As the San Bruno Park Elementary School District moves forward with new leadership, officials should look to clear the path for progress by finding a solution to the financial struggles that have historically plagued the district, according to candidates running for the Board of Trustees.
Incumbents Kevin Martinez and Jennifer Blanco are seeking re-election, and they are being challenged by former trustee Chuck Zelnik and data systems specialist Andrew Mason, who are also vying for the two seats on the five-member board to be decided on the Nov. 3 all mail election.
The district has long grappled with issues stemming from a limited budget, and finding a long-term solution to those funding concerns should be a top priority for officials, said Martinez.
“We have to look at making a strong case for new investment in San Bruno schools,” he said.
The budget situation got so dire in the previous year that only a last-minute injection of funds from the state helped stave off a looming teacher strike.
Officials should continue looking to invest in their teachers, said Blanco, and reward those who have stuck with the district through periods of financial strife.
“We need to show them that we value them and that we respect and support them,” said Blanco.
Mason suggested looking long and hard at the current spending plans, especially in the realms of maintenance and operations, to find opportunity for cost savings.
“You can lower your fixed operating costs and put those back into the operating budget,” he said.
At the bleakest point last year, the district faced a deficit worth more than $2 million and officials were bandying severe budget cuts which could have required libraries to shut down or even ultimately led to the closure of a school.
But the additional money, available through increased state tax revenue, granted the flexibility to remove the programs from the chopping block and offer teachers a raise for which they had long been starved.
Zelnik said the board should exercise greater fiscal responsibility to avoid the financial pitfalls that have been the cause of so much consternation.
“We have got to make do with what we have got,” he said.
Zelnik especially takes issue with the deficit spending that officials have engaged in over recent years, and said the board should instead look to make cuts and work within the means of a constrained budget, rather than dig a deeper financial hole.
He claimed the board’s track record of overspending has harmed the district’s reputation with the community, which will impair any opportunity the district might have to pass a future tax measure.
The board last year began considering to pursue a parcel tax or bond measure, which some officials believe is necessary to shore up the district’s financial future.
Mason said he believed the most that could be done by the board to build trust with residents is ensuring all actions are transparent and communicated effectively.
“We have got to instill faith in the district again,” he said.
He said recently hired Superintendent Cheryl Olson could help that effort, as she has been more accessible and communicative than her predecessor David Hutt.
Blanco claims she was integral in bringing Hutt’s tenure to an end, and is excited for the direction the district will head under Olson.
“For many years I knew the previous administrator wasn’t the right person for the district,” she said.
Olson’s presence has had a profoundly positive effect on the character of the district, said Blanco.
“With this new energy, it has been very uplifting,” she said.
Martinez echoed those sentiments, and said Olson could be a unifying force in mending the relationship between the district and the community.
“She has a way of gently pulling everyone along with her,” he said of Olson.
The board hired Olson in April, months after voting to oust Hutt in the middle of his contract.
According to Martinez, Hutt’s recommendation to close a district school backfired and caused the community to turn against him, which, in retrospect, would have been the appropriate time to part ways.
Blanco and Zelnik also agreed the board should have moved quicker to replace Hutt.
“There was cause for him to be terminated, and the board didn’t act on that cause,” Zelnik said.
Instead, Zelnik said, officials allowed Hutt to stay in place, while the community and staff publicly took aim at him as a source of the district’s struggles.
Another source of contention, claimed Zelnik, was the way officials squandered revenue from the sale of Carl Sandburg Elementary School, which brought the district $30.5 million in 2006.
“It all went away, due to fiscal mismanagement,” he said.
Blanco said the economic future of the district is in good hands, citing the recent hire of Assistant Superintendent Sean McGinn as a financial advisor to Olson.
Though the new administration has only been in place for a short amount of time, Blanco said the willingness of the new district administration to collaborate with staff and the rest of the community is already paying dividends.
“We’re in a good place so far,” she said.
One tangible benefit of the way the funds from the Sandburg sale were spent was building the technology infrastructure which has helped the district in rolling out the Common Core curriculum, said Martinez.
As the new education standards require a different way of addressing traditional lessons, often with a technological bent, Martinez said the district needs to focus on supporting teachers to help them implement that curriculum in a seamless fashion.
Zelnik though said he was uncertain of the merits of the new state standards.
“I don’t think that it’s the cure-all that everyone in the upper echelon of education seems to think it is,” he said.
Mason said as the educational landscape shifts, he would like to see the district focus on science, technology, engineering and math curriculum, while offering a broad base of lessons.
“For me it’s all about offering a well-rounded education,” Mason said. “We’ve got to create kids with critical thinking skills, and create kids that are passionate about science.”
Implementation of Common Core will be easier, Blanco said, with a new administration willing to collaborate with educators.
“We are doing amazing now that we have leadership in the district who are there to support our teachers,” she said.
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