in education, my experience running my own successful business and my participation as a dedicated, hardworking member of the community to help advise and encourage the school board to do what is needed to improve our district.
2. How should the district prioritize the spending of Measure L bond funds moving forward?
Eppler: Prioritizing of bond expenditures is determined through the input of community members and MCUSD staff. Urgent facility needs, (i.e., roofing or wells) were also taken into consideration. First, we surveyed 400 community members to determine what issues they felt to be the most important to our community. Secondly, we surveyed MCUSD staff for their input. With the help of consultants, we compiled the data to develop the Master Plan which now guides our bond allocations. One of the top priorities throughout the district was roof repair. Those projects have been completed at various sites. We have approved plans to start the process of work on MCHS. Phase 1, increment 1 and 2. This phase includes five new classrooms, and security improvements.
Wall: Phase 1 has just been approved by the school board. This includes exterior restoration of the main building; a new roof for the boys locker shower; a new HVAC system for the gymnasium; and locker shower building exterior restoration. It also includes security upgrades with upper and lower campus fencing, campus-wide fire alarm upgrades and intercom systems. They will also upgrade the lower campus walkways, landscaping and storm drainage improvements. And finally, the board approved a new stick-built five teaching station classroom building to replace seven lower campus existing portables. I think after this we really need to focus on the needs of our other school sites and make sure they are in good functioning order.
3. How should the district address the shortage of teachers, bus drivers and other essential personnel?
Eppler: Most districts in California are experiencing employee shortages, and this is difficult to address. Signing bonuses might entice new employees to apply. This is done in other districts. The theory is that once they get involved in our district, experience our strong sense of community (“Mariposa Strong”), our incredible location, our amazing wealth of historical significance, they would want to stay. These are things that can attract teachers with young families anxious to leave the perils of the city behind them. We might offer new employee support to clear their credential or certification. We need to continue to improve and build our district programs so that all are excited to come to our district. Incentives are a must.
Wall: The school district needs to reinforce their commitment and support of its employees. Regarding transportation, the bus drivers need more financial incentives for busing our children. Mariposa County is widespread, and our department travels long distances, in all forms of weather and road conditions. Safety is their priority in transporting our children. They need to be paid and provided benefits such that they have a sustainable wage. Our teachers need to be supported, encouraged, listened to and acknowledged for their hard work and commitment. I know of a young teacher who planned to invest in the community and the district, but because they were not contacted in a timely fashion, went on to another community, and of other teachers who were hired the first day of school. Respecting our educators ensures we invest in our community.
4. Do you think substitute teachers get paid enough at MCUSD?
Eppler: Substitutes have a difficult job. At the last meeting, the board increased their daily pay rate from $105.75 to $115 a day, with modifications to adjust compensation if the substitute assignment lasts over 20 consecutive days. The district is working with current substitutes to develop uniform procedures, in-service opportunities relating to technology and perhaps the idea of utilizing substitutes as a resource for other educational purposes.
Wall: I am very happy to report that the school board approved a raise for substitute teachers. They will receive $115 a day and once they have taught 20 days, they are, in essence, teaching the class, making lesson plans and investing in the children’s education. They will be put on salary, earning what they would make if they were full-time teachers. I think this is a good decision. It is important not only to support our substitute teachers, but to reward them for their commitment to the classroom.
5. How can the district’s home school program be strengthened?
Eppler: Families can choose from a variety of formats for the education of their children and home schooling is one of them. I have visited some extraordinary programs to see how we can incorporate some of their successful ideas. The idea of accreditation of any educational program is a must. We might consider expanding the electives, providing field trips or parent support for these families. While I understand parents need to choose the educational program that is right for their children, I encourage home school participants to take advantage of the ever-evolving and expanding areas of regular education that might benefit their children. I remain a strong supporter and advocate of public schools in Mariposa County.
Wall: I support the many ways in which MCUSD offers to teach children. One of those ways is the Sierra Home School. I would like to see greater flexibility and communication between the home school and the school district programs. Right now, if a child is enrolled in the home school program, the district does not get the ADA money. I would like to find a way for the home school and the school district to work together. The home school program may be an option for better educating children that need more advanced education or children that need remedial education. It would be beneficial for the children to be able to graduate from either program. In order for that to happen, the home school program needs to be accredited and cooperation needs to exist between the two schools. I think this flexibility would benefit both the children and the district.
6. How can the district better support Sierra Foothill Charter School?
Eppler: SFCS represents another educational choice that parents have regarding their children’s education. To some degree, the state defines our role with SFCS (i.e., establishment of fees). Where we have a choice, we want to follow a pattern of increased communications. Since SFCS educates students that will most likely attend MCHS, we have a vested interest in making sure that these students have what they need to succeed. Support can come through understanding, communication and sharing of resources. The district can consistently include the SFCS teachers and personnel in professional development opportunities. There could be classroom or grade alike collaboration opportunities so teachers could share best practices and learn from one another. For instance, a third grade class at SFCS and a third grade class at El Portal could do the same science experiment and compare data gathered.
Wall: The school board has approved new roofs, new HVAC systems and is working toward a new well so the school has drinkable water. However, more emphasis could be placed on improving other facilities such as the playground. It would be helpful if the charter school had access to some of the larger facilities at school in town, such as the hall for concerts. This would promote more community involvement.
7. How do you think Superintendent Robin Hopper is doing in her position?
Eppler: Robin’s job is unique compared to most superintendents’ jobs in California, as she actually serves as both the district and the county superintendent. The learning curve with both positions is steep, and she has assimilated well into both roles. While personnel evaluations are strictly confidential, her actions can be observed: She worked tirelessly to help pass the very important Measure L Bond measure. Under her leadership, Greeley Hill School reopened and serves that area well. She is an active and hardworking contributor to our district and to the community.
Wall: It is important for the school board and superintendent to work together. It is also important that the school board holds the superintendent accountable for goals. The Center for Public Education found that key to success is that school boards must “lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.” CPE found that boards and superintendents in “high-achieving districts” came together creating a strong working relationship, refining their visions over time, assessing district strengths and weaknesses, and holding the superintendent accountable for goals. I look forward to working with Robin and the board to improve our schools. I intend to be a conduit of communication between the public, the board and the superintendent. I value transparency and accountability. I think that moving forward with positive energy, my presence on the board will bring effective leadership to our schools, students and teachers.
8. How would you address the overcrowding at area schools?
Eppler: I think the Silva Road site needs to play a role in mitigating the issue of school space at both Mariposa Elementary and Woodland Elementary. There is no room for MES to expand and no more field space available for students. We are in the process of evaluating the facilities, student numbers and teacher credentialing issues that would have to be addressed if the middle school were to be reopened. We could consider making it a multi-graded site with various grade configurations: a 7-8 school, a 6-7-8 school, or even a 5-6-7-8 school. This idea would help ease the class size issue in both elementary schools. This issue needs to be well-studied with input from the community.
Wall: There is a plan being considered by the board to re-open the Silva school site. I think this may be an option worth considering. I would like to research the possibility of having four first through eighth grade schools spread equally between MES, Woodland, Sierra Foothill Charter and Silva. I think this would ease overcrowding and not put an excessive burden on the buses.
9. Do you feel more money should be spent on athletics in the district, including spending for a new football stadium and/or gymnasium?
Eppler: I value athletics for many reasons: Athletics is an exceptional character builder, encourages a strong work ethic and develops teamwork among those participating students. It brings communities and families together, and promotes opportunities for outsiders to visit Mariposa. It brings pride and accomplishment to the forefront. Obviously, a new stadium would complement the many outstanding athletic programs we offer. In the bond survey, development/renovation of athletic fields was noted as a community priority, but issues of health and safety took precedence. The district needs to examine the feasibility of building a stadium and the logistics and the costs associated with that. Our boosters do an incredible job of supporting our competitive sports programs. We willingly seek additional input from the community on this issue.
Wall: I believe athletics are an important component of education, as are academics, music, drama, FFA and other extracurricular activities. I do not have enough information at this point to determine whether more money should be spent on athletics in relation to other programs, so I will reserve comment on this point. I do, however, believe that the district is responsible for a safe playing field and safe equipment for all extracurricular activities. I believe that we have an obligation to look at the entire district and all facilities and ensure we have adequate teaching spaces before we spend money on other items.
10. What are your ideas for the best way to improve school security? Do you feel the district has failed thus far in enhancing its security measures?
Eppler: Student safety is the top concern for MCUSD, and the district continues to actively address this issue. We received a grant to establish a multi-tiered support system aimed at strengthening the social/emotional development of our students. Program components provide for a response team which proactively supports students before a crisis exists and would respond immediately to an emergency situation. Additionally, the district has added a school resource officer. We’ve held community meetings in conjunction with the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office and Mariposa County Behavioral Health where preventative programs and procedures were outlined. It’s imperative that all sites conduct/practice emergency drills, and communication protocols are refined and implemented. Secure fencing, improved lighting, patrol vehicles at sites and ID badges for adults and students might increase overall safety. Maintaining safe school sites is our number one priority.
Wall: I do not think the district has failed in school security. Currently the sheriff and probation departments have officers on the school grounds. I think this is an excellent decision. Since most problems originate from the students while they are on the school grounds, it makes sense to position security where the issues arise. This allows for faster response times when problems occur, as well as a deterrent for bad behavior. At this point in time, I believe we have bullying and drug issues to address and need to increase promoting general respect for others. In addition, the school board has approved a fence to be put around the school, which will inhibit unauthorized persons from roaming on to campus, thus making it safer.