The future is far brighter for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District than it appeared just three years ago, when the district faced a financial crisis that prompted layoffs and larger class sizes, furloughs that just recently ended, friction between staff and administration, and weakened public confidence.
Having survived those troubled times, the newest school board will move forward with another significant change, working with new Superintendent Chris Williams, who was hired this summer from Fresno County. Together, board members and Williams will turn their attention to some of the issues that were neglected as the district struggled to regain its financial footing.
Five candidates are running in the Nov. 4 election for three seats on the seven-member board. Incumbents Field Gibson and Katy Griffin are being challenged by past board member Tim Gearhart and newcomers Kathleen Yankee Hall, a former high school teacher and college professor, and retired North County principal Kirk Smith.
They will oversee a district that includes educates 6,500 students in 11 schools with a $55 million annual budget.
Here is a look at the candidates.
The current administration should present the school board with an organizational structure that meets today’s needs, said Gearhart, 67.
“This structure should include modern, up-to-date business practices,” he said. “Also, a change of approach is needed, one that is proactive instead of reactive.”
Gearhart, whose three grown children all graduated from Paso Robles schools, was a teacher in grades K-12 for 36 years, and has taught at the Cal Poly School of Education. He also served on the school board during some of its tougher times before losing a tight race in 2012.
The district needs to provide a well-rounded education, Gearhart said, “one that includes music, performing and visual arts, dance R.O.P., sports and advanced programs that the district once had. This is a time of change for our district and a chance for us to being enriching the safe learning environment for our students.”
He suggested parent-driven clean-up days to supplement repairs needed at some school buildings.
In seeking to re-structure finances, said Gibson, 59, the school board will need to review how the district uses teachers on special assignment, para-educators, costs for special education and data processing.
“Another issue that we are already working on is to restructure the management of the district,” said Gibson, first elected to the board in 2010. “It was deeply ironic to me that we ended up with a complete business department but yet left our curriculum and instruction department depleted, when we are an educational institution and our mission is to educate our kids.”
Active as a youth sports coach and Boy Scout leader for more than two decades, Gibson is a business insurance broker and risk manager, who said his knowledge of financial matters helped the board through the fiscal crisis. Other priorities include ensuring non-college-bound students are prepared for the work world, providing more resources to magnet schools that emphasize language and the arts and repairs to facilities.
Having worked on the school board during the district’s financial crisis, Griffin, 44, said she wants to ensure that the district maintains its reserve.
“We must work toward eliminating deficit spending and remaining fiscally solvent,” said Griffin, whose husband is a teacher in the district.
A new, forward-thinking superintendent marks an exciting time in the district, said Griffin, a pastor who has assisted the district with crossing guard and yard duties. She has also volunteered as an art docent and girl talk mentor/counselor.
Now that the district is out of its financial woes, said Griffin, currently the board president, the board can begin to look at maintenance issues.
“Because of the fiscal challenge the district has been under, some of the larger projects were put aside and minor repairs to the facilities were done,” she said. “As money becomes available we can begin to build up our deferred maintenance account in order to meet the needs of various buildings throughout the district.”
Kathleen Yankee Hall
Raising test scores and retaining students in Paso schools would be a priority for Hall, a former teacher, scientist and businesswoman.
“We have a moral obligation to do better for the children of our community,” said Hall. Hall, who earned her PhD in zoology and molecular biology from Ohio State University, is a former high school biology and chemistry teacher, who has also taught at Ohio State and UCLA. She has also served on the school board at Almond Acres Academy and has tutored children in the community.
Even when not teaching, she said, she has been involved with youth.
“I lived in Mexico for awhile and immediately became involved with the local orphanage and made sure through contributions they had educational materials,” she said. “I lived in New York for a short time and started tutoring a few young Chinese who had English difficulties.” More support should be solicited from parents, colleges and local businesses, she said.
Smith, 60, said trust needs to be restored among employees, the administration and the board.
“Without a new climate of trust, we will not be able to deal effectively with any of the many other issues that face the district,” he said.
A former teacher of the year, Smith recently retired after serving as a principal in both Paso Robles and Atascadero. If elected to the school board, he said, he would bring positive leadership to the board “to replace the negativity that we have had for the past several years.”
Meanwhile, he wants to increase funding for athletics and other extra-curricular activities that have been previously cut while striving to rank among the top in the county academically.
The new superintendent, he said, will play a key role in controlling the district’s money.
“Our district needs to give Mr. Williams, our new superintendent, time to develop new systems that will allow for much tighter control, especially as it relates to staffing,” he said.
Occupation: Elementary and secondary teacher
Education: Bachelor’s degree from UCSB; master’s degree in humanities and education, Azusa Pacific University; elementary and secondary teaching credentials, UCSB
Political party: Republican
Occupation: Church pastor of missions and pastoral care
Education: Licensed vocational nurse degree, San Joaquin College; commissioned lay pastor, Fuller Seminary
Political party: Republican
Occupation: Insurance broker and risk manager
Education: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Finance & Property Management, Bachelor of Science in Business Administration
Political party: declined to state
Age: Would not state
Occupation: former teacher, scientist, businesswoman
Education: BS Biology/Education, Bradley University ; PhD in zoology and molecular biology, Ohio State University; Post Doctoral Fellow in Molecular Biology, Gerontology, UCLA
Political Party: Democrat
Occupation: Retired principal
Education: B.A, Liberal Studies, Cal State Long Beach; M.A. Education Administration, Cal Poly SLO
Political party: Democrat