A fresh crop of South San school board hopefuls spoke of collaboration, transparency, and positive change at candidate forums Wednesday and Thursday, representing a major step toward a form of community engagement long missing in the district.
Held by COPS/ Metro and South San Kids First (SSKF) respectively, the events come as political infighting, budgetary mismanagement, and unprofessionalism continue to earn the current leadership negative reports from the state conservator, which took over the board in February.
Attending both events, City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) described them as a critical move toward holding South San officials accountable.
“Before there was a community that was silent,” the South San native told the Rivard Report. “… Folks who were part of the old guard and the old factions in South San, they liked not having to come to forums. They enjoyed not having to answer questions, especially tough questions.”
Board positions for Districts 2, 3, 5, and 7 will be decided in the Nov. 8 election.
Following differing formats, the back-to-back forums were notable for the positive tone candidates maintained, as well as a number of conspicuous absences.
On Wednesday, COPS/ Metro – a coalition of groups organized by Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) and the Metro Alliance – invited candidates to answer six “yes” or “no” previously prepared questions.
These included whether candidates would support a Tax Ratification Election (TRE), form a task force to determine the need for a bond, fund quality after school programs for all students, and collaborate with COPS/Metro within two weeks of entering office.
All candidates present answered affirmatively. These included District 2’s Louis Ybarra Jr., District 3’s Linda Longoria and Lisa Perez Porter, and District 5’s Eugene Polendo and incumbent Board President Connie Prado. District 7 candidates were not invited, and District 2’s Nancy Aldana was unreachable by both COPS/Metro and SSKF.
Citizens attending the meeting voiced their frustration with deteriorating school maintenance, cuts to vital programs, and the recent announcement of Kazen Middle School’s planned closing.
“This year, at Palo Alto Elementary, at the beginning of the school year, kids were in class sitting on five-gallon buckets, with no cushions, no back supports,” parent Augie Melchor said to the crowd of approximately 100 concerned citizens assembled in St. Bonaventure Catholic Church. “… What if one of these kids was your kid?”
While all candidates supported a TRE and potential bond to increase funding to the school, Louis Ybarra emphasized that the district needed to regain community trust before expecting it to contribute to the board’s historically mismanaged coffers. Saldaña seconded this sentiment.
The only incumbent at either event, Prado said the board has been working on the issues raised by COPS/Metro. But conservator Judy Castleberry’s most recent report stated she had “no evidence that Board members are committed to addressing the identified concerns.”
The document details the board’s unwillingness to work collaboratively with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, while a previous report described trustee behavior as “increasingly dysfunctional” and presenting an “unprofessional image for the community and poor role models for students.”
The conservator also mentioned a bond rating company’s letter to the district, which stated its “concern that weak governance could continue a trend of spending well in excess of stagnant revenue prospects, diminishing the district’s currently sound level of reserves and operational flexibility.”
Denying any financial issues, Prado pointed to the district’s A-plus rating.
“(The superintendent) has done an excellent job in getting our finances back in order,” she told the Rivard Report. “I think we’re back on track, and I think it’s time to go to the community for a bond and a TRE.”
When asked what she will do differently to improve the board’s effectiveness, Prado said, “I’m going to be there, and I’m going to look at the all the issues that are presented to us. And I’m going to vote what’s in the best interest of our district.” She would not elaborate further.
Prado’s involvement in South San politics has been embroiled in controversy for years. Her husband is former Councilman Raul Prado, who spent four years in prison for conspiracy to commit bribery. He also has been the subject of school board controversy after making acrimonious remarks at meetings and allegedly influencing decisions behind closed doors.
At the Thursday forum, held at Palo Alto College, Eugene Polendo told the Rivard Report Prado’s campaign is disseminating letters with false information about him. But like others in attendance, Polendo focused his comments on the positive impact he intends to have if elected.
“Being a team player, being an analytical guy – I think those will be good assets to the board,” said the engineer and South San graduate.
District 7’s Elda Flores joined Ybarra, Porter Perez, and Polendo at the Thursday event. While Flores emphasized her nearly 40-year educational background in South San ISD, Ybarra and Porter Perez highlighted their experience as business owners and parents.
“We all see things differently, and I welcome that,” Flores told the crowd of approximately 100. “Because mathematically I’m not all that great, but we’ve got an engineer that is. And I might know curriculum … But then we have experienced people in business. Because really, the district is a business.”
When asked about her view on a TRE, Flores said she would have to study more closely exactly where the money would be directed.
All four candidates were asked to explain how they would make decisions as trustees, how they would navigate the board’s toxic divisions, and what their familiarity with the conservator’s intervention was.
The candidate forum is part of a broader set of initiatives SSKF developed during town hall meetings this March and May. In addition to providing communities a space to interact with candidates, SSKF is offering a “family university” to help families bridge divides with their local schools and a “school board school” to inform parents about district governance.
Prado, Longoria, Aldana, and District 7 incumbent Stacey Estrada refused to come to the event. To Saldaña, this represents the “old way of running for office in South San.
“You just had to sign up, put your hands behind your head, lay down, and just wait for the election,” said Saldaña, who helped found SSKF last spring. “That’s not the way running for public office works, that’s not how democracy works. You need to be out in the public. You need to make yourself accessible.”