League of Women Voters/PTA Test the Candidates at Forum

For the two offices open there are five candidates running, each seeking a four year term on the Culver City School Board. Choosing two to vote for was the task at hand on Oct. 18 at City Hall. Like most local voter forums, it seemed that very few sitting in the audience did not already have their mind made up. The turnout was about grading the performance. The three top contenders, Nancy Goldberg, Laura Chardiet and incumbent Scott Zeidman had the audience filled with supporters. As Chardiet offered in her opening statement “We all share a desire to improve and protect our schools.”

As Frances Talbott- White of the Culver City LWV stood at the podium and explained the difference between a debate and a forum, she watched the Mike Balkman Council Chambers fill to capacity. There were less that a dozen empty seats in the house, and many still chose to stand in the back. Noting the 100th anniversary of women getting the franchise in the state of California, she offered that they had discovered a bit of historical advice from 1924, which was “to offer a forum for voters to get to know the candidates, as it would help many to choose.”

The choices in this election may reflect Culver City in some remarkable ways, and all the candidates who have chosen to seek the office are worth noting, both for good and for ill.

The two lesser known candidates, both perennials who have run before, seemed to be there just to air their personal grievances, and cast unfounded aspersions on the district’s policies. While Gary Abrams lack of financial background led him to state that the budget was “written in some kind of Morse code,” he was equally certain that there were grave financial misdeeds it concealed. Robert Zirgulis tossed blame for every difficulty the district faces onto the current board (and by inference the sitting president) flogging the same horse that he rode into absolute defeat in the 2009 school board race. Why both of these candidates chose to run again on a strategy that did not serve four years ago is a question that only they can answer.

The real questions in regards to the real problems of the district were drawn from the audience, and the candidates were asked to speak to funding problems, capital improvements, permits and policies, and finish with a two minute closing statement.

When asked how they would deal with the funding crunch, Zeidman, Goldberg and Chardeit all gave thoughtful answers. In regard to funding, Goldberg offered that cutting employees hours was the first option, and the one that had already been used. “There’s no way to know that this is a fair set of cutbacks,” and that “other options need to be considered as well.”

Chardiet jumped right into her professional poise by stating that we had to “maximize funding streams,” and get into line for as many “grants and other options” as possible.

Zeidman trumped the rest by stating that there would not be nearly the funding crunch many fear because “the current board, along with our Superintendent Patti [Jaffe] and our Assistant Superintendent Ali [Delawalla] have already planned for that. We assume that the money Sacramento says might not be coming just isn’t, and we have planned the finances accordingly. We wont have to add any furlough days.” He went on to add that the board had been working to create new means of adding revenue, “looking to the future, with solar power, with the athletic field, with the repairs to the Frost, so we can use these to bring income to the district.”

The question in regard to the progress of English-learning students in the district was another where other candidates seemed concerned and compassionate, but the incumbent had a strategy in place. While Chardiet offered her first-hand experience of working as an ESL teacher for ten years, and she emphasized it wasn’t simply a problem in the school. “We had a boy who fainted in class, and it turned out that he hadn’t eaten in a week.” The role that non-English speaking parents and difficult circumstances play in the challenges facing students was a large one for the district to take on, she stated, “but clearly we need to offer as much support as we can to get these kids the education they need. These are multifaceted problems. You need to help the parents help the students.”

Goldberg cut right to the chase, noting, “I don’t care what you teach, you need to be able to communicate.” She suggested that a solid standard for the district would give the teachers a better way to move forward, but emphasized that communication was key. With her vast teaching experience, Goldberg spoke with authority.

Zeidman was contrite. “Our English learners are not doing well. We are not meeting the state requirement. In the past, we have found it impossible to meet these needs.” He changed tone to offer an answer. “We have a new solution and her name is Eileen Carroll, our new assistant superintendent. Her orders are to find a way to close the gap. With the great success she has had at Farragut [where she was formerly the principal] we are confident she can improve our results.”

Over the course of the two-hour long forum, all three top candidate represented themselves intelligently, offered well thought-out answers, and did their best to show the audience that they were capable of doing the job.

There’s no doubt it will be a close election, but with mail-in ballots already filled out, there may not be much more for the candidates to do other than wait for election day. If there are still undecided voters, there are still more forums in on the calendar. Or, you can just count lawn signs.

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