During a recent editorial board forum for this newspaper, nine candidates vying for three open seats on the West Contra Costa school board discussed a variety of issues, including Superintendent Bruce Harter’s job performance.
The candidates included incumbent Madeline Kronenberg and challengers Liz Block, Peter Chau, Otheree Christian, Val Cuevas, Raquel Donoso, Mister Phillips, Chester Stevens and Ayana Kirkland Young. Incumbent Elaine Merriweather did not participate.
The superintendent is hired by the board and can be fired by the board. Kronenberg and Christian said they supported Harter. Phillips, Stevens and Young gave mixed reviews. Chau said he would need more information before he could make a decision about whether or not to retain Harter. But Block, Cuevas and Donoso adamantly criticized the superintendent and the current board for failing to act quickly enough to solve district problems, including poor academic achievement.
Kronenberg said Harter is well-connected to teachers, supported by staff and spends up to two days a week visiting classrooms.
“I would keep Bruce Harter,” she said.
Christian said he supports the superintendent, but it’s the responsibility of the trustees to make sure that all students are getting a good education.
“If the board is not doing that,” he said, “then they’re failing.”
Phillips said if Harter’s not doing what he’s supposed to, it’s the board’s fault. However, he pointed out that low academic achievement in the district cuts across all ethnic backgrounds and said all students are being underserved.
“In general, I support Dr. Harter,” Phillips said. “If there are specific issues, then that’s a different discussion.”
Stevens said Harter could do a better job of managing his staff. He said he has seen the American and California flags flying upside down, but that no one at the district seemed to care. As a substitute teacher, Stevens said he has had concerns involving due process that he didn’t want to detail.
“I would give him a C — not a failure, but I think he can do a lot more — and I think he has the wherewithal to do a lot more,” Stevens said. “I think something has to be shaken up there and I think he can address some things that I’ve told him about that he has not yet addressed.”
Young said Harter is personable, attends district events and listens to parents’ concerns. But she criticized him for blaming district problems on the budget, and said he appears to prioritize building new schools over improving education. She also said he needs to make sure every classroom has a teacher at the beginning of the year.
“Dr. Harter is really nice,” she said. “But he has to get a little tougher if he wants to make sure that this district goes in the way it’s supposed to.”
Chau said he would want to evaluate Harter before deciding whether he’s a good fit for the district. Chau wants to find out if Harter would support his idea of creating a student loan repayment program as an incentive to recruit and retain high quality teachers.
“I’m looking for solutions to some of the problems that our school district has,” Chau said.
Block said Harter needs to be held accountable for poor academic performance and lack of communication, innovation and leadership.
“I would make growth in student learning part of the superintendent’s evaluation and he would not be getting a good evaluation,” she said. “He would be not be working for the district anymore.”
Cuevas said Harter doesn’t appear to understand how to spur teaching and learning that will help the district’s diverse students succeed. She also said he should make sure there is a teacher in every classroom when school starts.
“We need a leader that’s not going to be top down and over-burdensome” and will work to build collaboration among staff to meet students’ needs, she said.
Donoso said district leaders have no sense of urgency to improve abysmally low academic achievement in math, or to help English learners become more fluent, or to solve truancy problems, especially among African-American students. She said there is a structural problem in the district.
“It is horrendous to see the kind of lack of attention that we need on our students,” she said.
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