It did not take long for the conversation to shift to budget concerns during a school board candidate forum Wednesday in Murrieta.
The Murrieta Valley Unified School District has stated it is facing as much as a $21 million shortfall next school year, and may need to implement further cuts this school year if statewide voter measures do not pass in November.
Those who turned out to hear from the five candidates, however, will be able to make a more informed decision on whom they believe is best suited to tackle those and other issues head-on.
“There is a core group of people here that will spread the word and that is valuable,” said Annette Gross, organizing chair for the Murrieta Teachers Association, which sponsored the forum.
Candidates include incumbents Paul Diffley, Margi Wray and Ken Dickson, along with newcomers Gregory Lee and Barbara Muir.
All five candidates were in attendance at the forum, during which they gave opening statements followed by prepared answers to two questions.
The questions posed were how the candidates would address $9 million in cuts needed if Propositions 30 and 38 do not pass in November; and how they would continue a collaborative relationship with the district’s employee groups.
“You have to address problems with transparency, with integrity, fact-based decisions and listen to the stakeholders,” said Dickson, 64, who is seeking his fourth term.
Dickson had to leave early to report to work as a professor at Mt. San Jacinto College, so he was permitted to answer the questions first.
“I remain hopeful that even if the initiatives don’t pass the leadership in Sacramento, which has brought us to this place over several decades…would listen and not visit these Draconian cuts on public education.”
Diffley, who is seeking his third full term, went over cuts already made during the last few years and said things are likely to get worse.
“No one knows if the state will decide to pull the full trigger should the initiatives fail, but we have to prepare for it. We could stop watering the grass; we may stop weeding...Everything, everything is on the table…” Diffley said.
Wray, first elected in 1991, said the board has kept its promise of keeping the cuts away from programs and staff. They have done this by remaining focused on reducing costs, such as promoting from within to fill the recent superintendent vacancy.
“My colleagues can attest I was the first to step up and say it was a wise and prudent decision,” said Wray, 60.
“The board is ever mindful of the pay cuts and the affect they have on you, your workload and your families,” she said.
Gregory Lee, a 46-year-old father of two children who attend school in Murrieta, said he has his pulse on the district.
“I will be your undercover boss,” Lee said. “My plans are to shadow and buddy with employees to see all the components behind the scenes. And I will also offer an open-door policy at all times.”
He suggested looking at ways to save money in the busing program.
"We need to be proactive; look for alternative fuel sources…busing within our district is an approximately $3.5 million expense each year. This expense has been eliminated in other districts,” Lee said.
“Let’s look at other industries outside of education…Let’s look at UPS, it routes the drivers so they always makes right-hand turns," he said.
"I don't want to lose or give up anything; I think we should fight and get creative," Lee said.
Muir, a 62-year-old retired teacher, recommended the formation of a committee made up of parents, students, administrators, staff and board members.
“It is important to me that everyone who has a stake in this district has a say in what is going to be cut,” Muir said, to which all candidates agreed.
“They don’t always get that and then they feel put upon and then they complain,” Muir said.
The committee would be divided into groups, she said. The groups would then split up and brainstorm.
The groups would reconvene, she said; ideas that show up in multiple reports would be given top priority. Senior staff would then narrow those down and present the finalized items the board.
The board has done an outstanding job thus far, she said.
“I just want to expand it to include parents and students,” Muir said.
All candidates agreed district and community feedback was vital.
“We need to hear from students, parents, teachers, and the community at large,” Wray said. “We are all stakeholders. The cuts are so huge…$21 million is a lot of money and it is going to affect major things."
The forum was moderated by Charlotte Fox, a coach for the Women's League of Voters. Fox also collected questions from the audience.
Those in the audience included fellow board members, district administrators, parents and teachers.
Nov. 6 will be the first time in three years Murrieta citizens have had the opporunity to vote for school board members. In 2011, the board—in an effort to save money—voted to move the election to even years.
The Murrieta Teachers Association has endorsed three candidates: Diffley, Muir and Lee.
"We selected them using our process of interviews," said Kim Chevlin, chair of MTA's Political Action Committee.
"They all came to a representative council meeting (in February)," Chevlin said. "There were 60 or 70 teachers there. We put forth our motion to select them. Basically we were looking for a change."