EL CERRITO -- The four candidates for two seats on the West Contra Costa school board touted the expertise and perspective they've acquired through their extensive involvement in the schools at a Monday evening forum at Harding Elementary School.
They answered questions from the audience on class size reduction, the level of the district's bond debt, the role of charter schools and what to do with an extra $5 million in the budget, among other issues.
Two of the candidates, Robert Enos and Antonio Medrano, have backgrounds in teaching and administration while Robert Studdiford and Todd Groves are district parents who have volunteered extensively in the schools.
Enos, who has worked in the district for decades as a teacher and principal, characterized the students as "very bright and needing to be challenged."
Medrano, the only incumbent running, touted his extensive teaching experience on the high school and college level as well as his role in helping the district pay off a state loan.
He said he thinks academic achievement in the district is improving overall. Attendance is up, he said, and Richmond High School had the largest graduating class in the city's history this year.
Studdiford has been a longtime member of the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee that supervises the school rebuilding program. He has used his business expertise to advise the district on financing new, earthquake-safe schools.
Groves has introduced writing and math improvement programs at El Cerrito High School, among other initiatives.
There was a lot of agreement about the need to raise teacher salaries, lower class sizes and complete the school rebuilding program. The four candidates agreed that the district can't reach its goals in these areas if West County voters don't pass Measure E and Measure G, the bond measure and parcel tax on the November ballot.
The district will also lose $12 million in state revenue if Prop. 30, the income and sales tax increases placed on the statewide ballot by Gov. Jerry Brown, are not approved by voters.
"We don't have the funds now to hire more teachers and lower class sizes," Medrano said. "We have to get the parcel tax passed."
"The bond is important to pass," Studdiford said. "The schools (that haven't been rebuilt) are unsafe dumps."
Studdiford, while acknowledging that the district's bond debt is high, said that it has been financed at very attractive rates that will save millions over the long term.
"We pay an incredibly low bonding rate for earthquake-safe buildings," he said.
Groves said he's more focused on what's going on in the classroom.
"The bond program is $5 billion over time. I'm not sure it improves academic performance," he said.
The candidates also addressed the lukewarm response of Hercules and Pinole to Measure K, the district's parcel tax on the June ballot that fell short by about 1 percent.
Groves reflected the others when he said the needs of Hercules and Pinole "must be heard and responded to."
The candidates had different responses to a question about what to do with $5 million in the budget that is currently uncommitted.
Enos said he would use the money to hire more teachers immediately. Groves would spend it on reinforcing common core standards, a program to identify and promote the teaching of essential skills.
Medrano advocated waiting until after the election to decide what to do with the money, but said that the district should pay for a campus police officer at Helms Middle School in San Pablo.
San Pablo is the only city that pays for its own school resource officer, while El Cerrito has three that are paid for by the district.
Medrano, Groves and Enos said charter schools play a positive role in providing parents and students with educational choices, while Studdiford disagreed.
"Charters drain resources and cherry-pick kids," he said.
The $1 million adult education program got unanimous approval from the candidates, who said that such things as English classes for parents help draw immigrant families together and reinforce the education of the children.
"The needs of the entire community are very important," Enos said. "I can't imagine not supporting adult education."
"Education is very important to the family," Medrano said. "Parents want (adult education) and need it."
Studdiford and Medrano expressed their support for so-called "wraparound services" that include medical and dental clinics. A remodeled dental clinic will open Friday to serve students at Peres Elementary in Richmond.
"All our schools should have dental clinics," Medrano said.