Santa Ana Unified School District is one of the largest school districts in the state, serving one of the most diverse student populations anywhere in America across nine high schools.

A majority of the board members – Carolyn Torres, Rigo Rodriguez and Alfonso Alvarez – are currently running for re-election this year.

Three local residents – Cecilia Aguinaga, Judith Carrilo and Oscar Reyes – are running to challenge the incumbents.

Last week, a coalition of nonprofit groups – Latino Health Access, the Santa Ana Building Health Communities group, the Kennedy Commission and Vietrise – all cosponsored a joint debate between candidates, which would have featured Voice of OC moderation.

However, the debate had to be canceled when organizers realized that with a majority of school board members present, the discussion would violate the state’s open meeting laws because a majority of school board members would be opining on issues facing the school district without noticing the session as a public meeting.

In lieu of that’s night’s cancelled discussion, and out of respect for candidates who prepared and residents who need the information to make informed choices, Voice of OC offered all candidates the opportunity to answer in writing the series of debate questions that local residents expressed an interest in hearing perspectives about.

Three out of six candidates – one incumbent, Carolyn Torres and two challengers – Judith Carrillo and Cecilia Aguinaga answered.

  1. Budget 


Parents and Teachers have heard talks of SAUSD facing a budget deficit. From your review of the budget, is SAUSD facing a budget deficit? Please explain the district’s financial standing and what steps would you take to ensure classified staff are protected against massive layoffs.

Candidate responses:

Santa Ana residents need more transparency in how our public tax dollars are spent. I am calling for a top-down public audit of all SAUSD spending. This way we can increase accountability, by making it clear where our money is spread on ty by having annual public reviews. JUDITH CARRILLO

The budget is currently balanced. There is a difference between ongoing expenditures(costs) and revenue (money coming in) and one-time expenditures and revenue. One-time revenues often help us meet costs. However, if our ongoing expenditures and revenue stay the same, we will be in a deficit within a few years. This means we will need to figure where to cut our spending. Our staff salaries take up about 80% of our budget and I do not want to lay anyone off. During the Covid-19 shutdown, I, as well as my fellow board members Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Alvarez, made sure that we took care of our classified staff, even when their positions did not lend to a virtual environment. We have also approved a retirement incentive to reduce costs and have had frequent special board meetings to directly address the budget. I encourage folks to watch the SAUSD board meeting video from October 20, 2020 if they want the most up to date budget analysis. Also, please vote yes for Proposition 15, as it will greatly increase our ongoing revenue. CAROLYN TORRES

The district has a budget of $53.94 million. If the money is carefully designated to the right programs & if we are being 100% transparent, no layoffs should be done. An evaluation of programs is needed, and we should prioritize the needs of our students and teachers. We must make sure that students are always number one on our list. CECILIA AGUINAGA

2. Student Activism and the Black Lives Matter Movement 


Young people make up one of the largest populations in the city. Many students participated in and led the local Black Lives Matter protests that began this summer, and they have also been at the forefront of many social movements in the city. Do you support the students’ call for systemic change regarding the police, and how would you support students’ increasing role in local activism?

Candidate Answers: 

I believe in our students and in their right to increase their role/voice in local activism. I am committed to mandating and advocating for the well being of ALL students. Supporting our students, by evaluating different platforms for activism and the role of social media in protest. Engaging our community to look at the fundamentals of conflict resolution through interactive activities related to communication and active listening. JUDITH CARRILLO

Yes, I support our students’ call for systemic change regarding police and I support the Black Lives Matter movement. There are historical inequities in all our institutions that need to be acknowledged, addressed and then remedied. The POA in the city of Santa Ana has too much power in our elections and that is undemocratic. Our society should allow for critiques and protesting of those in power and those who have power. The fact that some folks may try to suppress critique and protest is a problem, as this is one of our most fundamental rights. I fully support all young people who want to stand up for themselves and their communities. As an elected official, I commit to hearing youth perspectives and when called upon, I will amplify their concerns and support in any way I can. CAROLYN TORRES

When Black lives matter, all lives matter. America was built on racism – the system was rotten. We have grown so much as a country, everyone deserves to be treated with humanity. No one should be shot because of the color of their skin. I am filled with hope seeing young activists in peaceful protest. You should stand up for what you believe in. I believe we must have town-halls between the police and community. There is a lot of healing that must happen between the community and our police force so that trust can be rebuilt. CECILIA AGUINAGA

3. Housing Opportunities and Displacement of Santa Ana Unified School District 


SAUSD has declining enrollment numbers and there are nearly 6,000 students in SAUSD that have been classified as homeless under the ​The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. SAUSD families are being displaced. What services or programs currently provided by the district do you support for students facing housing insecurities or displacement? What services or programs would you introduce and who would you collaborate with?

Candidate Answers:

I will promote the healthy development of our students, SAUSD under the McKinney-Vento they can have school supplies, supplemental services, and free school meals, set up transportation to and from the school of origin; and help to find community support. JUDITH CARRILLO

The district has made it a priority to support our students that are homeless or who are experiencing housing instability. Our staff regularly visits students and families to address their needs and collaborates with the county to provide resources. If you know of any family struggling, please contact our district at 714-433-3481. One idea that sounds interesting, is creating housing for staff and/or families. Providing housing for classified staff would help both our staff and our students, as many of our staff have children in the district. In order for this to happen the district would need to review different models from other districts that have been moving in this direction and then obtain board approval. Relatedly, we need to work with the city to prioritize resources and true affordable housing for families that have students in SAUSD schools. Furthermore, we need to fight against gentrification because when development occurs with the intention of appealing to folks who are not our current families, our families can no longer afford to live here and leave our schools. One of the biggest threats to the district is the displacement of families due to high rent. CAROLYN TORRES

It is the responsibility of the district to find the resources available for our families. As a Vice-Chairman of the Housing Redevelopment Community for the city of Santa Ana, I was one of the decision makers to approve construction of buildings for low income families. Just to name few: Santa Ana Arts Collective-1666 Main St. Heroes Landing-3312 W First St. Aqua Housing 317 E 17th St. La Placita-Cinco – 2223 W 5th Street. These are few of the projects done by the city to help low income housing. In each school, there must be a collaboration between counselors, community workers, and trusted non-profits to work with parents and work through housing issues & other critical services that are integral to creating a safe foundation for kids to learn. CECILIA AGUINAGA

4. Immigration 


SAUSD has the largest undocumented population of students in Orange County. What programs or services would you support that the district currently provides? What programs and/or services would you introduce and who would you collaborate with?

Candidate Answers:

No student should live in fear of their or their families’ legal status. Santa Ana is home to a large concentration of students from immigrant and undocumented families. That is the core reason for my running for school board – to make sure these families are not left behind, especially when the emergence of technology in the classroom is outpacing our accommodation for lower-income families and those facing cultural barriers. I feel like I am the most authentic voice for our community on this issue. That’s why I chose to run, too many immigrant and undocumented families are being left behind. JUDITH CARRILLO

I fully support our undocumented students and their families. In 2016, SAUSD reinforced its support for our students and that our school sites would be safe. I would like the district to expand our mental health programs to add services that specifically supports the trauma associated with anti-immigrant rhetoric and national policies. The district could also work more closely with the city and support the legal defense fund. Our wellness centers could host Know-Your-Rights trainings. Many community organizations provide trainings, but the district has more reach and can take a stronger ally role. The district can also take a more proactive approach in working with immigration advocates and organizations, as well as support solidarity efforts between the Latinx, Asian American, and other communities impacted by anti-immigrant policies. CAROLYN TORRES

Santa Ana is a Sanctuary city for immigrants & we are one of the largest Latino populations. I will work to protect the rights of the immigrants as I have roots in Mexico and understand the struggles that families face when they come to this country seeking a better life for their family. I support the Immigration Legal Defense, Universal Representation, and Legal Aid a nonprofit organization fund to help Immigrants become cittizens – just to name a few. One fund that is suffering is the legal deportation defense fund – set to receive $100,000 in the new budget, half of what it received last year. Data has shown how effective this fund has been in preventing our immigrant families from being separated. These are the things we need to invest in. We need to spend money by aligning with our values. CECILIA AGUINAGA

5. Access to Open Space and Public Lands 


Joint Use agreements are an example of collaborative efforts between Santa Ana Unified School District and the City of Santa Ana. These efforts can increase access to open space for students in park-poor neighborhoods by opening up fields and playgrounds on school campuses to the local neighborhoods. What successful examples have you seen of collaboration between the Santa Ana Unified School District and the City? What are your thoughts on joint-use agreements? How will you collaborate with the City to serve Santa Ana families?

Candidate Answers:

I want our children to have safe and healthy places to be outdoors. Which is I will fight to make sure that our school spaces are safe and accessible for our students during instruction and the community as a whole. Much of our open space is associated with school property and we need to make sure we are maximizing the use of this land for the health of our students and the community at large. I will fight to make sure that our campuses are receiving our fair share of state funding. I will promote the healthy development of our students, by creating partnerships between our schools and local nonprofits. JUDITH CARRILLO

I support joint-use agreements as we need more open space for our families and most of the open space in the city is found in our school fields. SAUSD was able to collaborate with the Roosevelt- Walker community center. I visited Roosevelt in January of this year and was able to meet with parents at the community center during school hours. It was a great experience. I also think the district should look in to opening up parking lots overnight for densely populated neighborhoods. Parking is nightmare in many neighborhoods and is a major stressor for families. I would also like to collaborate with the city to develop a city-wide Wi-Fi system. The district has provided hot spots but the need for stronger Wi-Fi is still an issue. City-wide Wi-Fi would help our students learning from home as well as parents who are working from home. We need to start treating the city and the school district as part of the same community. CAROLYN TORRES

I believe joint-use agreements are a great way to collaborate with the city to provide more for families. I believe that there should be more communication between the district and the city. We’ve built several parks in the last few years, let’s work harder to get the word out to families, provide resource fairs, free exercising classes, and more. CECILIA AGUINAGA



Nearly all school districts in the county have announced reopening dates within the next few months. What protocols would you recommend be taken to ensure our students’ & staff’ health is put first when SAUSD reopens? What resources should the district provide to ensure we are protected from super spreading?

Candidate Answers:

As a current COVID-19 health call center representative, I have seen the essential role our schools play in maintaining the health of our students and the community at large. We will return to schools but it won’t look the same for everyone because we don’t have a one size fits solution especially on a geographic level, where we could have areas with low infectivity versus where infectivity is peaking.. We have to be flexible because right now decisions are being made with limited information. We have to be adaptable enough to pivot at any given moment so that if we have to modify depending on what the outcome is shouldn’t be very concrete. In some way, we are going to return to school or return to normal but we have to be flexible enough to prevent super spreading. JUDITH CARRILLO

I have been very vocal in my concern over opening schools too soon. As a teacher, I understand how difficult distance learning has been for students, parents and teachers. Distance learning, while improving, will never be able to replace the human connection and pedagogy of in-person teaching. However, public health and safety is of the utmost importance. We are heading into flu season and another spike in Covid-19 cases is expected. Any situation where you bring groups of people indoors, will increase the spread of COVID-19. The district is providing plexi-glass for classrooms, has reduced the number of desks in the classroom, will provide hand-sanitizer, will require masks, has reduced the number of people on campus and made it clear that we will not return to in-person teaching until the infection numbers are low enough. I understand why folks want to open schools, there are legitimate concerns that we are addressing, but I believe it is too soon to open schools. CAROLYN TORRES

One of the best things we can do to keep schools safe is to keep local community transmission low. If we reopen without the proper measure in place, schools will just have to close again. The following must be done to ensure safety in schools: regular testing, mandating masks, increased hand washing, distance outdoor lunches, limit student physical interaction, shields for all employees, and good room ventilation. We must not rush into a solution. We need to take this step by step to see what works and what doesn’t. We must be intentional. CECILIA AGUINAGA

7. Charter Schools 


Many are in agreement that a robust public education system is vital to a city’s success. Many also disagree on what that looks like. There are for-profit and even some non-profit public charters that seem to deliver a less than ideal return on investment of public funds. At the same time there are some non-profit charters who outperform their district counterparts and provide a differentiated experience for students from varied backgrounds. How would you balance the very real concerns of the anti-charter advocates with the legitimate experiences many parents and their students have had inside of charter schools?

Candidate Answers:

One way to start the conversation is to have annual public reviews of student academic performance results. We don’t have any form of tracking metrics to track student success, we have no way of better identifying where we need more help. If we start a conversation about robust public education systems we should first identify what are our students’ academic strengths and weaknesses in both school systems. It helps us as educators know where to best assist students. JUDITH CARRILLO

I am pro-public education and believe all institutions of learning should be financially transparent and accountable to the community. I taught at a charter school for five years in one of the biggest charter school networks in Los Angeles so I am well aware of how corporate charter schools operate. They often act as shell companies for other economic and political interests. My experience at a charter school was mixed. The teachers tried their best and loved their students. The students and parents were fantastic. However, there was unclear financial accountability and very little transparency. Teachers, students, and parents were often not included in the decision-making. I understand how a student’s or parent’s experience at a charter school may be positive, even if the charter school is engaged in questionable behaviors. The assertion that some charters outperform their district counterparts is not accurate when controlling for size, number of students, number of students in SPED, etc. However, there is a difference between large CMO’s and their offshoots that we have seen expand in the last 10 years and the smaller, community-based charter schools that have existed for much longer. Also, SAUSD has district run charters that are accountable to SAUSD. My main concern is making sure public funds stay in the hands of the public. CAROLYN TORRES

I empathize with parents who are searching for the best education for their children. We have a lot of work to do in our public school system & first and foremost, we must work hard to make this system better. If parent’s want to send their kids to a charter school, I believe they have that right. But I also believe that parents in Santa Ana should have priority when it comes to lottery systems or other means of deciding who gets to attend charter vs. not. We shouldn’t have to compete with families from other cities for access. CECILIA AGUINAGA

8. School Police 


Currently, SAUSD school police answer self harm and suicide ideation calls, and a majority of our students are traumatized from outside experiences with law enforcement, especially undocumented students. Schools currently don’t have a nurse at every campus, but do have a school police. What will you do to address the negative impact that SAUSD school police are having on students, and what programs or policies do you think should be implemented to ensure that students’ physical, mental & emotional health needs are being met with trauma-informed approaches and pedagogy in schools?

Candidate Answers:

I will fight to reallocate funds from the police to community services so that we can prevent crime by supporting our youth instead of punishing our youth after we failed to set them on a positive path forward. JUDITH CARRILLO

I am a teacher who practices restorative justice principles and prioritizes socioemotional learning pedagogies in my instruction. I do not believe that more police presence necessarily means more safety. Safety is not just physical, it is also mental and emotional. I think responses to wellness and mental health checks should be conducted by mental health professionals who spend years in school and complete many hours of field work to do their job well. When a student is in crisis, police officers responding can relay a message of criminality rather than support. We need to reduce the reasons we call for a police response. We need to invest in more mental health support that includes more social workers and other case workers, as well as more informal spaces for students to be able to navigate their feelings and emotions. CAROLYN TORRES

We must have a nurse, a counselor, and a community worker in every school. Ideally, more counselors per school. Our students need to be surrounded by warmth and caring faces – people who understand how to work with children who have undergone and are undergoing serious trauma. Our school police officers are not trained in these approaches. There needs to be a shift in the way we approach issues – we must start with empathy. CECILIA AGUINAGA

9. Nutrition 


Many students within the district rely on and benefit from free/reduced lunch programs for weekday meals. However, parents have expressed that the school lunch offered is unhealthy, of bad quality, or rotting when they receive it. What will you do to diversify and improve the quality of meals, including fruits and vegetables, provided to students?

Candidate Answers:

If families in our school communities are unhappy with the food, we should create a space for them to voice their option. Creating a committee dedicated to crafting the menu with healthy and enriching foods. As well as offering nutritional classes to engage more individuals in our communities to participate in thinking about how they and others tend to define healthy eating. We shouldn’t underestimate how much parents want to be a part of the child’s educational success, nutrition being a key part to the brain and physical development of our children.  JUDITH CARRILLO

Early this year, I took a tour of our nutrition services and saw how we distribute food. I was happy to learn that there has been great improvement in the quality of food we serve. I want to acknowledge the hard work of our nutrition service staff who were on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. This pandemic has shown how much our community relies on the school district to provide resources such as food, technology, and mental health care. There is a lot of hard work that goes toward preparing the meals. Most of our nutrition workers are the parents and grandparents of our students. I have no doubt that none of them intended to provide low quality food. That being said, the food can always improve. I want to take a look at partnering with local farms to provide produce and possibly even the city community gardens as an option for this once they are allowed to reopen. If you receive food that is bad, please report it to the district or to me and I will address it. CAROLYN TORRES

The district of Santa Ana should have a nutritionist supervising what kind of meals go out. We need to vet the companies that we partner with and ensure that we are providing the best quality food. We should get creative about our partnerships & seek out out-of-the-box solutions to meal planning and menu items. We should also have an open door policy and involved the School Board, especially when meal quality is questioned. We will listen to any parent concerns. We know that nutrition is key to success in school. We need to start making decisions aligned with this truth. CECILIA AGUINAGA

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