A forum Thursday featuring candidates for the Santa Ana Unified School District board showed that our educational system in the modern era is about a lot more than just the academic subjects being taught in schools.
Rather than focusing on math, reading and other basic curriculum topics, the forum instead delved into issues like expanding mental health support for students and the need to end the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” that traps so many young people in low-income minority communities.
“Prevention is very important,” said candidate Bruce Bauer, voicing a sentiment shared by the other four candidates who attended the forum. “It costs $63,000 to incarcerate someone and $9,000” to educate them.
“We have to provide more counseling, and behavioral counseling earlier,” said Mark McLoughlin, a candidate from a competing group of contenders in the Nov. 8 election.
But a disagreement later emerged over how to pay for that extra counseling, centered on whether district money should be used.
The forum was sponsored by Latino Health Access, Voice of OC, Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, RAIZ, Youth Empowerment Network, and the LGBT Center Orange County. It was held at the Latino Health Access headquarters in downtown Santa Ana.
The forum was moderated by Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr., and included five student panelists from middle and high schools throughout Santa Ana Unified and one from Santa Ana College.
Two candidates didn’t participate: incumbent board member Ceci Iglesias and her ally Angie Cano.
Stephanie Young, a junior Godinez High School, said there are students in the district with mild to moderate mental health issues who aren’t being assisted by counselors. And she said many high school seniors aren’t getting the help they to get into college, leading to missed opportunities to get scholarships.
There are about 1,000 students for each Santa Ana Unified counselor and psychologist, according to district data.
While all five candidates agreed these issues deserve to be top priorities, they parted ways when it comes to how they should be paid for.
The three candidates backed by the teacher’s union – Rigo Rodriguez, Mark McLoughlin, and Alfonso Alvarez – emphasized looking outside the district’s budget.
“We could say yes [to hiring more counselors], but from a budget standpoint, how do we do that?” asked Alvarez. He suggested tapping into the millions state Mental Health Services Act dollars that come to the county government each year.
Rodriguez questioned whether the issue is better solved by hiring more counselors or looking “at other ways to solve the problem.” The district could apply for grant money from other agencies, he said.
McLoughlin put it most succinctly: “We need to look outside of the school district for funding.”
That stood in contrast to the views of Bauer, who along with Beatriz Mendoza is backed by current school board members John Palacio and Valerie Amezcua.
After being pressed on the issue, Bauer said money for more mental health services could be found in the district’s $600-million-plus budget.
“I will tell you this, it will be a priority on my part” to find room in the budget, Bauer said.
What none of the candidates mentioned is that the district is already getting tens of millions of new dollars each year intended for expanding exactly these types of services, according to the district’s budget documents.
Santa Ana Unified has $30 million in new funding this school year to support at-risk students, under the state’s “Local Control Funding Formula” program in which public input is supposed to play a major role in on how it’s spent.
Under that local control system, which started two years ago, Santa Ana Unified now gets about $100 million in extra funding each year – and that amount is expected to continue to grow by tens of millions of dollars in the coming years. This increase comes amid years of declining enrollment in the district.
But the district’s spending plan for that money is mostly vague about who it’s going to.
Alvarez went so far as to paint a picture of tough fiscal times for the district.
He said “budget cuts” have prompted the elimination of many of counselor positions, which he said is why the district needs to look for outside funding.
“I understand the importance of [more higher education counselors], but then who do you fire,” said Alvarez.
But Bauer said there’s room for both existing employees and more counselors.
“You don’t have to make the choice of either–or. You can have both,” Bauer said.
Other than this issue of counselor funding, the five candidates agreed on pretty much everything else.
They all supported an ethnic studies requirement; expanding restorative justice efforts districtwide; ensuring schools are safe for LGBTQ students; having more school yards be open as parks on evenings and weekends; boosting mental health and higher education support for students; improving the board’s relationship with teachers; and prioritizing bringing in more counselors than school police officers.
All of candidates also supported having local universities conduct an independent study of the Orange County District’s “GRIP” gang-prevention program, which mayoral candidate Ben Vazquez said is in Santa Ana’s schools with “no oversight” and no research or data on whether it’s effective.
“We should be examining any program” that we “spend a dime in,” said Rodriguez, adding that programs should be “evidence-based.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.