With local school board elections approaching on Tuesday, Nov. 5, three of four candidates running for three spots on the Newhall School District Board gathered at SCVTV Studios on Sunday, Oct. 20 for a forum to discuss pressing issues affecting education in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Incumbents Phil Ellis and Christy Smith, and challenger Sandra Bull attended the forum. Incumbent Brian Walters had a prior obligation and could not attend.
The forum was facilitated by Perry Smith of KHTS AM-1220, Taylor Villanueva of College of the Canyons’ Cougar News, Luke Money of The Santa Clarita Valley Signal, and Leon Worden of SCVTV emceed the event.
The range of topics covered everything from budgeting to charter schools, and the candidates were also given the opportunity to pose questions to each other.
Bull comes from an education background. As an assistant principal in the Sulphur Springs School District, Bull said that she understands what it takes to run a school and day-to-day life in the classroom.
Ellis, currently the Newhall District Board president, served a four-year term on the William S. Hart Union High School District, before joining the Newhall Board for two terms. He has a background in law and served as a site counsel on the junior high school campus where his children attended. Both of his sons attended Newhall and Hart District schools.
Christy Smith has served on the Newhall Board for one term, and described herself as “a longtime advocate of public education” and an active board member. She has prior experience as a policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Education.
As the candidates began to answer the questions posed to them, it became clear that they believed the Newhall School District was already in good hands. There was very little disagreement between candidates, even from challenger Bull, who mentioned that the district has an API score of 905. The consensus seemed to be that the district keep improving.
Perry Smith posed the first question: “The Newhall School District sites repeatedly earn high API scores despite these sites having a disproportionately high number of free lunch students. What are some of the unique challenges associated with this unique population, and how can Newhall School District continually improve its service?”
Christy Smith said that despite the district’s large population of low-income students, their success is due to an excellent instructional staff that stays on top of changing trends.
“The way we continue to push that paradigm is through innovation and collaboration,” she said. “Collaboration is a very important part of everything that we do.”
Bull also cited the expertise of the teachers, noting that 83 percent of district teachers have six or more years of experience. Newhall has also become an example for other districts.
“I worked in the Sulphur Springs School District, and we looked to Newhall for their writing program,” Bull said. “We looked to Newhall for their McGrath (Elementary School) model, which is a tremendous model, which reaches the English Language Learner student.”
Ellis followed by saying that with such a high-scoring district, it is not always possible to improve consistently.
“Unfortunately, you can’t always do better every year, because there’s a certain point where you start to max out,” he said. “And with our scores approaching 1,000 it’s going to be very difficult to keep on increasing. That doesn’t say that we don’t strive.”
Money asked the candidates to articulate their position on charter schools, and if they would approve one that seemed to meet a need in the community.
All three candidates agreed that charter schools were not a good fit for the Santa Clarita Valley.
“I think we’re going to look at this a decade or two decades from now and see that the charter school movement has fractured our public education system…” Christy Smith said. “I don’t see that a panacea for all of our education woes comes in the form of a free market competition environment.”
Bull said that charter schools do help in low-scoring school districts, something that is not an issue for Newhall.
“There isn’t a need for a charter school to come in and help students to perform…” she said. “The purpose of a charter school is low performance, and we don’t have that.”
Ellis also noted the changing trend to create charter schools as a high-end educational option.
Albert Einstein Academy and SCVi Charter School are two local examples.
Ellis said that these types of schools are “trying to create more of an elitist school, a private school on the public dime. That’s not the purpose for a charter school.”
As the forum came to an end, Bull said she appreciated what the current board members and district Superintendent Marc Winger were already doing.
“It isn’t like I’m coming in there to say we need change…” she said. “The only thing that I feel I would bring to this board is a balance. I have an educational perspective. I know what it’s like to be in the classroom.”
Both Ellis and Christy Smith were thankful for the opportunity to serve.
“I’m here today, because I want to continue my service to the community as a board member,” Ellis said.
He encouraged the audience to come out and vote on Nov. 5.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege for me to serve…” Christy Smith said. “I am very committed to the concept of public accountability and public service at the same time.”
The full forum is available on KHTS AM-1220’s YouTube channel. Click to hear what the candidates had to say about bullying, budget concerns and the California Voting Rights Act, among other things.