By Collin Breaux

The candidates running in this year’s Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) Board of Trustees elections will have plenty of issues to attend to when they get in office—handling education and student safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, what to do about aging school buildings and more.

Three seats are up in the November general election: Areas 2, 3 and 5. Incumbent and Board President Jim Reardon and challenger Pamela Braunstein are running in Area 2. Sue Hill, Adrienne Silva and Lisa Davis are running in Area 3. Incumbent Krista Castellanos and challengers Jasmine Funes and Paul Hebbard are running in Area 5.

Current Area 3 Trustee Patricia Holloway is not running for reelection. The seats variously cover San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and other areas in the district.

The quality of virtual learning has been on many parents’ minds during the health crisis. Braunstein said the district’s premature rollout of the virtual learning management system “Canvas” without proper training or technological support was a mistake.

“Superintendent Kirsten Vital and President Reardon (my opponent) need to be held accountable for these missteps,” Braunstein said. “Under their leadership, CUSD has become a district of reaction instead of thoughtful and well-researched proactive educational plans and policies.”

Reopening campuses for in-person student instruction, which recently began, is another major topic. Reardon said he is eager to see schools reopen in the “conventional sense,” and the matter is especially important at the elementary level, where schools serve a wide variety of community needs.

“At the same time, I’m advocating for a gentle reopening that is timed to keep the community safe,” Reardon said. “Schools are intrinsically large ‘gatherings’ of people, and without effective protective measures, reopening could lead to trouble, not just for students and teachers, but for the community as a whole.”

Candidates also addressed school renovations. Regional bond measures for facility improvements were voted down earlier this year.

“We need to address the trust issue between the district and communities they serve,” Hill said. “Past attempts by the district to rebuild trust with the city have focused largely on the city mayors. All city leadership and the community at large must be engaged in this process.”

Hill said earlier proposals for joint use partnership opportunities for some of the larger infrastructure projects should be revisited, and funding should be demanded from state legislators.

Funding is an issue the district faces, particularly as the pandemic causes economic challenges. Silva said CUSD officials should evaluate where money is going, and used the analogy of a household tightening the belt on its budget to explain her perspective. Silva also said the district can look at revenue streams and ways to help underperforming schools.

“What can be done to get them into the median range?” Silva said.

Davis said the district needs to ensure that students are supported and receive meals in the school lunch program, and schools need to be open for in-person instruction to allow parents the ability to work their jobs.

“Some students lack support at home, some lack support from friends, and some lack school support,” Davis said. “We need to address the needs of afterschool care and provide options. We can implement policies that pave a way for school support to help safeguard a student if they lack support from other areas.”

Student-led, anti-racism protests calling for diversity in curriculum and accountability of racism have occurred within the district, which candidates also reflected on. Castellanos created a resolution passed by the board that denounced racism, intolerance and discrimination.

“Our school sites need to be places of inclusion, where all students are safe and appreciated!” Castellanos said. “Our students are asking the district to take action and denounce racism. It is important to listen and involve them in this process.”

Funes, a Black woman, is running because of the protests. Funes said it is her responsibility as a qualified candidate to be a representation for minority voices since that is isn’t currently seen.

“My priority in education is ensuring that we are considering the well-being of the whole child,” Funes said. “This means actively taking care of their physical, social-emotional, cognitive, and mental health. In order to do this, teachers must be supported, as well as engaging and connecting with parents and building strong relationships with and between those in the community.”

Hebbard said racism should be stamped out, but he does have some “genuine concerns about certain groups” wanting to modify the curriculum that may seem hostile to a specific nationality or race. Hebbard does advocate for expanded cultural studies courses on an elective basis and would revisit the issue if UC and CSU admissions require mandatory classes in this topic.

“First of all, our school year is only 37 weeks, and in order to delve deeply into the coursework that is required for college-bound students, we can ill afford to make wholesale changes in the curriculum,” Hebbard said. “Right now, CUSD meets and exceeds state standards, and (California) standards are among the most rigorous in the nation. There is scant little more that needs to be added to the mix.”

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