For the first time last Wednesday, the four candidates vying for one of three seats on the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board of Trustees convened before the public to debate, among other topics, the district’s technology advancements, budgetary issues and the nuanced impact anticipated from the upcoming rollout of the Local Control Funding Formula and Common Core.
The Nov. 5 election is the first race since 2007 for the third-ranked school district in California. In past elections, incumbents have faced no challengers.
Hosted by the Beach Cities’ League of Women Voters and MBUSD’s PTA Council, the 90-minute forum in Mira Costa High School’s auditorium was moderated by the League’s Barbara Arlow, who addressed the panel with questions from the audience.
On stage before some 50 community members were Christine Cronin-Hurst, a retired financial analyst; Jennifer Cochran, a former human resource professional; Ellen Rosenberg, a former commercial lender and the only incumbent in the race; and Kathleen Paralusz, a corporate attorney.
The topic of MBUSD’s elementary-level physical education instruction kicked off the night. In 2010, the district, faced with a $1.5 million budgetary shortfall, laid off the remainder of P.E. specialists in elementary schools. Since the 2011-2012 school year, elementary students have had no P.E. instruction in school.
“I wish we had everything pre-2008, or even pre-2002 for that matter,” said Cochran, whose three children attend Mira Costa, Manhattan Beach Middle School and Meadows Elementary. As PTA president of Meadows the year PE instruction was cut, she recounted establishing the school’s Running Club, which encourages students to jog on campus for 20 minutes before school. “We have to do the best with what we have and be creative what we don’t.”
Paralusz, whose 4-year-old daughter will enter the district next year, also emphasized community-based programs like the American Youth Soccer Organization through which kids can stay active. “It was probably an easier decision to make,” she said.
Rosenberg, who has served on the school board since 2009, explained that the decision to cut the program didn’t come easily, and ultimately the board was faced with a dilemma. “We have to balance our choices,” she said. “It was that or increasing class sizes.
She assured the audience that the current board hasn’t abandoned the possibility of reinstating the program. The topic, she said, was discussed at a board workshop that previous Monday, but it was among a host of other priories and issues.
Cronin-Hurst proposed reinstating the program through outside funding sources. The Manhattan Beach Ed Foundation–for which she’s served as a board member, site rep and a grants committee member–could “ideally fund” the $350,000 to $500,000 necessary to bring back elementary P.E. instructors.
The district’s recent expenditures on advancing the use of technology in classrooms, like the middle school’s iPad program, was the next topic — is it all worth it?
Rosenberg explained that the district didn’t go out of pocket on the iPad project, as 70 percent of parents opted to purchase a tablet and a Chevron grant funded the remaining 30 percent. Setting up the wireless technology, however, did come out of the district’s budget, but she considered it a necessary and wise investment with the implementation of new Common Core standards beginning 2014.
“…A requirement is that all of the assessments be done in a technology-based fashion — laptops, iPads with a keyboard,” she said. “We actually feel very fortunate that we’ve already made that investment and that the incremental funding we’re getting for Common Core we could use those funds for professional development for our teachers.”
Paralusz also emphasized that “technology is critical” to the success of students, especially “the younger ones who are using the technology faster and easier.” Such expenditures are “an investment for the future,” she said. Cochran spoke along similar lines, adding that web-based applications are widely used throughout the district.
While Cronin-Hurst acknowledged the importance of the district’s technological ventures, she noted the district “needs to be careful with spending” and should allot time to analyze the success of the programs. She also underlined the necessity of budgeting for teacher and parent trainings.
Paralusz and Rosenberg both pointed at the Local Control Funding Formula and Common Core as the biggest challenges anticipated in the next few years. Paralusz emphasized the need for close financial oversight during the implementation of both, making sure “our teachers have the resources they need to implement Common Core effectively and our children are prepared to start.”
Rosenberg expressed concern that the public will be confused about the nature of the new funds coming in, much of which are categorical funds for designated use. As the district strives to reduce its deficit in the next few years, cuts will still have to be made, she said.
“We will always strive to make those cuts away from the classroom,” she said. “We will always look at our non-teacher-based areas to make those reductions and we will have a responsible budget.”
Cronin-Hurst made a similar promise, saying she would “scrutinize every other item on the budget” before cutting a teacher or a program with teachers. She alluded to last year’s $1.1 million reduction in books and supplies, which recalled about 20 pink-slips. Again, she pressed the need to seek other sources of funding, from grants to partnerships with other districts.
Cochran said she suspects the hardest decisions in the next four years will revolve around “how we manage the time and limited financial and human resources that we have.” With the rollout of Common Core, for example, the district must make sure to allot resources for teacher training, she said.
All four candidates praised the district’s recent shared facility-use agreement with the city, a three-year contract by which the city pays the district $550,000 annually for use of its fields and pools. Paralusz and Rosenberg, who called the agreement one of her “proudest moments on the board,” emphasized that it is a business transaction, not a gift, whereas Cronin-Hurst urged that the district must reciprocate support to the city.
Other topics included teacher-district relationship, special education funding and drug use on campus.