By MATT JOHNSON, Assistant Editor
Two school board candidates squared off last Thursday for close to 30 minutes at a forum hosted by the Mariposa branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
District 3 incumbent candidate Judy Eppler and her challenger, Christy Wall, spoke on topics such as special education, bullying, how to attract new teachers and more. The meeting was held in the chambers of the Mariposa County Government Center.
Although the candidates are both running for the District 3 spot on the Mariposa County Unified School District board, the entire county can vote in this race.
The first question for the candidates was how they have demonstrated their commitment to the school system.
One of the first questions was how the candidates thought more teachers could be attracted to take jobs with the district.
“I think one of our shortfalls is our ability to communicate with eager teachers,” said Wall. “I know of teachers who have applied to the school district and have not heard back. They have moved on to other districts. I think if we can be better communicators and facilitators of the process, I think that would enable us to keep the ones who have applied.”
Wall said she also knew of teachers who worked for the district and left because they felt they were not being communicated with effectively.
“They felt like the staff and administration were not cooperating with them,” said Wall.
Wall said teachers need to be “empowered” in their classrooms, and that would entice quality teachers to stay.
Eppler said there is a shortage of teachers throughout the whole state.
She said there need to be “incentives” for teachers, suggesting a monetary incentive system throughout the school year.
“The theory being, that once you get people here, they love it, they stay,” Eppler said. “Loyalty is a commodity here. People are here for a very long time because they understand the community. They understand the ‘Mariposa Strong’ philosophy. They have to provide some sort of incentive for them.”
Eppler said one issue is finding housing for teachers to stay in.
“Other districts have provided van pools,” Eppler said. “What if we found some teachers in Oakhurst or Merced and van pooled them up here until they found a place to live?”
The candidates were asked about some of the challenges of providing special education services to students with disabilities.
Eppler said the laws are “very specific” when it comes to working with children in the special education program.
“We have a problem because we don’t pay what other districts pay,” Eppler said. “We can’t find the people to fill the needs to fill the IEP (Individualized Education Program, a document developed for each public school child who needs special education).”
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, Eppler said, with the recent hiring of MCUSD’s special education director Amanda Johnson.
“She is amazing. She thinks outside the box,” Eppler said. “She communicates with parents. She understands what students need and what teachers need, and I think we’re on the road to recovery.”
Wall said “we need to follow the regulations. We need to work with teachers and parents so they’re working together to help the children.”
Wall said she, too, has met Johnson and has hope she will build a strong SPED program.
The candidates were then asked what they think of Common Core standards.
“I think they have not done good service to our children,” Wall said. “The test scores of our children are falling. I know some of the issue is teachers aren’t being trained in how to teach it. That may be. But I also think that what is currently in our textbooks is hurting our children.”
Wall added that “having studied the standards, I think we can follow those standards with programs that are better suited to the education level of the child.”
“I think we can work within those standards, but we need to do a much better job,” Wall said.
Eppler said she didn’t agree with every aspect of Common Core, but added that Common Core “provides application for the knowledge.”
“You don’t just sit at the desk and answer questions and turn in a worksheet. You learn how to apply knowledge. Isn’t that what life is about?” Eppler said. “That part I really appreciate.”
Eppler agreed that teachers do need additional training in Common Core.
Sex education was also addressed by the candidates.
Wall stressed that “we need to leave the morality” aspect of sex education at home, and keep the science aspect in the classroom.
Eppler said “there are some scientific things that need to be taught,” but there are standards that need to be followed.
“I think we tread very lightly,” Eppler said. “We adhere to the standards, but we leave the part of the formalities or the judgment at home and let that go to the parents.”
Bullying was another issue broached at the meeting.
Eppler said “bullying is happening all over.”
She said the district has implemented a multi-tiered system of support, a new system where behavioral issues are worked on.
“We teach very early what bullying is, and how to be kind to people,” Eppler said. “We need to teach students starting at a very young age that bullying is unacceptable. … When it happens, it needs to be reported and we need to deal with it.”
Wall said she agreed, saying there needs to be a zero tolerance policy for bullying.
“Our school has some programs in place, but I don’t believe they’re working. We have a lot of bullying going on in our classrooms,” Wall said.
She said parents, teachers and administrators need to be working together and using “open communication” to combat bullying.
The final question was whether the candidates agreed with the way Measure L bond funds were being spent by the district.
Eppler said the priorities which have been set by the district when it comes to spending bond money were directed by a community survey, as well as staff at MCUSD.
“We combined all of that data and came up with a facilities master plan,” Eppler said. “This master plan is what we are following to implement spending of the bond money.”
She said many of the roofs in the district have been fixed with Measure L funds already, and the district is now moving forward with other projects.