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Manhattan Beach School Board Candidates - Minus Three - Discuss Issues

Sep 22, 2022 04:44PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
It was an illuminating school board candidates' forum. Well, at least half a forum.

Three out of the six MBUSD school board candidates answered a series of rapid-fire policy questions at an event hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Beach Cities and the Easy Reader on Wednesday night.

The audience heard from candidates Jen Fenton, Tina Shivpuri, and Wysh Weinstein, on a range of issues including test scores and academic excellence, social-emotional wellness, teacher training, staffing and enrollment levels, testing, addressing learning differences, middle school bell schedules, Measure A, and even the recent million-dollar legal settlement that the El Segundo school district faces over a bullying case.

Meanwhile, the remaining three candidates - Christy Barnes, Johnny Uriostegui, and Mike Welsh - declined to participate due to a disagreement over the ground rules on criticizing the current school board (more on that below).

The six candidates are running for three open seats on the school board. Fenton is the only incumbent running for re-election.

A full video of the forum can be seen here.

Candidates Share School, Career Experiences

Fenton, Shivpuri, and Weinstein - who have decades of MBUSD school volunteer experience among them - each shared what brought them to their candidacies. 

Fenton, a lawyer who has worked in disability rights and now works at the Environmental Charter Schools, has served on the MBUSD board since 2018 and chaired the board from 2020-2021. She served as PTA president at Robinson Elementary, chaired the Measure MB (parcel tax) and Measure EE (bond) campaigns, served as vice president of MBEF, and has served on the Budget Advisory Committee. She has two children at Mira Costa High School.

Shivpuri, a technology consultant for major corporations for more than 20 years, has served on the Pennekamp PTA board and was the Culture of Care committee lead there. She also was a board member for the MBX Band Boosters and vice president of Mira Costa's Marching Band Operations, as well as other docent and committee positions. She has a recent Mira Costa graduate, as well as a student at Mira Costa and Manhattan Beach Middle School.

Weinstein, a former elementary school teacher, has served as Pacific Elementary PTA president, Manhattan Beach PTA Council president, as an MBEF board member, and as a Budget Advisory Committee member. She co-chaired the Measure A effort earlier this year. She has students at Manhattan Beach Middle School and Pacific Elementary.

Grading the Schools

The candidates were first asked to give a "grade" to MBUSD.

Weinstein said that she would give the district an "A-minus." "I do feel like there is a lot that is going really well," she said. "We have incredible academic programs, we have incredible teachers, we have motivated students, but there is always room for improvement." She added that she, along with others in the community, was upset about recent occurrences of vandalism, and said that addressing that issue was an area that needed improvement.

Fenton also gave the district an "A-minus." She said that recent testing data for English language showed that scores had gone up 4 to 11 percent in the last four years, while math scores increased about 9 percent, with scores averaging about 10 to 15 percent higher than other South Bay districts. "Why is that? Because we hone in on the individual learner. Are we perfect? No. Have we made mistakes along the way? We certainly have. but we've learned from those mistakes." Fenton also noted that the district focused on core academics from K-12 while also embracing a "culture of care" to ensure that all students feel protected.

Shivpuri gave the district a "B-plus." "When your student is receiving a B+, they know they can achieve more, there's higher stars to reach for," she said. "How do we rate as far as academic excellence? Everyone has a different answer for that. Is it test scores, is it GPA average, is it the number of students entering top 25 universities? It's actually all of these things; it's not just one line to success. We're going to have to look at all these paths. We need a dashboard to understand where are students are, where our staff is, and how we can do better."


Hate Speech and Student Safety

Candidates also tackled the question of recent hate incidents on MBUSD campuses, and how to ensure that all students feel safe.

"What's happening at our campuses is unacceptable and it's something that we all need to use as a teaching moment," said Fenton. "We have to teach history thoroughly, we have to re-institute our field trips to the Museum of Tolerance. We have to have our cameras up and running to ensure we can catch those who are committing vandalism faster than we can say 'on.' This is a teaching moment for everybody...It is a community conversation about what our culture, is, what our beliefs are, what it means to be inclusive, and what are our shared values."

"This topic is absolutely one of my passions, one of my platforms," said Shivpuri, who is leading Pennekamp's Culture of Care committee and its effort to earn a No Place for Hate designation from the Anti-Defamation League. She said that that effort led her to think that MBMS should have that designation as well, so she reached out to then-principal Rose Ahrens, and to new principal Jennifer Huynh, who is "just as excited to implement this." Shivpuri added that she had also talked to the superintendent about getting the whole school district to earn the "No Place for Hate" designation.

"It starts with us," noted Weinstein. "We are the role models. Our kids are looking to us. All of these acts that are happening right now - any child development expert will tell you that that is a cry for help. They are looking for where is the line, what is OK, what is not OK. We need to send the message that that is not OK." Weinstein mentioned Wednesday morning's International Day of Peace ceremony at Manhattan Beach's peace pole, where participants joined others worldwide in taking a moment of silence together at noon. "We need to remind our kids that there is a bigger world out there and we have to do our civic duty to be a part of it."

High-Profile Issues

The candidates each discussed issues that have created high-profile discussions across different corners of the city, including the district's commitment to core academics, the ongoing concern of enrollment levels, and Measure A.

Regarding the district's commitment to core academics, Fenton said, "There is a question as to whether or not we are teaching the basics and i want to make sure everybody knows we are still teaching the basics, and I want to make sure everybody knows that your academics - meaning your reading, your writing, your arithmetic - that is happening every single day. We will never veer from that, but we won't stop adding layers of social emotional learning; we won't stop adding layers of inclusion; we won't stop adding layers of safety; we won't stop adding opportunities for students to voice their opinion. These are all important things that make our district great."

Although estimates show that MBUSD enrollment is up for this fall, candidates were also asked the question of how to keep those numbers up. Shivpuri said she had studied Palos Verdes as well as MBUSD enrollment numbers, and called for taking a deeper look. "We are not unique in declining enrollment over the last couple of years, and of course COVID threw a little bit of a twist into it. But we also know that sometimes when you look at the numbers, it's the layer underneath [you need to study]," she said. "So we look like we might be stable going from 8th grade to 9th grade in our numbers, but when you look at who makes up those numbers, we have plenty of students coming in from Hermosa or Redondo, or permits...but we're not looking at the kids that left. So how can we make sure those families don't leave? I know Dr. Bowes instituted the concept of an exit interview and I think that's going to going to be super-powerful for us to get a lot more information than we had in the past." 

On a question of what lessons were learned from Measure A, Weinstein had the first response.
"I could talk all night about it, but the most important thing for everyone to understand is that I heard the community," she said. "It was an overwhelming response, and we need to do better about involving the community in deciding what is a comfortable number for them. It is just really important that everyone understands that there is a need for sustainable funding, because one-time funding doesn't really do anything. You can buy something one time but you can't start a program with it. You can't hire teachers with it, because next year they won't be there. I'm open to other ideas and other suggestions  - and I'll be the first person to knock on doors to help get it done - but it is important that we involve the community in whatever it is that we do next time."

Three Candidates Decline to Participate

Barnes, Uriostegui, and Welsh asked the League of Women Voters to read the following statement about why they declined to participate: 

“The Trifecta has decided not to participate in the [League of Women Voters] forum today at Mira Costa High School for a number of reasons. We agree with the rules presented to us earlier this month that personal attacks, innuendo or disparaging remarks regarding other candidates should not be permitted. However, we were contacted yesterday by the LWV to let us know that any criticism of the existing school board’s decision, action, or inaction was also off limits. They told us specifically to delete the references to the current board. One of the core reasons the Trifecta is running for school board is because of certain board actions, one of which is that parents do not feel like they are being heard and they are being stifled or get ridiculed if they speak up. We have come to the conclusion that by limiting our discussion regarding the school board, this forum is doing exactly what we are trying to change: not allowing for civil conversation that differs from the current sitting board. Critical to the success of our candidacy is our ability to inform the community of the past actions of the school board, and our plans to move the board into a different/better direction. We want to encourage the public to attend the Chamber of Commerce forum on Thursday, September 29 at Mira Costa High School at 5:30 p.m., where we will be able to be transparent, uncensored and free to respectfully share our views and solutions with the community.”

Jeanne Hamilton, chair of voter services for LWV Beach Cities shared her response to this message with the audience at the forum:

"I'd like you to just know that the following rule was in the invitation letter that I sent to all the candidates. They each signed a form agreeing to abide by this rule: 'Candidates' statements should focus on personal qualifications and positions. Personal attacks, innuendo, or disparaging remarks regarding other candidates will not be accepted.' The League format has always provided a forum for the candidates to talk about themselves and their ideas and  proposals. The League is supporting positive information. In this highly charged political time, the League believes it even more important that candidates do not make personal attacks or disparaging remarks. Our hope is that the candidates will be forthcoming about their candidacies. It's unfortunate that the three have decided not to participate and give this audience their ideas. We are exceptionally pleased that Tina Shivpuri, Wysh Weinstein, and Jen Fenton are here to inform and educate those here, and we want to thank you for attending, for your participation in this electoral process to be informed voters."

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