Oct. 23, 2012
Misty Volaski, firstname.lastname@example.org
At the same time the presidential hopefuls were debating Monday night, the four candidates running for two open seats on the Ojai Unified School District (OUSD) Board also met in a public candidates forum.
Incumbents Linda Taylor and Thayne Whipple and challengers Kevin Ruf and Bill Ansell each answered six questions during the event, which was hosted by the Ojai Valley News and moderated by OVN Publisher Tim Dewar. After the moderated portion of the hour and a half event, questions from the audience were taken.
Candidates began with opening statements, in which Ruf brought up what turned out to be one of the biggest points of contention that night: health insurance benefits for board members. As he has done before, Ruf took issue with board members accepting health insurance in exchange for their service, primarily because it was estimated to cost the OUSD $66,000 this year (board members can opt to receive $250 per board meeting instead). “I think that we live in an era when, just starting with that, it’s the kind of thing that makes people cynical,” Ruf said Monday night.
Both Taylor and Whipple defended the policy.
Whipple said while he appreciated Ruf’s sentiment, he felt that offering those benefits ensured that the Board would have quality members who would take the position seriously. Ruf retorted, “Clearly, when this benefit perk was started, it was not intended to be worth … $13,000 per year. It was presumably at some point worth about $250 per meeting.”
Later, Taylor pointed out that providing health insurance to board members was legal and common in the state, and that board members often contribute funds back to the District. She added that she had determined she makes about 21 cents an hour for the time she spends on school board activities. “I think I’m worth that,” she explained.
Ansell said he was unaware that the board members were offered health insurance, but suggested that perhaps the Board could stop providing itself benefits until its financial situation improved. “We are all gonna have to share … some of the suffering,” he said.
The candidates were asked if they were concerned about the District’s declining enrollment and what they would do to stop it.
Whipple said having events like Ojai Day, which attract people from other cities, helps by showing off the town and its offerings. He used his own family as an example, saying, “We came here 14 years ago … and we fell in love with it and didn’t want to leave.”
Both Whipple and Taylor cited Summit Elementary School as a positive example of increasing enrollment through attracting students from neighboring districts. Taylor also suggested discussing the issue with city officials, while Whipple said the District should leverage technology more, particularly to bring in more home schooling families.
Ruf joked that he had done his part by having his third child, later adding, “I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop it (declining enrollment). We have to plan accordingly, we have to rationalize our expenses to meet our needs.”
Ansell pointed out that “This is a gorgeous community to live in, but it’s also expensive,” meaning young families with children often cannot afford to move here. “I don’t have an answer this evening,” he added, “but there’s no question that our No. 1 priority is to make schools work effectively so that we produce a population that can go out and do good things.”
On the issue of Propositions 30 and 38, tax initiatives that seek to avoid drastic funding cuts for schools, Ansell said he didn’t know enough about the District’s budget to offer answers as to how he would help get the District through the year should the initiatives fail. “I’d want to give that some serious thought,” he said.
Taylor began her response by explaining the Board’s main goal is to balance the budget, and that if it failed, the state could take over the District. Because a failure of the propositions would mean a loss of about $1.2 million to the OUSD, Taylor said the Board would have to make “horrendous pay cuts for all staff” and it would result in at least two weeks less of school.
Whipple said he had already gone to local legislators to lobby for school funding, and said he would reach out to other people in the valley for possible contributions to the District. Later, Whipple explained that he had abstained from the OUSD Board’s vote to support Prop. 30 because he felt the state legislature was holding schools hostage. He explained that he would be voting yes, but that “I absolutely do not endorse the situation.”
Asked about his youngest child’s enrollment in a school outside of the OUSD, Whipple said that she was recruited by The Thacher School and she determined it was the best place for her. All of his other children went through Ojai’s public schools, he added.
Asked the same question about his youngest attending a non-OUSD school, Ruf said his 3-year-old was attending Monica Ros and was too young for public school. When he was told that the OUSD did have a public preschool, he admitted he was unaware of that.
In their individual questions, both challengers were asked how many board meetings they had attended, and how they were preparing for a seat on the Board if elected. Both said they hadn’t attended many board meetings. Ruf said he read all the agendas and minutes of the board meetings, as well as studied the budget and met with several administrators.
Ansell pointed to his experience in the classroom over his 50 years in education as a big reason he felt qualified and ready. “I have something to offer you,” he said to the crowd. “There has got to be a creative way to fund our schools.” He also expressed his passion for the arts, particularly music. “I’ve never seen a musician that wasn’t happy when he was playing.”
Later, Ruf said he was in favor of looking into another parcel tax initiative for the city, and that he would “descend into the weeds of the budget … to try to be the best salesman for a parcel tax.”
When asked whether she would support the two petitions for new charter schools within the OUSD, Taylor noted that she hadn’t decided because more information was still coming in from petitioner Caprice Pitcher. She did, however, still have questions about things such as the charter schools’ finances and whether they could serve all populations of students.
Asked the same thing, Whipple said while he liked the idea of the SelfDesign charter schools, he too had questions that were still in the process of being answered. OUSD Superintendent Hank Bangser noted that the board would make the final decision at its Nov. 13 meeting.
When asked what, in a perfect world, she would eliminate from the budget, and where she would reappropriate those funds, Taylor responded “I would turn off the lights all over the District and reinstate summer school.”
Visit www.ojai.k12.ca.us for more information on the OUSD, including board meeting schedules, agendas, policies and more.