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As the first presidential debate kicked off Tuesday night, a decidedly less hostile candidates forum took place at the same time for trustees to the Simi Valley Unified School District Board.
This November marks the first time Simi voters will participate in a by-trustee election for school board, electing candidates based on the area they reside in. Three seats are up for election.
In Areas A and B, the incumbents — Bob LaBelle and Kareem Jubran, respectively — are running unopposed.
Sofya Bagdasaryan, Jonathan Bonesteel and Rocky Rhodes are vying for the Area C seat. Area C covers Crestview Elementary, Hollow Hills Elementary, Mountain View Elementary, Wood Ranch Elementary and Hillside Middle schools.
The current trustee for the area, Dan White, is not seeking reelection.
The two-hour forum was organized by Simi Valley PTA/PTSA Council. The questions and answers touched on the board responsibilities, the district’s COVID-19 response, inclusivity and the presence of school resource officers among others.
The incumbents were given time for an opening statement, but the rest of the time was dedicated to questions for Area C candidates.
Election 2020: Two candidates running for Simi Valley City Council in District 1
The first question posed to candidates asked about the most important responsibility of the school board as a whole.
Bagdasaryan said it was being responsive to the community and representing their values and beliefs.
Bonesteel voiced a forward approach. He said that it was important to set the direction of the district and do everything possible for the students.
Rhodes acknowledged that the elected trustee would be involved in finding a new superintendent, as current Simi Valley Superintendent Jason Peplinski’s contract comes to an end in 2021.
He also called the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic a priority.
“A normal year would have a different set of priorities,” Rhodes said. “But this year, absolute priority has to be health and safety and getting our kids and teachers back into the classroom safely.”
In a separate question about the district’s handling of the pandemic, both Bonesteel and Bagdasaryan said the current board has done their best. Rhodes agreed, but said he was disappointed in the board’s vote to delay applying for an elementary school waiver hours prior to the forum.
None of the candidates was able to speak to the importance of the state’s 2012 FAIR Education Act, which pushed for the inclusion of contributions made by underrepresented groups including women, LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color in school curriculum.
Of the three, only Bonesteel was able to define the act.
During a question about inclusive practices, he said the school district has been “upfront” through hiring Richard Underhill to oversee equity and inclusion and more counselors.
He listed enrollment statistics in the school district for minority, low socioeconomic status and special education populations to show that the “inclusion and equity is there.”
Rhodes called the question one of those where the answer is “we’re doing good, but we can do better.”
Related: School board, activist groups work to establish racial equity in Conejo Valley
Bagdasaryan disagreed with him and said the district could do a lot better.
“When you have the California Department of Education saying that 30 to about 40% of our minority students have experienced bullying based on racism, that tells me they don’t feel included,” she said.
She explained the district could take on evidence-based practices when it comes to inclusivity.
School resource officers
Bagdasaryan also brought it back to the question about school resource officers. The question from the moderator asked whether reduced funding for the Simi Valley Police Department impact the safety of schools.
In Simi Valley, the police department directly funds the school officers.
Bagdasaryan said she didn’t believe there would be an impact.
She suggested looking at a future Simi Valley Police Department budget to identify funds that could be used toward “prevention.”
“If we can prevent crime with certain social services or school-based services … then that’ll actually make our communities safer,” she said.
Bonesteel disagreed and called the SROs a “necessity.” He said school was the time to integrate officers and allow students to be comfortable with them.
“We need more. We don’t need less,” he said. “I know three or four Simi Valley officers just from growing up. I mean, this is what makes Simi Valley ‘Simi Valley.'”
Past: Ventura Unified to take closer look at school resource officer program
Rhodes agreed with Bonesteel. He said the more positive interactions students got with officers, the safer the community would be.
He said that if the police department couldn’t fund them, the school district should do so through its own budget.
“What my opponent said really speaks to the privilege of those who can see those officers as friends,” Bagdasaryan said. “For the children of color that I am aware of, and granted anecdotal … they don’t see that police officer in the same way.”
Ballots: Most Ventura County voters will receive their ballots the week of Oct. 5. If not received by Oct. 16, voters should contact the elections office and request a second ballot be mailed.
Deadline to register: Online by Oct. 19 and in-person only Oct. 20 to Nov. 3.
When to vote: Mail in ballots by Election Day or vote in person Oct. 31-Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 47 polling stations. Nov. 3 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
To check registration: voterstatus.sos.ca.gov
Find out more:venturavote.org.
For coverage of Ventura County races and issues: www.vcstar.com/election
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