Serving on a school board in any community is a thankless job. Board members routinely take barbs from both parents and the various employee unions that the districts bargain with. Those who do serve must have a strong sense of public service and a laser beam focus on the people who too often get lost: the children.
We spent time with candidates for area school boards during group meetings with Sun-Star editors. We recorded the proceedings; you can listen to them at www.mercedsunstar.com.
Merced Union High School District
Two qualified candidates are running to take the Area 1 seat being vacated by the retiring David Olsen. Mike Carpenter, who with his father runs the Leap Carpenter Kemps insurance agency in Merced, faces Jack Shaefer, a retired educator and Atwater parks and recreation director who lives in Merced.
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The district is at a critical juncture in its existence. Last year, a tax increase proposal that would have raised money to build a new high school in North Merced failed. The need has not diminished in the year since the measure's failure -- and this is an issue the new board member will have to confront from the get-go.
Recently, MUHSD Superintendent Robert Fore announced his retirement at the end of the current school year. This gives the board a number of months to find his replacement. Hiring a qualified superintendent is any school board's most important task -- and the new board member will factor prominently into this decision.
Another big task for the new board will be to fill the board seat being vacated by longtime member Robert Weimer. No one is running to replace Weimer.
Both candidates appear knowldegeable about these and other district issues. The edge goes to Carpenter. He brings an outsider's perspective (he's not an educator) and his successful business experience will bring great insight to a board that could use someone with keen business instincts.
We also hope Carpenter will begin a legacy of elected public service with this position. Serving the community is in his family's DNA; his father, Bob, has been widely credited with helping convince the University of California to build its 10th campus in Merced.
The younger Carpenter brings years of community leadership work of his own to the table, and election to the MUHSD board is a logical progression for him. The Sun-Star endorses Mike Carpenter in this race with the hope that he will be a good steward of the high school district's resources.
Merced City School District: Two open seats
Three challengers are attempting to knock off two incumbents in this race. The mere fact that there are so many challengers attests to the public's displeasure with the way the board has managed the district's affairs over the past two years.
Gene Stamm and Betsy Williams participated in some of the shakiest board leadership we've seen, notably the knee-jerk "you're fired," and then "some of you are rehired" treatment of the district's library media teachers.
We've frequently criticized this board for the often arrogant way it goes about its business. The hiring process that resulted in the hiring of Terry Brace as superintendent closed the public out of this important decision with the exception of a chosen few who served on a panel. This contrasts with the more public superintendent selection processes utilized by other districts throughout the state -- and to great success, we might add.
We asked the challengers who showed up to meet with us to rate the performance of the existing board. Surprisingly, there was little criticism to pass around. It made us wonder why they were taking the time and effort to run for office if things were so good with the incumbents at the helm.
Two candidates rise to the top here. Susan Walsh, a Merced College librarian, clearly has done her homework on the district and its many issues. She is sharp and quick with a thoughtful answer -- two traits that a board member must possess.
She wants to continue to improve the district's test scores and put a larger emphasis on technology in the classroom. She has attended nearly all board meetings for at least a year and has been a constant watchdog over the district's fiscal decisions.
The board needs someone of Walsh's stature sitting at the table instead of in front of it.
Gene Stamm, who has served on the board for the past 16 years, isn't afraid to speak out against what the other board members are saying. He was the lone board member who voted against laying off the library media teachers and stuck to his guns throughout the entire process. He also was the only board member who held several meetings with parents of children who attend Franklin and Joe Stefani schools. The parents were concerned with how far their kids had to walk after bus stops were eliminated within a mile radius of the schools.
The Sun-Star endorses Walsh and Stamm for Merced City School District board.
Atwater Elementary School District: Two open seats
The past two years haven't been smooth sailing for the AESD, and the nastiness between the administration and the teachers union shows no signs of abetting.
The battle now moves to the school board.
It's not a secret that two of the candidates, John Hall, a teacher, and James Murphy, a plumber, are running as the teachers union's candidates. District teachers remain unhappy following last year's contract dispute (which now is settled).
The union would like nothing more than to see incumbent Barbara Williamson and appointed incumbent Kory Billings bounced from office because of their handling of the contract.
In Williamson's case, we don't agree.
Williamson is one of the board's brightest lights. It's clear that the children and the district's fiscal health are her biggest concerns, in that order. Giving the teachers heftier raises at all costs is not at the top of her list of priorities. We think that's to her credit, not peril.
We also were impressed with Jean Anderson, who, due to an egregious error on the part of the county elections office, is running as a write-in candidate. Anderson is a sensible person who has the interests of the kids first -- and is not beholden to any one special interest.
Billings, who first was appointed to the board a few years ago, lost his seat in the most recent election, only to be reappointed by the board. We thought that was a curious decision, since Billings already had been rejected by the voters. We cannot support him this time.
The AESD needs to move past the acrimony. This may happen if the special-interest board members are elected -- but it would be to the detriment of the district, since the board's decisions would favor the special interests over the greater good.
The Sun-Star endorses Barbara Williamson and Jean Anderson for election to the AESD board.