Get to know your candidates campaigning for your vote this November
By The Atascadero News Editorial Board
ATASCADERO — Campaigning continues for the candidates vying for the four open seats on Atascadero’s School Board. Candidates officially running for the open AUSD seats are Tami Gunther, Rebekah Koznek, Tracy Ellis-Weit, Vy Pierce, George Shoemaker, Dan L. Hathaway, Denise McGrew Kane, Chris Collins, and Scott Staton.
As a follow-up to last week’s School Board Candidates 2022 Q&A Part I, each candidate had the opportunity to answer the same list of questions from The Atascadero News Editorial Board in 100 words or less in addition to their introduction and statement at 200 words. The candidate’s answers in its entirety are provided below, with the exception of Scott Staton, who did not participate.
The candidate’s answers are presented in alphabetical order by last name. Please refer to last week’s paper for Part I.
Describe your top three objectives if you are elected to the school board.
Collins: As I have neighbors and friends that are teachers here I’ve learned that we have lost too many good educators to surrounding districts due to pay and benefits that are at or near the bottom compared to other SLO county districts. Also, I’d like to know how many students we lose every year through inter-district transfer because of issues here. Most students who transfer generally are the high performing or athletic students looking for the best opportunities down the street. This should be a priority here at AUSD. Another concern is facilities throughout the District. Water sports like swimming and waterpolo are great sports that I’ve learned have a strong following and hope that our new swim complex will come to fruition sooner than later.
Ellis-Weit: I envision an Early Childhood Program, including full day classes of Transitional Kindergarten and Kindergarten that utilize early childhood methodologies and curriculum in partnership with the High School students’ work-experience program. My next priority is addressing the learning gap which is a direct result of the pandemic. Using the funds received, the District needs to offer academic recovery in the form of summer school, tutoring, and after school programs utilizing retired teachers in small instructional groups. Finally, dealing with the teacher and staff shortage the District needs to become creative in attracting, supporting, and retaining employees of the AUSD team.
Gunther: We must provide the best possible education for all students, and ensure that our graduates leave with the skills needed to be successful in their future whether their next step is the workforce or continuing their education. Provide safe and welcoming campuses for all students and staff. Find ways to bring the best teachers and staff to our District, and to keep them. As everyone is aware, housing prices make it cost prohibitive for most working people to move to our area. I hope to find ways to increase workforce housing, which could include partnerships with our city of county.
Hathaway: My first objective would be to ensure parents play a strong role in the education of their children. The second, which is closely tied to the first is to bring the students back up to the educational level where they should be. And the third is to continue to improve on that education. My goal is that when a student walks across the stage to receive a diploma, they will be completely prepared to move into their future endeavors, no matter what they may be.
Koznek: First and foremost is child safety. Gangs are a huge problem that most people aren’t aware of. Addressing learning loss. My goal is to get all the students caught up to where they should be. Teacher pay increased is another top priority. We need to be able to attract and retain teachers in our District.
McGrew Kane: My tops three objectives if elected to the board will be to: Improve our students’ academic proficiency, address the teacher/staff shortage in our District and better prepare our students for their post graduate plans. Addressing the lack of academic proficiency is a whole encompassing solution (not enough room allowed here to tackle it). The teacher/staff shortage can be addressed by ensuring we are offering competitive pay, as well as creating a healthy environment that promotes retention of our staff where they are supported, respected and valued. We can better prepare our students post-graduation by expanding our CTE pathways, adding a Job Shadowing program and adding a Financial Literacy/ Life Skills elective class.
Pierce: I would focus on school safety. We learned that important socialization and learning happens in-person at school. So we need to make sure that we have a positive school culture of tolerance, inclusion, and respect for diversity and that we address bullying, harassment, and violence prevention. My second objective is to promote and support arts education in the schools. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits arts education because students of all abilities have the opportunity to be successful and express themselves. Lastly, I would work to expand other learning opportunities to all students.
Shoemaker: First, I would like to continue to hire and retain the best possible teachers and staff. We do this by making AUSD a supportive work environment and one where all employees feel valued and appreciated. Second, I would like to see more emphasis on our Career Technical training program to reflect the needs of our local workforce. This means working to bring new programs that teach skilled trades in areas such as construction and the medical field. Third, we need to address safety concerns at all school sites. This means we need to be proactive in identifying safety concerns instead of being reactive to incidents.
In the development of a school district budget, what goals and objectives would guide your decision making?
Collins: My decision making as a board member can only be as focused as the leadership that we as board members entrust to provide us the sound data/information that we use to direct our actions. If we are as “hands on” as we need to be like visiting school sites, talking to teachers, parents, as well as district leadership, attending as many different school events as we can our ability to be decisive goes way up. The primary guiding principle for me is,” how does this benefits kids” and “how many kids will benefit from this?” We should be here for the students … all the students.
Ellis-Weit: The goals and objectives that would guide my decision making are based on the approval of the State Budget and the District’s Strategic Plan. Dealing with the emotional wellness of our students is one of my goals to ensure student success. The objective would be to have emotional and learning support systems in place. Another goal would be incorporating Career Tech Education at the middle and high school levels. By providing students with the skill to be career ready.
Gunther: First and foremost we need to keep our budget balanced. Our employees are our greatest assets, and AUSD’s current budget allocates approximately 82 percent towards salaries and benefits. I believe in looking at what makes the most sense for our students needs first. I am a solid supporter of the Superintendent’s Budget Advisory committee, and when we have extra dollars to spend or when we need to make cuts, the committee brings a wide perspective and deep thought to the table.
Hathaway: My goal is that all budget decisions should be seen as an investment in our children’s education. Hypothetically, I would expect to see a strong return on the investment. If $1000 is invested in books, I would like to see a return of $1100.
Koznek: I have not had a meeting yet to go over the budget of our District. We had a meeting scheduled this week, but it was canceled. I want to dive into it to see where money is being spent, and where we can save money. I know that our District has received a lot of money over the past 2.5 years, we need to spend it wisely.
McGrew Kane: When working with the budget, we must ensure that our District looks to the future years and plans for potential fluctuations in our funding and expenditures. When reviewing the budgets provided to the board, it is imperative that we look at every line item, ask questions and scrutinize every dollar spent. When looking at proposed new expenses, again, we must be diligent to make sure that the money we spend is going to have the positive effect that we expect. It is important that we operate within our means, so we do not have to ask the taxpayer’s for more money via additional bonds.
Pierce: As a Treasurer for two nonprofit organizations, I have experience with developing and working with budgets to achieve our mission and maintain fiscal soundness. I would continue with the board’s current practice evaluating how budget items align with the district goals, core values, and/or graduate profile.
Shoemaker: My goals regarding the budget are to continue to maintain the strong fiscal shape we are in, by working, as we have been, to best use taxpayer dollars to provide the highest quality services we can. This includes continuing to look for innovative ways to work with students and meet their needs. Our objective is to be a top rate district even though we are one of the lower funded districts. We have maintained a strong fiscal position by making sure we have meaningful plans in place and and a great team in our business services department.
What are your financial priorities for the school district? (Examples: reduction in class size, improved technology in the classroom, maintaining current programs.)
Collins: Each school site should submit their personnel needs like mental health support or supervisory support at least twice a year. Of course our teachers are so valuable that great teachers are sometimes born but are also nurtured through strong support from district leadership especially in their first few years or anytime they change assignments to something different.Of course technology needs to be a priority and advancements in technology make staying competitive with career exploration as well staying competitive with other districts and establishing or maintaining a strong relationship with Cuesta and Cal Poly that allows students for concurrent enrollment is a hugely important component. Class size is very conducive to more effective learning opportunities for students in all grade levels. This is another opportunity for our District to gain or lose good teachers. Class size truly matters if success and student and teacher retention matters. Agriculture and the trades should be every bit as important as college readiness as well. Welding or mechanics or construction trades should also be part of a comprehensive education experience here at AUSD.
Ellis-Weit: A top priority of mine would be recruiting, supporting, and retaining highly qualified teachers and staff to ensure our students’ success. The District needs to be creative in the process of recruiting and hiring so that our students benefit from accomplished teachers and staff. Another priority would be to maintain a solvent budget. Another priority is the Atascadero district’s budgetary needs that take into consideration the resources that efficiently improve student learning and success. Finally, addressing the social and emotional needs of students and school safety is another priority.
Gunther: Hiring is my highest priority right now. Safety, technology, and professional development also rank high on my priority list. We also need to keep our textbooks current, and keep our classrooms comfortable with heat and air conditioning. Transportation is important in our District as well, since we are quite large geographically.
Hathaway: My number one priority is to not waste any money on items that do not improve the education of our students. We also need to get input from the community on what they feel our priorities should be, after all, it is there money.
Koznek: Our biggest responsibility with the schools budget is to be a good steward of the taxpayer’s money.
Class size is always a hot topic. I think a viable solution if we can’t reduce class size is, hiring fulltime classroom aides. This would cost less than having to find and hire more teachers. It would also not require more classrooms at our already maxed our school sites.
McGrew Kane: My financial priorities would be to maintain current programs, add additional programs/tutoring/aides to help get the students caught up academically, offer our classified teachers aides better pay (this is where we have a huge shortage of staff because these critical positions are only being paid between $15-$19/hour which is not sufficient for the important work they do and the help they provide to our certificated teachers). In addition, I would like to discover and address the issue within our District with the lack of IEP/504 plan support. I keep hearing story after story of parents who say that the District is behind on their child’s plan. This is unacceptable. We MUST address this and financially support the solution (if it has a financial aspect, such as adding additional staff, etc).
Pierce: My priority would be to support things that have a direct impact on students and their educational experiences in the school district.
Shoemaker: My financial priorities involve making sure we can continue to provide student support services at all school sites. This includes counselors and intervention coordinators that can work one on one with all students to help them get on track, and stay on track, to be successful at all grade levels. This means hiring and retaining the best staff possible and supporting the learning programs that are working.
If elected, what three steps would you take to put our District on firmer financial footing?
Collins: I don’t have enough information to adequately respond but I do know that all financial actions should be very transparent and easily accessed by members of the community because when I was a school board member in Reef-Sunset a 25 year Business office person was terminated after many years of basically fraudulent practices over hundreds of thousands of dollars … a huge betrayal of the public trust.
Ellis-Weit: The three steps are being knowledgeable of the State Budget and the dollar allocations to the District. Be informed of the content and goals of the District’s Strategic Plan, which is the financial framework of the District’s expenditures. Participate in the District’s Budget Advisory Committee that consists of parents, teachers, principals, community members and the District’s financial supervisor. These stakeholders provide input from multiple perspectives to ensure that the District’s goals and objectives are being meet for all student success.
Gunther: We have an excellent CBO, and with her diligence and hard work, we have a very solid financial footing. With that being said, it is critical that the Superintendent and the School Board work with the CBO and the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources to plan for future changes.
Hathaway: First, eliminate wasteful spending. Second, ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely. And third, search out and find other revenue streams to ensure we have the money we need to provide for the very best education possible.
Koznek: From what I know about the District already, we are fiscally conservative. Without having reviewed the budget, I cannot make an educated comment on this question.
McGrew Kane: Our District is solid financially and is taking some steps to attempt to address the learning loss from the pandemic. They have regular benchmark testing and software that is being used to gain knowledge of kids that may need additional resources & help. I think we can keep building on what is already in place to continue positive growth academically.
Pierce: I would look at ways to increase enrollment at the schools. I would like to reach out to a students and their families to see how our school district better meet their needs and keep them enrolled. Lastly, I could help the District pursue grants and other sources of funding using the skills from my 10-year professional career in the nonprofit sector as a grantmaker and in fundraising.
Shoemaker: Our District is on a strong financial footing currently as we have worked hard to plan well for the funding we do receive. Developing new funding sources is difficult with the way the state has set up school funding. With that in mind, we still receive our funding based on enrollment so we need to maintain and grow our student population. We can do that be being the District that parents want to send their students to. We also need to review programs on a regular basis to find out which are the most effective and put our resources behind those programs.
Do you think there should be a police presence on the high school campus?
Collins: I believe that a good resource officer is one who is visible, positive, nurturing, and supportive of all staff and in doing so can earn the respect of students. I am not in favor of a person in a police uniform who is not what I just outlined above.
Ellis-Weit: Currently, at the Atascadero High School there is a School Resource Officer who is trained in dealing with youth, providing services, and is highly visible on campus. Research has shown having a School Resource Officer is beneficial to the school and surrounding community in many ways: improving relationships between youth and law enforcement, reduction in suspensions and disciplinary actions, and is a deterrent for violence and criminal activity on campus and surrounding areas.
Gunther: AUSD has an excellent working relationship with our police department and Sheriff’s department. We have a resource officer on our high school campus, and this person’s job is to build relationships. I am very much in favor of this role.
Hathaway: Unfortunately, there should be some police presence on campus. Not only to help protect from outside dangers, but also to ensure peace on the campus. In our ever increasingly violent world, arguments happen and often lead to violence. The presence of the police will serve as a deterrent.
Koznek: I am 100 percent in support of law enforcement.
Student safety should be the District’s number one priority. I am for having more officers around all schools. What that looks like, I am not sure. I know many schools across the nation have implemented different procedures. We need to research which ones work best and what they entail.
McGrew Kane: I think it is wise to have School Resource Officers at our middle and high school campuses. As far as school safety, we must have a balanced approach for safety and security in a learning environment. In addition to making sure all of our campuses are secured, we need to look at the newest innovations that technology has invented. Such as using Behavioral Video Analytics that uses Artificial Intelligence to monitor cameras 24/7 and be able to instantly identify situations such as: fights on campus, someone jumping over a perimeter fence, detect someone with a gun and automatically initiate a lockdown response, recognize fire or smoke. This technology is a game changer for school safety.
Pierce: There is already a police presence on the high school campus with a School Resource Officer. It’s important to have a good relationship and collaboration with our police department, but I would want to better understand what are the goals of having a police presence. If it’s for violence prevention, there are other strategies and programs that may be more effective and less expensive.
Shoemaker: Currently, we have a school resource officer that we pay the city for their support. This officer is available for all sites, but is mostly on site at Atascadero High School, as that is where most of the services are needed. Since we have to pay the city for the support of the officer, budgetary constraints limit our ability to provide additional officers. We do have strong support form the Atascadero police department and additional resources as always close by.
What do you think is going well right now in the school district?
Collins: I think there is a strong team of staff from maintenance, office personnel, educators, and support staff that have had two very trying/rough years to recover from. Hopefully we as community members can continue to come together to support each other as we all come out of these trying times and build from our challenges to turn all students’ experiences here into positive outcomes.
Ellis-Weit: The transition back to in-person learning from distance learning has gone smoothly because the District, teachers, and staff communicated with parents and the community to bring students back into the classroom with as little disruption as possible. The schools were also ready to address the social and emotional needs of students by having counselors and wellness centers available. A relationship of trust, respect, and transparency was virtual in making this transition success for all.
Gunther: I think there is much to appreciate in AUSD! We have a very good relationship between our union groups and our administrative team, which translates to less stress and a more productive working environment for staff and students. We are looking to the future and embracing technology. We are nearing completion of facility upgrades which will keep our students and staff safer and more comfortable. We have much to be thankful for, and much to look forward to!
Hathaway: Compared to the controversies in surrounding school districts, I feel AUSD is doing a good job by not letting things blow up. The existing board works well together and gets things done without the fireworks of other districts. This lets them focus on the education of the students without being distracted. That said, there is no telling what the future holds. But the primary focus should be on providing the students with the very best education possible.
Koznek: Having the kids back to normal looking school days is great. There has been a huge increase in bullying, we need to address that, to make their school days more enjoyable.
McGrew Kane: We are very lucky here in Atascadero to have wonderful district staff who have already put us on pretty firm financial footing. We need to be careful to maintain that in the future. One issue that may have a significant impact our District in the coming years is the dwindling enrollment numbers. Every time we lose a student, we lose funding. If we lose enough students (we have lost about 375 since pre-pandemic), we are going to have a large loss in our revenue. That is one reason it is imperative to address our academic proficiency numbers and make sure that we become a district of choice in our area, so we can attract students and families (and teachers!) and keep our enrollment numbers up. (District of choice = Families, students and teachers WANT to be in our District because we have proven academic results, offer our kids the best opportunities, and our schools have a culture of positivity, collaboration, teamwork and innovation. Our sports teams and extra-curricular programs are the finest in north county and give an opportunity for ALL kids to be involved, keeping them engaged with school, creating positive social experiences, and learning life skills that can’t be measured on a standardized test. That our children will leave high school being completely prepared for their future.)
Pierce: We have a wonderful school district with talented, dedicated teachers and staff who have a “can-do” attitude in the face of any challenge. I saw it back in 2015 when San Gabriel school was closed for two weeks and our students were set up in temporary classrooms at three different schools overnight. We saw it again with the pandemic and how quickly our staff converted to online distance learning in a short time. We have faced many challenges and have demonstrated that we can do hard things if we work together.
Shoemaker: AUSD has done a great job in making up for the challenges put on students by the pandemic and having to go to remote learning. Elementary sites have really benefited from having counselors on site as well as intervention coordinators that help to provide very targeted learning and remedial services to help make up for the loss of learning opportunities that the students had to contend with. All school sited have quality staff on campus to work with students and best serve their educational needs.
Do you see yourself primarily as a representative of the community or as a representative of the school system? And Why?
Collins: Because of my career as an educator and as a previous school board member I am a little of both. Since becoming a property owner and resident here I’ve had the pleasure of becoming active in Kiwanis, Elks, VFW, as well as car clubs and will continue to benefit from the opportunity to have my fingers on the pulse of our community through these great associations. I hope to represent the community, the district ( if elected), as well as my family.
Ellis-Weit: As an elected official, I see myself as a representative of the community. Being elected to this position, my role is to establish policies, set District’s priorities, and evaluate the outcomes of Atascadero’s operation. It is my goal to be transparent regarding decision-making and resolutions of District’s issues. As a trustee, I recognize that listening to community issues and addressing their concerns is part of my responsibilities in fulfilling my duties.
Gunther: When I’m sitting in my Board seat I am a representative of the community. The Board’s role is to bring the voices and perspectives of our community into the boardroom discussions. It’s important to keep in mind that the District must follow the laws of our state and country, and we must live within the budget that we are given. The District also has an obligation to provide information out to the public, and since healthy School Boards speak with a unified voice, we would be representing the Board as a whole when sharing out news of the District.
Hathaway: I very much am a representative of the community. It is the community, via taxes that funds the schools. The communities voice should not only be heard but should also be taken into account by the board. Should the community vote me on to the school board, I will not become Dan Hathaway, a puppet on the board, but Dan Hathaway, a representative of the community.
Koznek: School board members are voted in by the community. They represent the students and stakeholders first. Trustees are their voice.
McGrew Kane: I see myself as both really. I feel like I would represent the community well, as I am a parent of kids as AUSD, a taxpayer and community citizen. But I also feel like I would do a great job representing the school system, teachers and staff because of my business background. I know that our teachers and staff are our most valuable asset and should be treated as such.
Pierce: I see myself as a representative of the community. I am a parent with children in the school district and would bring that perspective to the board. I also have strong and numerous ties in the community through my volunteer work that I can use to inform my work on the school board.
Shoemaker: A school board trustee has to have a working knowledge of the District and the district finances. As a member we need to be responsive to the community but balance that with the districts duty to provide quality services to all students. The role of the board member is not to micromanage the District but to set large policy objectives and to work with the superintendent to make sure the District is living up to our mission and goals.
Why should the residents vote for you?
Collins: The community should consider voting for me because of all my experiences in education, military, school board experience and the desire to make greyhound country the best District in SLO county.
Ellis-Weit: My experience as a retired Atascadero classroom teacher, parent, and team player has provided me with a variety of opportunities to demonstrate my leadership capabilities and strength. I will be a strong advocate in the decisions-making process that affects every student, staff, and budgetary matters. Being informed on the needs and concerns of the Atascadero Unified School District and having the trust of those I represent is essential for fulfilling the duties of this position.
Gunther: I have served the Atascadero School District for the past 16 years with an open mind, as a listener, and with a willingness to research and learn. I leave my personal political beliefs at home, and I enjoy learning from other’s perspectives. I have friends from all across the political spectrum, and all have experiences that are worthy and important. My focus is on doing what’s best for our students. Thank you for your time, and thank you for voting.
Hathaway: I believe that students belong to their parents, not to the school. Parents have the primary responsibility for their child, they also know them the best. Parents should be allowed to raise their children as they see fit. I will fight for the family first. I believe in a back-to-basics curriculum. Students need to learn to read and write effectively, as well as to perform math calculations accurately. As teachers waste resources forcing their beliefs on students and stop teaching the basics, test scores will continue to drop. I will work to ensure that students get the excellent education they deserve.
Koznek: As a board member, my goal is to be open and transparent. I want the community to be comfortable to reach out to me in confidence. As a board member I will create an advisory committee. Made up of parents and teachers. This way I will have a great pulse on what is going on in the school. Also, what we need to improve on.
McGrew Kane: Because I have a vision for our District and feel I can help lead the way there. My vision is that in 10 years time, we will have achieved academic success for all of our students. We will have realized our efforts to attract and retain the best teaching and support staff. We are a district of choice in the North County and attract students and their families here because they want to benefit from our schools in our District. Our kids graduate from AHS being completely prepared for their future and go on to lead successful lives professionally and personally and are financially stable members of our community.
Pierce: People should vote for me because of my experience, integrity, and track record. Among my many accomplishments, I helped our high school instrumental music students raise $21,000 last year so that 71 students could have a professional recording experience at Disneyland. Each student was asked to contribute $50 and 4 received scholarships. In the past, only 30 students go on this field trip because the family cost was $200. I was determined to ensure all our music students would have this extraordinary opportunity. I will do my best to provide our students with the best education possible.
Shoemaker: Voters should look to vote for me because of the experience I bring to the board and my proven ability to work with the other board members and staff. I try not to bring any political agenda to the board, and am only interested in helping to make AUSD the best District we can be. I have shown a strong understanding of our finances and have worked to make sure we are doing the best job we can in turning out well educated and responsible students.