The forum last week for candidates running for the Williams Unified School District Board of Trustees had the least attendance of the five events hosted by the Colusa County Chamber of Commerce, but it was likely the most important.
With three 4-year seats and one 2-year seat up for grabs, with only one appointed incumbent running, the Nov. 3 election could have the most far-reaching impacts.
A possible new school board majority, at last week’s candidate forum, suggested there might once again be a “top down” shake-up in WUSD administration and programs.
Appointed incumbent Alejandra Lopez appeared on the Education Village stage, in Williams, on Oct. 6, with challengers Kathleen Bautista, Cesar Perez, and former Mayor Pat Ash, who said they may take the district in a different direction that the old guard.
Ed Davis, the unchallenged candidate for the 2-year seat, sat in the audience. Davis, a former Williams teacher, will not be on the Nov. 3 ballot, but will be sworn in with the others when the terms of trustees Yareli Mora and George Simmons expire.
The Williams school district has experienced an extremely high turnover of school board members, superintendents, and site administrators in recent years, compounded with a mass exodus of teachers and about 160 students to other districts in 2019.
Claims that Williams Unified is a hostile environment have echoed throughout the district since 2015, amid claims that the staff are constantly divided and pitted against each other.
One elementary school administrator, upon resignation, called Williams teachers adult bullies who constantly wreak havoc and create dissension when they don’t get their way.
Teachers claim it is the administrators who are demeaning, demanding, and demoralizing, and constantly make them feel inferior and undervalued.
“Everyone is unhappy and it’s trickling down to the kids,” Bautista said, at the Colusa County Chamber of Commerce’s Candidate’s Night. “The board needs to get together and brainstorm and figure out how this needs to be fixed.”
Whether a possible shift to a more teacher-driven agenda hurts or helps, the four candidates on this year’s ballot claim to have the district, teachers, and students’ best interests at heart.
Ash, Baustista, and Perez are all Williams Unified alumni.
Batustita, a fourth generation alum, with three kids who graduated from Williams High School, has two kids still in school.
Perez, 27, a school volunteer, put his young son back in Williams this fall after removing him last year to attend school in Colusa.
Ash, who graduated in the 1960s, has been active in the community and local government since returning to Williams in 2005. She reinspired enthusiasm at the high school in 2019 by bringing back the homecoming parade that had been dropped for a number of years.
Lopez is the only non-native Williams resident in the race. The daughter of farm workers, Lopez was appointed to the WUSD board in December of 2019, following the resignation of Maryah Stoots. She participated in the Public Policy and International Affairs programs when she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, which she said prepared her with the unique skills she brought to the school board this past year. She’s also published on issues dealing with matters involving the education of children of Mexican farm workers, which comprises most of the student body.
“I’m extremely passionate about the Williams school board and continuing to be on here, because through my research and my own lived experience, I understood that many of our families engage in our students’ education in ways that are not traditionally accepted or acknowledged by schools.”
The candidates were asked a number of questions, including whether students should return to school for in-person instruction.
Bautista and Perez believe distance learning is failing too many students, and that kids should return to the classrooms.
“Kids are sitting three or four hours behind a computer, and half that time they are trying to connect,” Perez said. “I don’t see how that is benefiting anybody, even the teachers.”
Ash and Lopez were more wary about school reopening.
Ash said she understood everyone’s frustration, but advocated for greater coronavirus testing, should schools open, with an immediate shutdown plan should COVID-19 surge.
Lopez said the public health crisis has changed the way schools operate, but that a blended model could be the future of education.
“Distance learning has not been easy for anybody,” Lopez said. “It’s been tough. It’s been hard decisions being made. But what I can tell you is that after COVID, we are not going back to normal because normal wasn’t working for everybody, just like distance learning isn’t working for everybody. We have to acknowledge that some students may be failing, but some are excelling. On computers, our teachers are giving probably more than they’ve given before. And it started with using technology that has not been used in the past. Even our little ones are using technology, and technology is the future, and it’s going to continue being there in the 21st century.”
The school board candidates were also asked about Williams Unified’s lofty goal of graduating students from high school, with an associate’s degree.
While all four candidates agree that the opportunity should be there for students to accelerate their higher education through dual enrollment, they had mixed opinions on the pathway.
Bautista said the dual enrollment program should be an option, but that it is difficult for many students.
“I want my kids in college classes, but it’s a lot of pressure, and I want them to be kids too,” she said.
Ash also agreed about the option, but said the dual program may be too lofly a goal for students who really don’t want a college education.
“I don’t believe that every student needs an AA,” Ash said. “I just don’t believe every student is made to sit in class. They are overwhelmed. These kids go to college, their parents take the responsibility and the financial responsibility on, and it’s a huge risk. If they are ready and it’s something they want to do, fine.
But Ash believes many students in Williams Unified, which has extremely poor test scores, are unnecessarily pushed toward higher education, only to not graduate. She said the district needs to provide better educational opportunities to students who want to work in the trades, be their own bosses, and take over the careers (electricians, plumbers, painters) that are rapidly being vacated by retiring baby boomers.
Lopez said the dual enrollment program is an amazing program, but agreed that not all students were ready for advanced education.
“We want to make sure they have the option to envision themselves going to college, and that they are confident in their skills and are college material,” Lopez said.
Perez said Williams Unified needed to have dedicated mentors and counselors who will help prepare students better for college, so they have the skills to succeed in the program.
“I think the program is good, but we do not need to push it on to every kid, and we need to let every kid know that if they want to go through the program, they can go at their own pace,” Perez said.
The candidates were also asked about excessive professional development, which takes teachers out of their classrooms for long periods of time, as well as what they would do if the administration deviates from the directives of the board.
Ash said ultimately, the buck stops with “the school board” and that the school board should make the decisions.
As for programs requiring staff development, Lopez said she fully supports Williams Unified’s new direction, but said the new programs will take many years to measure their success.
Bautista and Lopez believe Williams Unified programs and the demand they place on teachers’ time may be excessive, and that unhappy teachers lead to unhappy students, resulting in both leaving the district for other schools.
All four candidates agreed that COVID-19 has caused the biggest setback in education, probably in the history of public schools. ♣