KNIGHTSEN -- The race for seats on Knightsen's school board will result in at least two new faces as incumbents retire and hopefuls vie to take their place.

Five contenders are running for three seats in Knightsen School District, most of them first-time candidates.

The pack includes Thomas Baldocchi Jr., Adam McMeans, Michael Matienzo and Janice Smith as well as incumbent Franklin Dell.

The tiny district's finances are uppermost on some candidates' minds.

Baldocchi, a 39-year-old Knightsen firefighter and hay farmer with two sons at Knightsen School, says he might have to make some difficult decisions if elected.

The district is paying $262,000 annually on a $3.3 million loan that it took out to finish building the first phase of Old River School, which only operated for two years before dwindling enrollment and a downturn in the housing market forced its closure.

Unless the $3 million bond measure that Knightsen School District placed on the November ballot succeeds, it will have to continue dipping into its general fund to continue paying on the loan.

"It affects my children," said Baldocchi, noting that not having that money to spend on other things will affect everything from class sizes to facilities maintenance.

"When you're a parent it's really hard not to be emotionally attached to those things," he said, but added that one of the strengths he would bring to the board is being able to consider a situation objectively.


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Even if the bond passes, however, Baldocchi said he expects the new board will encounter the challenge of ensuring that whatever it spends has a direct bearing on furthering district goals.

With the influx of bond revenue, employees will want the district to spend more on things like classroom technology and custodians, he said.

"We'll really have to keep an eye on that. I still think we need to be real conscious on our spending," Baldocchi said.

In addition, he hopes to see board members and district employees participate even more in community functions than they do already. Knightsen School's campus is a popular spot for town gatherings, Baldocchi said, and the more often the district is represented at these events, the stronger the ties it will forge with residents who don't have children at the school.

"If the public likes the school, then they support it," he said.

Franklin Dell, 80, is running for a third term because he wants to have a hand in the district's challenges for another four years.

The financial picture actually is starting to look more hopeful, he said, noting that a Discovery Bay developer just paid the district $57,000 in the process of pulling building permits for three homes -- and has 18 more in the pipeline.

Revenue from developer fees coupled with what the district has in its reserve will go a long way toward covering the next few years' worth of loan payments, Dell said.

Like Baldocchi, however, he believes the district should maintain a firm grip on its purse strings.

"Just because we got those payments doesn't mean we can give away benefits, he said, adding that he'd like the district to postpone buying new textbooks. "We can't just spend money on things we don't need right now."

Having owned two nurseries, Dell said he brings to the board the ability to make long-term financial plans.

And having overseen dozens of employees in his businesses, he thinks he's learned the negotiation skills that enable him to appreciate others' points of view while helping them understand the district's.

If the district's bond measure succeeds, Dell would like to restore music instruction by hiring a full-time music teacher as well as recruit an additional teacher's aide to ease the burden on teachers who have students at two different grade levels in their class.

Another positive change the board could make is to hold town hall meetings to explain their goals -- newsletters usually end up in the trash -- and remind parents that they play an integral role in their child's education, Dell said.

Adam McMeans is a Discovery Bay resident with three children at Knightsen School.

The 47-year-old finance manager for an information technology company thinks his accounting experience could help other board members understand the district budget more easily and possibly make smarter decisions as a result.

"There are serious fiscal troubles ahead and I think they need someone with my background there," he said, adding that some of the incumbents have been on the board for multiple terms. "I think it's time for new leadership."

If the district's bond measure that he's trying to garner support for fails it will hard pressed to stay current on the loan payments, said McMeans, who's concerned about the possibility of the state assuming control of Knightsen School if that happens.

McMeans also wants the district to improve the lines of communication with the public and encourage its involvement in school affairs by posting board members' email addresses on its website.

Michael Matienzo also is uneasy about the burden that the district's loan payments have created.

"I love (Knightsen) School and want to make it last forever and forever," said the 47-year-old father of two, both of whom attend the school.

"We are basically getting by the skin of our teeth," said Matienzo, who's championing the bond measure as well.

A construction company estimator and project manager by profession, he said he'd need to study the budget before deciding what he'd cut first if the district must make further reductions. On the other hand, Matienzo would love to hire a music teacher so the school can restore band instruction if more money becomes available.

Knightsen's young musicians currently are at a disadvantage when they enter high school band classes, he said, adding that the absence of elective courses like band could prompt families to pull their children -- and the attendance-based revenue they represent -- out of the district.

Conversely, some local families -- including his when he first moved to Discovery Bay -- don't realize they're within Knightsen's school boundaries, Matienzo said.

If elected, he wants the board to do what it can to boost enrollment and reopen Old River School, which will include making sure that parents in the district know their children are eligible to enroll, Matienzo said.

In addition, he wants to see even more parents attend school events so they can develop an appreciation for what the campus has to offer; Matienzo's wife is a substitute teacher at Knightsen School and he said he regularly talks to teachers when picking up his children from school.

Janice Smith, 53, decided to pull nomination papers after a few people suggested she run.

"I just thought, yeah, maybe I should," said Smith, who co-owns a fruit and vegetable farm in town.

One of her goals is to get more people involved in the district's decision-making, she said, noting that board meetings draw few from the community at large.

Knightsen School District needs to have another way of determining what direction the public thinks it should take, Smith said.

"My job would be to listen to the community -- the staff, the parents, everyone -- and find some common goals," she said.

Smith also would like to restore the music program as well as make sure that after-school sports doesn't suffer a similar fate.

But what she wants wouldn't prevent her from entertaining others' ideas even if they differ from her own, said Smith, who considers herself a good listener and able to keep an open mind.

If elected, she intends to find out why the district's online agenda isn't more informative.

Until she's familiar with the budget and knows how much various services and products cost, Smith said she can't expound on what the district's spending priorities should be.

"I'll have a lot of learning to do," she said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

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