HomeCity NewsCandidates Spar at City Club Voter Forum

Candidates Spar at City Club Voter Forum

READY TO GO: Left to right, school board candidates Jane Chon, Michael Killackey, C. Joseph Chang, Shelley Ryan, Corey Barberie, John Gabriel and Dr. Steve Sommers at Monday evening’s City Club candidates forum. Photo by Rafael Najarian Photo

It was a rousing Monday evening for the San Marino City Club inside Huntington Middle School’s Kenneth F. White Auditorium as seven hopeful voices came together for a candidate’s forum to display their qualifications for a seat on the San Marino Unified School District School Board. The election will be held November 6, 2018.

Candidates Corey Barberie, Jane Chon, incumbent School Board Member C. Joseph Chang, John Gabriel, Michael Killackey, incumbent School Board President Shelley Ryan and Dr. Steve Sommers presented their respective backgrounds, qualifications and views regarding issues facing San Marino’s schools.

San Marino Tribune Editor Mitch Lehman served as moderator for the evening and asked seven questions prepared by the City Club, none of which the candidates had seen before the event, where each had one minute to answer. The candidates also took part in a lightning round, during which they answered anonymous questions in 30 seconds that had been posed by City Club members and members of the community. The audience also was able to submit questions the night of the event, a select number of which were asked by Lehman of the candidates, in which they had a full minute to answer.

To assure fairness, the order in which candidates were seated and answered questions was randomly drawn.

Barberie is a vice president and financial controller at an entertainment company; Chon is a former teacher, college-student adviser, and education research program manager; Chang is an active hospital executive in Greater Los Angeles hospitals; Gabriel is a director and management consultant; Killackey is an attorney and San Marino Schools Foundation trustee; Ryan is the acting principal at Ynez Elementary, and Dr. Sommers is a philanthropic advisor and former teacher.

Candidates began with opening statements on their backgrounds and qualifications.

Chon, a parent of four young students in SMUSD, noted that the city is in the middle of a major decision for the future and schools. She said the school board should engage the community about what’s most important in order to set the direction to move forward.

“We need to determine what our priorities and vision are for our kids’ future and we can only do that by connecting with people,” said Chon.

Killackey, a parent of two SMUSD students, said he had three main areas to focus on: maximizing each student’s potential, the wellness and safety of students, and the modernization of programs and facilities so that students will be ready for global competition.

“I also believe that it’s very important that we have a true understanding of what the actual role is of a school board, and so as we hear from each of the candidates, we really need to focus on whether the issues being addressed are something that can be achieved and focused on by a school board,” said Killackey.

Chang as a four-term school board member and father of two children who completed K-12 at SMUSD said he will provide 17 years of success, including serving as president of the school board, establishing STEM courses through Caltech and initiating creation of a Titan Wellness Center at San Marino High School.

“I have guided the district through the worst financial recession in 2008, while the district stayed number one in California for the last 17 years,” said Chang.

Ryan said that in her last four years as a school board member, the board has begun construction of the Barth Athletics Complex, developed research and intern programs for students with a Caltech partnership, brought coding and electronics to the elementary schools and established collaboration with local organizations.

“I’m proud of our progress and together, we will accomplish much more,” Ryan said.

Barberie, as the father of a daughter in the SMUSD, stressed that the current school board election is about choice. He said he can add value to the board with his financial background. With 23 years of experience in that field, he said he’s confident taking dense financial reports and simplifying them for explanatory purposes.

“The district does not have a great record of financial transparency, and that makes it even more vital to have someone with these skills,” said Barberie.

Audience members listen to the candidates at the City Club Candidate’s Forum on Monday evening. Photo by Skye Hannah

Gabriel, as the parent of three students, said he will help ensure that the district’s students are prepared with the best education possible so that when they graduate, they will be 100 percent successful in their chosen direction.

“I want to take that statistic, that number one statistic that we’re all so proud of, and I want to see it come to life in every student that leaves the district,” said Gabriel.

Dr. Sommers said that despite the number one ranking of the district, he feels that it’s falling behind. With three children, he said that fact matters to him deeply and that everyone is in it together.

“We need new enrollment, we need open access, we need [Career Technical Education, or CTE] pathways,” Sommers said. “These things should have been in place a long time ago and what we need now is leaders who are not going to accept any excuses. We need leaders who are going to be accountable to the community.”

Lehman asked what characteristics or qualifications the candidates think are the most important for the next superintendent to possess and to explain their previous experience in high level talent searches.

Chon shared that the superintendent should display honesty in communications, inspire trust in collaboration and embody leadership. In her previous work, she worked with a firm involvedin  reaching out to other firms to find superintendents in the non-profit sector.

“As we identify the priorities that our district values and our community values, we need to transfer that into the qualities we are seeking in a superintendent,” said Chon.

Killackey said the district needs a superintendent who will embrace creativity and innovation in designing programs that will support the potential and future of all students.

“We need to find somebody that will listen and will engage the community in all parts of the community including the full administration, the teachers, the parents, and the students, and reach out to recent alumni as well so that we can find an effective conversation, where we can come up with good ideas and work together in a goal that is promoting the future of every child,” Killackey said.

Chang said he has participated three times as a school board member in looking for a superintendent. This time, he said he would do it differently while stressing that communication ability and maintaining educational excellence would be important.

“First of all, quality of superintendent leadership, so he or she can coordinate all the school administration,” said Chang.

Ryan shared that the superintendent should be a good communicator, be able to interface and also facilitate at numerous levels while sharing mutual trust with the board.

“When we’re looking for a superintendent, we need somebody who is a leader, who shares the values of our community, has excellence in budgeting and finance, and believes in the excellence of all our children,” said Ryan.

Barberie said he studied a report on how the last superintendent was located. He said there were many concerns on how to fund common core and many other local control funding formulas, so it was apparent a financial superintendent was the goal.

“At this point though, I think we’re in a different direction,” said Barberie. “I think that transparency and collaboration and working with the community is still a very important thing, but I think this year we need somebody with more of a track record on implementing new programs, things like CTE pathways, and dual enrollment, and [has] really have been proactive and a proven track record in doing something like that.”

Gabriel said that he has been involved in hiring C-suite level executives numerous times, helping to build comprehensive lists to locate the ideal candidate, evaluating them, narrowing the scope and conducting interviews. He said the superintendent should be an effective listener and take a conservative approach to financial resources, while having an ability to lead the district forward to meet goals.

“I’d like to find a superintendent who has a proven track record of being collaborative and has built a genuine consensus between multiple stakeholders,” said Gabriel.

Dr. Sommers plainly stated that he agreed with what Gabriel said, to the laughter of the audience. He shared he has participated in searches and interviews to find and hire great candidates. He also said he was “quite disappointed” that Ryan, Chang and Killackey did not respond to a community group, and stressed that leadership in a candidate was important.

“If we want to hire somebody that represents the entire community, we need to hear the voice of everyone, and I would like to invite you to answer those questions and respond because they’re very specific about aspects that are important to parents in this community and me alike,” said Sommers.

Lehman asked the candidates why they wanted to be a school board member or continue to be one, and why should people vote for them.

Killackey said he kept in perspective the lives of 3,000 students across the district who have futures, interests, and learn in various ways. He offered ideas to prepare students with depth and knowledge by offering pathways courses, working with their hands, and also for the district to team with the city to share resources for safety and wellness.

“I feel that it is absolutely important to try to design a program, a philosophy in our district that we are going to reach all students across the spectrum in ways that will teach them most effectively,” Killackey said.

Chang said it was vitally important for the candidates to understand the format of the California school board so they can fully participate.

“As you know we’ve been maintaining for the last 20 years, through the difficult recession, but we still can be higher performance,” said Chang.

With five years as a school board member, Ryan said she had 33 years of experience in education and cared about the next generation of students. She pointed out that she is versed in ELPAC testing, the local control formula and the single plan for student achievement.

“I’m able to navigate and traverse through the requirements of the state as well as keep us fiscally sound,” said Ryan. “Please consider my experience as a way in which you want to know if somebody makes a decision, that they know the direct impact in the classroom. I’m the only candidate that knows directly about that.”

Barberie said for him, running for school board was all about the kids. He shared that even a few months ago, he hadn’t considered running for a seat on the board but attending many board meetings and seeing how the board handled issues encouraged him to run.

“There needs to be a financial voice on this board and I felt like with my background I could give my talents to that,” said Barberie. “It really is about making things great for my kids.”

Gabriel said being a community servant is in his DNA.

“I served in active duty in the U.S. Army for 6 years because I cared about my country,” said Gabriel. “I serve the clients that I work with because I care about the organizations, and I want to serve this community because I care about this community, and I care about your children, and I care about my two children and I want to ensure that the San Marino Unified School District is equipped with the tools necessary to educate and enrich our children so that they can go out in life and be the best possible people they can be.”

Sommers said the future mattered to him and he was running for a seat on the school board for specific reasons. He said a superintendent should foster decorum and transparency within the community, and that has not been the case in the past.

“We need people there who are going to hire a different type of superintendent than has been hired before,” said Sommers. “The only way to do that is to have new representatives and new leadership, while recognizing and being thankful for service that has been provided.”

Chon shared that having lived in San Marino for almost a decade and having four children between kindergarten and 11th grade, she is strongly invested in both the past and the future. She highlighted her Masters degree from Stanford University’s School of Education in policy analysis and evaluation, and also her prior teaching experience, advisement of college students in graduate admissions and work at a non-profit research firm.

“A lot of my perspective has changed over the years and so I have a lot to offer as a board member in terms of the breadth of experience I’ve had both in the schools as a PTA member, I’ve served on multiple committees as vice president, chair of the [Carver] Carnival and it’s always been such a pleasure to me to serve our students,” said Chon.

Lehman asked the candidates what skills and experience they would bring to an additional bond and construction project that the district will need in the not too distant future.

Chang highlighted his experience as a board member at Caltech and being a hospital CEO, and that he was familiar with projects and construction.

Ryan said that the school board needs to come together to set priorities on what’s most important and having heard feedback saying the board hadn’t done enough with communicating effectively, wants to allow the community to continue being involved in decision-making moving forward.

Barberie suggested putting the bond and deferred maintenance on the same list to either replace the facility or fix it up, and it can be decided after conferring with the community what the priorities are.

Gabriel said he made his career of helping organizations in trouble, so he would create a task list, systematically move through it, itemize it, and display transparency to decide upon the most appropriate steps forward.

Sommers called the issue of deferred maintenance one of leadership and suggested to set aside capital funds in advance to make sure that maintenance is addressed beforehand so the community is not dependent on an improperly vetted bond issue.

Chon said she would match the budget to meet priorities and also look to how other school districts have successfully passed bonds at the 75 to 80 percent level where the community is involved and invested in the impact for the schools.

Killackey shared that as a business owner with experience balancing budgets and solving problems creatively, he would reach out to former school board members to gain a historical perspective on issues and learn how to best move forward with active community engagement.

For the fourth question, Lehman asked candidates their thoughts on increasing security and safety in San Marino’s schools and how they would secure and protect the confidentiality of the knowledge and information of that security. All candidates agreed that safety was a top priority within the district.

Ryan said she would consider safety in the physical, social and emotional realms by focusing on single entry access at schools, who’s coming into schools, and how to most effectively partner with fire and police.

Barberie explained a need to work closely with police when school studies are conducted so that they would be involved in an integral way to ensure safety plans are practical. He also suggested including safety recommendations in future bonds to ensure they are funded.

Gabriel agreed with the bond idea of safety recommendations and considered safety a priority, as there is no need for a school district unless there are safe, happy and healthy children.

Sommers asked why the community was talking about the issue now as opposed to a few years ago, referencing the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. He suggested the district reach out to Gavin de Becker and Associates, who specialize in protection, and have them perform a security analysis of the district.

Chon said it was important to maintain a training regimen with the staff and personnel, like a recent ALICE [which stands for Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate] training, and students so they know what to do with bells and alerts to stay safe.

Killackey shared he has sat with San Marino Police Chief John Incontro to discuss safety approaches to facilities, cyberbullying and cybersecurity. He suggested providing students with mental health skills to better handle life stresses.

Chang said that as a hospital CEO, he pays close attention to the environment and is aware of safety concerns. He expressed a need to find out how the district can do more for safety even within budgetary restrictions.

For the fifth question, Lehman asked candidates to explain their understanding of the role a school board member and if they are to actively search for challenges, sit as more of a judicial body, or feel it’s a hybrid of both.

Barberie agreed it’s a hybrid of both. As an elected official, he said the first responsibility is to the community and although sitting as a judicial body is important for the process of business, a school board member first needs to listen, and represent the community.

Gabriel sees the role as needing a hybrid approach and views San Marino as an ecosystem, where the district needs must be measured against the priorities of the community.

Sommers agreed that it’s a hybrid of both responsibilities. He explained that the school board sets policy, in which the cabinet and superintendent execute. The board hires the superintendent and should work to hold them accountable to policies.

Chon saw no need to search for problems, reasoning that if the school board is properly engaged with the community, problems will present themselves in time. She said the board is tasked to create policies to address school issues and to hire a superintendent who will know how to both effectively implement policies and hire personnel to ensure goals are met.

Killackey shared that the role of the school board is to provide efficient structure to set a direction for the district and maintain a solid communication channel so that the community can engage with the school board. He also supported providing teachers with ongoing professional development opportunities.

Chang said the school board needs to set up policy and direction, ensuring accountability and providing community leadership. He said in the past 17 years, the district is “going smoothly” while maintaining an excellent level of education and it needs to continue working together as a team to help the superintendent.

Ryan reframed the question to ask what it takes to lead. She sees the board as a governance team which needs to listen to the values of the community, is responsible to build direction and consensus to complete goals, establish efficient structure and policies for hiring and also consider the implementation of curriculum. Additionally, it should match the budget with LCAP [Local Control Accountability Plan, which describes the district’s goals, actions and services, and expenditures for the planned years according to SMUSD’s website], be involved in collective bargaining and both provide and adopt a budget for negotiation.

The sixth question from Lehman asked what the candidates thought of the need for SMUSD to maintain the status of being the top ranked public school district in California. He pointed out that many involved in real estate tout the direct connection of property values to the success of the schools. The candidates were asked if the district’s state ranking was important to them or if they felt it was time to change the focus.

Gabriel said it was an important statistic, but that ranking number one wasn’t enough. He stressed that creating a happy child who is able to enjoy and engage in life should be the goal, not just being a student who only achieves high test scores.

“What needs to happen is we need to be able to see that number one ranking in the lives of each of our children,” said Gabriel. “We need to be able to see they received a rich experience as they pass through the educational experience.”

Sommers disagreed that property values were related to the success of the district, referencing several homes that were purchased within the last year by families without children. He believes that the SMUSD will lose the number one ranking within a few years, drawing enthusiastic applause from a few members of the audience.

“The way we measure success is providing an education that truly prepares our children for advancement and success in life,” said Sommers. “It prepares them to be good citizens, caring, kind, improves their character, advances the values of parents.”

Chon said she didn’t believe the district needs to be number one as it’s based on a test that is used in only nine states. She referenced Duarte School District, which she said is encouraging innovation, collaboration and enthusiasm among the student body. She stressed for the nurturance of student wellness, which also drew applause from the audience.

“I want to be the number one school district because we are the first K-12 school that is implementing a wellness initiative across the entire school system,” said Chon. “Colleges are dealing with this problem and addressing the need after the student has already gotten there. It’s too late. We need to start helping our students to be number one in their hearts and in their future, and not on a test.”

Killackey said that with test scores, they are measures of success but they’re not the only measure of success. He also shared that the scores show how the community comes together to focus on a successful area.

“Our children will learn in lots of different ways, so I think that it is important for our district to provide as many opportunities as possible for children that learn different ways and have different interests and have different abilities to find their areas of success,” said Killackey.

Chang said the number one ranking was important, as it provides motivation and he will continue to work towards making sure students can maintain academic rigor.

“For the school board, we only say we’re number one on the day we announce we’re number one,” said Chang. “The rest of the days we know what we need to do. We are taking care of the kids.”

Ryan rebutted that the district has the top ranking not due to test scores, but due to having the best families and communities, engaging in innovations and partnerships with Caltech and the Huntington Library for blended learning and actively recruiting top teachers.

“We’re number one for many reasons,” said Ryan. “I’m not talking about just test scores. We rank and we are on our school dashboard, we are, we self-evaluate, the state evaluates us, we are financially sound, we have a reserve and we are number one because we manage the little resources we have in terms of our budget and we make it work for our students.”

Barberie said that test scores are important, but the number one ranking is simply a tool that real estate agents employ. He said he wants to understand why students are leaving the district so he can address ways to build a stronger community and that will help drive property values, which drew strong applause from the audience.

“The problem we’re having lately is because we’re not offering the new programs like CTE Pathways, like dual enrollment, like open access to AP and honors courses, students are leaving our schools,” said Barberie. “They’re going to private schools, and it’s tearing down our community.”

Lehman presented the final question, which detailed that many community members have requested increased access to AP and Honors courses while voicing strong concern about excessive homework and overall student wellness. He asked the candidates if they felt the two ideas were in conflict and, if not, if the two priorities could co-exist.

Sommers reiterated that he has repetitively heard people talk about the number one ranking, but strongly disagreed with the spirit of it. He acknowledged being first in test scores, but highlighted that other districts were advancing faster than the SMUSD with CTE Pathways and college preparation.

“We have to acknowledge the truth,” said Sommers. “Complacency is the death nail of a great organization. We need to move forward.”

Chon acknowledged that students can feel pressured to accept more courses in order to be competitive and suggested offering a wider variety of courses to suit their interests as well as fully preparing both teachers and students for the course demands.

“The honors courses allow the students to have a deeper examination of the course material,” said Chon. “This doesn’t necessarily need to mean rigor in our schools, [but] it does.”

Killackey said that students are under a great amount of pressure in AP classes and often it’s not singularly their own decision to enroll in them. He referenced a recent campaign event of Barberie’s and said he was “very concerned” that he felt that Barberie meant for students to find a way to deal with issues if they got into an AP class and encountered difficulty.

“We need to be very realistic about the consequences of these choices. We need to set our students up for success, not for failure,” said Killackey. “We need to provide programs that speak to and reach our students at their level and in different areas of definitions of success that they can in fact flourish and move forward.”

Chang highlighted his experience setting up STEM courses with Caltech and humanities through the Huntington Library. He urged for understanding that the district serves many different kinds of students.

“We need to consider each kid’s ability so that’s the reason the last 10 years what we are doing is adapt for the kid’s ability,” said Chang.

Ryan said the issues were related and was not a “one-size fits all” education. She touted that AP courses were not the only way to get the attention of top universities, referencing blended classes, dual enrollment, partnerships and internships.

“Another thing we’re looking at is how full our students’ plates are when we’re looking at homework,” said Ryan. “In K to 3, definitely the focus on families spending time developing group teams and study skills, but in the middle and upper grades, we need to leave it to the experts to dictate in the classroom the types of homework and then of course regulate real homework.”

Barberie fully supported access to AP and Honors courses. He also said he was misquoted by Killackey, clarifying that students will determine for themselves classes that are suitable for them.

“If a student wants to stretch and they don’t succeed, that is their choice but that’s not my point,” said Barberie. “My point is that students will self-select into courses where they’ll be successful.”

Gabriel supported open access to Honors and AP courses while sharing that he has learned a lot in life when both he had success and also failures and setbacks in life. He felt the two issues were separate and could be balanced together.

“So allowing children to have access to the classes they want regardless of how challenging they might be, I absolutely 100 percent support,” said Gabriel. “Is that in juxtaposition or opposed to homework? Absolutely not. The concern that the community is voicing is excessive homework.”

Wrapping up the event after an extended lightning round and additional audience questions, Lehman encouraged the audience to give candidates a round of applause and said the San Marino City Club encourages everyone to vote on Nov. 6. A complete video of the forum will soon be posted on the City Club website, www.sanmarinocityclub.org.

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