School board candidates are hard to come by in some Valley school districts. Not in the Sierra Unified School District.
Ten candidates -- three of them incumbents -- are vying for four seats on the Sierra Unified board, which oversees one elementary school, a middle school, a high school and an alternative school in the Fresno County foothills.
Increased concern over the district's debt, declining enrollment and cuts in state and federal funding over the last four years are bringing out community advocates and longtime foothill residents in the Sierra Unified election.
"The schools really are a focal point for our community," said Connie Kee Schlaefer, who is running for the first time. "I think we're more active than other communities."
The race is among dozens of contested school board races throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.
In the foothill community, the election comes after an intense battle in the June primary over a $5.2 million bond measure that failed to garner enough support to pass -- the fourth such measure to go down in as many years.
Measure O would have paid off the debt on Foothill Elementary School, the district's newest, and freed up money for student programs in danger of being cut because of reduced funding. Instead, district employees agreed to an 8.5% pay cut that will allow the district to pay off the debt in the next five years without having to refinance the loan.
"The concessions that our employees have chosen is just phenomenal," said Wes Qualls, an incumbent running for his second term. "In tough economic times they have stepped up to allow us to really find a better way to survive."
Qualls and other candidates hope the board can move beyond the debt issue next year and work on the other challenges facing the district.
School board president John Maxwell decided not to run for a second term, which means there will be at least one new face on the board.
Schlaefer, who was head of the Yes on Measure O campaign this year, hopes to bring new life to the board.
"I just have been getting more and more involved and see the needs of the district," said Schlaefer, a homemaker whose twin daughters are enrolled at the elementary school.
Ron Arteno, a Tea Party coordinator, also hopes to shake up the board with his ideas. Arteno, whose seventh and last child will graduate from Sierra High this year, is against school bonds and pledged not to vote on raising taxes.
"We've had all these bonds here and it's divided the community," Arteno said. "We need new blood, ideas and community involvement and spirit."
Other candidates running for Sierra Unified's school board are Dotty Garrigue, Kathy Huebert, Brent Pius, Chrissy Falk and Ron Eldridge. Incumbents Michael O'Connell and Tom Mendenhall are running for their second terms.
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