A Clovis Unified board candidate forum Tuesday night offered few fireworks and little disagreement among the candidates who showed, but highlighted a general disapproval of the current school board, whose incumbents skipped the debate.
About 65 people gathered in the multipurpose room of Freedom Elementary School in Clovis to listen to five of the 10 candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot. Missing were incumbents Ginny Hovsepian, Brian Heryford, and Chris Casado, as well as Scott Troescher, a former trustee who hopes to fill an open seat. In addition, candidate Mike Pack was also absent.
The nonpartisan League of Women Voters sponsored the event, with The Fresno Bee’s Mackenzie Mays posing questions to the candidates. Community Media Access Collaborative live-streamed the event online and planned to post it on its website.
The forum revealed mostly small disagreements among the five challengers, who said that while they are friends, they are not running as a slate.
All five said they want to see board meetings recorded, and believe the board is operating too often without the input of parents and the community.
Area 5 candidate Steven Fogg, an ophthalmologist running against Troescher, said the board needs to be more tech-savvy. He wants not only to see board meetings recorded, but documents to be put online so they are easier to access.
They all largely favored adjusting the district’s zero tolerance policy. Sandy Torosian, who is running for Area 2 against Hovsepian and Isabel Machado, said she believes in restorative justice.
Jacob Belemjian, who is challenging Heryford in Area 4 , owns a gun range in Clovis. He said he doesn’t think it’s right that if his son were to accidentally pick up a gun shell on the way to school he would be expelled. “We need to make it a teachable moment,” he said.
The late Doc Buchanan, the district’s beloved longtime superintendent, was also mentioned during the debate. While candidates agreed that Clovis Unified would not be the same without him, they felt some of his policies, such as a restrictive dress code, were outdated. “It’s not 1959, it’s 2016,” Machado said.
Torosian cited a board meeting where trustees chanted, “What would Doc do?” as disrespectful to parents and teachers who were trying to have their voices heard.
Transgender locker and bathroom inclusion was the hot topic of the evening. “There’s no good answer to this question that’s going to please everybody,” said Machado, who said as an attorney she had a duty to follow the law no matter her personal opinion.
Three of the five candidates said they opposed letting transgender students use the bathroom of their choice. Matt Castiglione said the transgender issue was the sole reason he decided to run. “It’s not OK to just sit back and allow it to be pushed down our throats,” said Castiglione, who is challenging Casado and Pack for the Area 7 seat.
Belemjian said he was disappointed more about the way the district handled the policy than the policy itself, which allows transgender students to use the facility they identify with. “There are a million ways to skin a cat,” he said, “(we) just gotta find a way to do it.”
Candidates also diverged on a question about “the Clovis way of life,” which some feel is a euphemism for being exclusionary.
Belemjian said he sees nothing wrong with “the Clovis way of life,” and thinks it’s important that children learn English.
If Clovis is such a bad place, he asked, “why is it that everyone wants to move here?” Belemjian added that he doesn’t feel the need to reach out to groups that are excluded from the community. “If you want to participate, you have to assimilate,” he said after speaking about his family’s migration from Egypt and subsequent assimilation.
Torosian said she believes inclusion was one of the “least important problems” the district faces and the district is doing a good job including others.
Fogg said it’s hard for him to find employees for his practice who speak Spanish, so he sees great value in bilingualism. He wants to see dual immersion practiced in schools so children can learn many languages.
Fogg ended the debate by wondering out loud why there weren’t more disagreements between the group, in which candidates were not only cordial but often agreed with each other. “It’s hard to rebuttal when the people I’m sitting next to, I say (to them), ‘amen, I agree.’ ”