Candidates for the Modesto City Schools Board of Education squared off in a public forum Wednesday night, where tempers flared between incumbents and challengers over dropouts, equal access to technology and improving older schools' facilities.
Much of the disagreement is between the five challengers who are promising change and incumbents who are pointing out the positive achievements of students and staff in a race for four seats on the board.
About 60 people watched the question-and-answer event at Modesto Junior College — most of them MJC students getting credit for classes such as speech and history.
Incumbents Nancy Cline and Cindy Marks did not attend — Cline had another engagement and Marks came down with the stomach flu — but both sent in statements the moderator read.
Questions included how science should be taught in class, the role of board members in relation to district managers, and how to help Latino students who are not making significant academic gains.
Challenger Solange Altman and incumbent Steve Collins were at odds on a few issues. When asked how the district can serve its low-income students in tough economic times, Altman criticized some financial decisions of the current board, such as approving a $180,000 contract for a consultant who developed the district's strategic plan.
Collins countered that the district has managed its resources well, stating that the consultant wrote the much-needed plan with lots of input from staff, students and parents.
"It's easy to armchair-quarterback decisions that have been made," added incumbent Belinda Rolicheck.
Altman took another jab at consultant contracts in a discussion on how Latino students' learning could be improved. Collins and Rolicheck touted the district's language institute that started this year. Altman said the institute was the brainchild of a teacher and that "no expensive consultant" was used.
Incumbents and challengers also took different sides on questions about how to ensure the district provides equal access to quality facilities at all of its campuses.
Challenger Ruben Villalobos said trustees and staff should not always establish new programs at new schools, and that old schools in south and west Modesto deserve to have the same technology as newer campuses. Collins noted that several older schools have specialized programs, such as Modesto High School's storied International Baccalaureate pathway.
Challenger Jim Standart noted a disparity in the number of computer labs between some of Modesto's high schools to press the point that the students aren't getting equal facilities.
Candidates found common ground on the subject of preparing students for jobs of the future, especially those in technology fields. They agreed the district should provide computers and Internet access in schools.
"Schools should stay connected with one another and share technology ideas," challenger Josh Vander Veen said.
Challenger Sue Zwahlen said she'd support having schools be open longer each day so students could visit campus at night to use computers. Altman favors partnerships with businesses to recycle their older computers and donate them to schools.
"I think we need to pursue more online learning, especially for our dropouts," Rolicheck said. "We need to purchase computers and technology so all kids have access."
The 90-minute forum was presented by MJC's Civic Engagement Project with help from the League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County.