Education Lab

Valley ballots heavy on school issues

Valley voters will have more than 50 school items to decide on Nov. 2 -- ranging from who will sit on their local boards of education to Fresno Unified's $280 million school bond measure.

And there are major changes in store for several districts, including Fresno and Central Unified school districts, where elections will be conducted by area instead of at-large. The change means that voters will be limited to electing only the candidate that will represent their specific neighborhood.

In Fresno County, voters also will decide whether to merge American Union Elementary and Washington Union High school districts. Seven trustee seats for the merged district are on the ballot.

If voters reject the merger, they must decide who will fill three trustee seats on each of the two boards. In what might confuse some voters, a few of the candidates are running for two board positions simultaneously -- one for a merged district and one for the existing districts.

In Fresno Unified, the Valley's largest district, two of the board's four trustee seats are being challenged. Incumbent Cal Johnson faces retired educator Vurdell Newsome in the Edison High neighborhood, also known as Area 1.

And incumbent Valerie Davis is challenged by teacher and former television personality Silvia Astorga Salcido to represent the Sunnyside High area, or Area 3.

It's the second time the two women have squared off for the school board seat. Salcido said she stands a better chance at winning this time since Davis can no longer rely on votes from throughout the district as she did under the former at-large system.

Central Unified's four board seats are also dominated by incumbent candidates -- and only one is being challenged: Longtime trustee Judith Geringer faces challenger Julia Shields, a reverse-mortgage loan officer.

Then there's Madera Unified's school board elections where three Hispanic candidates are vying for trustee seats following the switch to by-area elections last year. It's a major contrast to 2006, when no Hispanic candidates competed.

With two Hispanics already on the board, the possibility exists for a first-time Hispanic board majority at Madera Unified.

A Hispanic majority would be more than just significant for the district, it would be significant for the community, said Madera Unified spokesman Jake Bragonier. Seventy percent or more of the district's high school students identify themselves as Hispanic, according to district records.

In Parlier, a slate of candidates is running; insiders have said it is part of a larger plan to get rid of the superintendent.

Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell says next month's elections are important for schools.

"It's one of the toughest economic times for schools in my 40 years working with schools," he said.

School bonds -- such as Fresno's Measure Q -- are important for cash-strapped districts, but Powell said equally important are local board elections: "Stability is more important than ever before, bringing back board members who know what they're doing."

Powell said he's not issuing a blanket endorsement of incumbents, but unless local school boards are riddled with dysfunction, he prefers they remain intact. New board members often have to be brought up to speed and this takes time, he said.

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