Friday, October 31, 2008

Mt. Diablo school board candidates build momentum, as campaign tensions mount

CONCORD — While the Mt. Diablo school board prepares for massive budget cuts and struggles to negotiate new employee contracts, four candidates are vying to steer the district toward future successes.

With nearly $50,000 in backing from the Mt. Diablo Education Association teacher's union, incumbent Gary Eberhart and challenger Sherry Whitmarsh are running as a team to defeat board President April Treece and Jeff Adams, another challenger. Trustees Linda Mayo and Richard Allen on the five-member board have both endorsed Treece and Adams. Trustee Paul Strange, who along with Eberhart called for Superintendent Gary McHenry's resignation in January, is promoting the Eberhart and Whitmarsh ticket.

McHenry's future, as well as the future of the district, could be at stake in the election. Treece is a staunch supporter of McHenry along with Mayo and Allen. If Treece loses her re-election bid, a new majority with a less favorable view of McHenry could emerge.

"The superintendent right now manages the board, rather than the board managing the superintendent and the superintendent managing the schools," Eberhart said. "The board majority and the superintendent are more loyal to one another than they are to the kids in the school district. And that's a shame."

Treece said the board holds McHenry accountable during annual closed session evaluations. The board reviews student achievement, attendance, graduation rates, special education, Advertisementcurriculum, facilities, preschool and after-school programs and employee negotiations, she said.

"We look at what was successful and what was a challenge and we set goals," Treece said. "It helps us move the evaluation from subjective to objective. ... We need to, as board members, focus on all the wonderful work (being done) and work hard to continue improving our district."

Whitmarsh and Adams said they would like to work alongside McHenry for a while before deciding whether he is meeting the district's needs. But the teacher's union has expressed "no confidence" in the superintendent, through a majority vote.

For more than a year, teachers have been lobbying for health benefits, while working with expired contracts. Although all four candidates say medical benefits are important, the teacher's union has paid for large signs and phone banks supporting Eberhart and Whitmarsh.

In addition, teachers and some parents have walked precincts and held signs at key intersections during rush hour, promoting the pair. Yet, Eberhart and Whitmarsh say they are not beholden to the union.

Eberhart recently suggested eliminating a budget-cutting criterion aimed at protecting as many jobs as possible. Whitmarsh said her main concerns are settling employee contracts and balancing the budget in a strategic way.

"We have to look at a cost-benefit analysis," Whitmarsh said. "We should look at the cost per stakeholder, evaluate programs and ask for input."

Treece and Adams have less money and manpower behind them, with each candidate partially funding campaigns through personal loans. Treece has attracted contributions from electrical workers and carpenters' unions, while Adams is running a grass-roots campaign with no union support.

Adams said the district should negotiate a competitive contract to retain teachers. He is running to help eliminate bickering between the board majority and minority, which has caused gridlock, he said.

"Once a decision is made, you should unify for the best interests of the children and you should get things done," Adams said. "Some things haven't been getting done, such as developing a district strategic plan."

Treece and Mayo have stood on street corners with signs proclaiming "Business for Treece," acknowledging the board president's ties to local companies such as the Pleasant Hill Recycling Center, which contributed $250 to her campaign. Treece, who serves on the Contra Costa Council board and works as a nonprofit business consultant, made a $400 civic donation to Concord from her campaign fund.

During the past month, campaign tensions have mounted, with Mayo, Strange and teacher's union president Mike Noce entering the fray during an Oct. 14 board meeting. Noce blasted Treece for calling his office to complain about her campaign signs being taken down.

"Our members would not participate in such an activity," Noce said indignantly.

Mayo sent an op ed piece to the Times about "dirty tactics" and reiterated some of her comments at the meeting.

"Democracy has been stolen," she said, referring to missing signs. "Do you feel safe in your neighborhood or do you feel fear and distrust?"

Strange reacted strongly.

"There are certainly signs disappearing in this race," he said. "I think it is inappropriate to suggest that any candidates are involved."

  • Hargrove rules out strike over Ontario GM plant closing
  • Four candidates vie for two open seats on Mt. Diablo school board
  • Mt. Diablo school district candidates offer differing views during lively Pleasant Hill forum
  • Mt. Diablo school district: Management and budget woes top debate in four-candidate race for two open seats