Candidates launch race for 2020 Laguna Beach school board election

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Laguna Beach voters will be asked Nov. 3. to select two trustees from a slate of candidates for the Laguna Beach Unified School District’s Board of Education.

The election is expected to be a referendum on how the school board has managed the local response to the pandemic. A decision to follow state guidance and resume distance learning on Aug. 24 has received a mixed reaction from parents, according to school district-sponsored surveys.

The race is also energized this year following Board President Peggy Wolff’s announcement that she would not seek election this year, removing an incumbent advantage from one of the trustee seats.

Here’s what the Independent learned about the candidates for school board.

Amy Kramer

Amy Kramer, a 25-year Laguna Beach resident and parent of three children, has added her name to the slate of school board candidates. Her youngest will be entering eighth grade at Thurston Middle School this year.

“We are so fortunate to live in Laguna Beach,” Kramer wrote in a press release. “Laguna Beach schools have the superpower of amazing teachers, committed students, and dedicated parents who all want the best outcomes.” 

Throughout her children’s school years, Kramer has continuously volunteered for Laguna Beach schools serving on public relations and marketing committees, volunteering for PTA events, and helping with class fundraising. She has also volunteered for SchoolPower in executive roles, helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit all four Laguna Beach district schools.

Kramer recently worked with local community members, parents, and students to re-instate the Honors Grade weighting policy. Kramer said she believes that students should have every opportunity to excel, take academic risks, and achieve their goals.

She has decided to run for school board as an advocate for students, parents, teachers, and community members. If elected, Kramer is committed to providing open communication, transparent accountability, and governance through positive leadership. 

Kramer pledged to seek cooperation, not conflict, by listening and giving a voice to students, teachers, and parents. She’ll prioritize increased transparency by live streaming board meetings, providing budgetary updates to the public, and allowing open access to task force committees.

Howard Hills

Diplomat and former Navy JAG attorney Howard Hills is hoping his third attempt at running for school board will be the charm. He fell short in a 2016 bid and then attempted a long-shot campaign as a write-in candidate in 2018.

In 1969, Hills led a successful campaign by Laguna Beach High students supporting a school bond approved by voters. After college and law school, Howard served with the Peace Corps in Micronesia. His years of experience working on treaties with the Pacific Island nation prompted an invitation earlier this year to serve as a special adviser to the Office of Insular Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In recent years, Hills has been a fixture at school board members as a critic of the prevailing school board majority. He hopes to root out a relationship between board members and administrators built on “political codependence and defensiveness toward the community.” 

“Even before the current public health emergency, and certainly now more than ever, we need to restore more open, inclusive, user-friendly School Board governance process for public, teachers, students, parents, [and] taxpayers,” Hills wrote in a statement.

One way to do that might include Board sponsorship of a ballot initiative asking if the voters and community want to increase public participation in governance by limiting board members to a specific number of four-year terms.

Hill also believes the Board of Education needs a culture change.

“Even Board members who may not understand my advocacy record will find that if elected I will help Board avoid mistakes, divisive politics, unneeded controversy and wasteful legal disputes that can be easily prevented if we have the confidence to exercise mature judgment in school governance,” Hills wrote.

Lastly, Hills wants to ensure that as long as pandemic continues and even during distance learning, taxpayer-funded school resources should be used safely to support community, address isolation, promote resiliency for teachers, students, parents, and classified employees. He suggests pandemic safety training, counseling, emergency food and medical support for teachers, parents, students, and caregivers.

“Until workplace safety standards have been established for this pandemic, no teacher, classified employee, student, parent, or other person can or should be coerced to be present at a school site or penalized for declining to do so,” Hills wrote.

Sheri Morgan

Sheri Morgan, a 28-year Laguna Beach resident and longtime watchdog of the Laguna Beach Unified School District, has placed her name on the November ballot. The mother of four children, is a committee member of the District, Thurston Middle School and Top of the World  Local Control Accountability Plan. Additionally, Morgan has served as the advocacy chair for TOW and Thurston PTAs, a member of the LBHS Student Grant Committee, a Girl scout leader and a co-founder of Sports Swap. 

“If elected, working to improve transparency thru communication channels and policy reform is necessary,” Morgan wrote in a statement. “Many stakeholders expressed confusion and dissatisfaction with implemented District Trimesters or Virtual academy offerings creating frustration with the lack of information and transparency.”

Morgan added that families’ struggles for alternative solutions to supplement or replace district offerings demonstrates the Basic Aid school district’s failure to serve the community well.

“Returning power to the Board through policy changes improves inclusivity of stakeholders thru the decision-making process and will strengthen the Board’s role in accountability, oversight, balance of power and fiscal responsibility,” Morgan wrote.

As an example, legal fees have tripled in recent years yet only the Superintendent and Board President, per policy, can seek legal counsel or have total knowledge of litigation cases, Morgan writes.

Morgan also supports strengthening bonds with students, teachers, staff and local businesses by hosting opportunities for collaboration, community discussion, and town hall scenarios.

“[These] will allow an open exchange of thoughts and ideas in an unbiased, inclusive environment thereby allowing our schools to be a more valued and integrated part of the community,” Morgan wrote.

Finally, she supports a policy for board members’ term limits to allow fresh ideas from current and involved community members.

“Historical support is important, but education evolves and so should we,” she writes.

Kelly Osborne

Laguna Beach parent and volunteer Kelly Osborne has spent the past six years as a volunteer for Laguna Beach schools, serving as president of both Top of the World Elementary PTA and Laguna Beach PTA Council, which oversees PTAs in all schools. She also volunteers in the school gardens, organizing over 50 volunteers each year, and has raised funds for the schools through both PTA and SchoolPower.

Osborne has worked as a credentialed teacher, preschool director, K-12 substitute teacher, outdoor educator, and curriculum consultant. She has a Masters of Education, with a specialization in e-learning and Bachelor’s degrees in Human Development and Management Science from UC San Diego.

Osborne said addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19 is her top priority and will lean on her deep understanding of what families and students are going through, as the mother of a fifth and seventh-grader.

“I hear from kids, families, teachers, administrators, and community members every day,” she said. “I have been in classrooms, alongside teachers, parents and students, each day for the last six years It’s this experience, combined with data and facts, that helps me view the issue from so many lenses.”

Osborne describes herself as a problem-solver, not a problem-maker, and if elected, she pledged to approach COVID-related challenges with energy, empathy, and optimism.

“My goals include continuous student success, even in the face of distance learning; advancing green schools; and addressing social intolerance,” she wrote. “I have a proven track record of public trust from within the school community-at-large, and positive collaboration with our school district.”

Jan Vickers

Board member Jan Vickers is looking to add another term to her school board tenure, which stretches back to 2000. Vickers first ran for office after the closure of Aliso Elementary in 1981. Her oldest son had been a student there and finished as a six grader at Top of the World Elementary.

Vickers was among the board members who made the difficult decision in March to close Laguna Beach schools at the outset of the pandemic. With campuses still closed to students at the start of the 2020-21 school year, Vickers said she and her colleagues are focus on how LBUSD delivers instruction and support services for all grades.  

“There are so many unknowns with the pandemic and when the board understood in March that we had to close the schools it was to be for four weeks feeling sure that would be enough. Who could have known?” Vickers wrote in a statement. “Through this coming winter and into spring as one board member I pledge the resources needed to adapt to alternate methods of what school is and hopefully that will include return to in-person school.”

If re-elected she plans to continue her commitment to the district’s financial strength and stability. She notes that the Business Department provides monthly budget updates that are available to the public, a publicly-available annual audit, and detailed narratives with each. 

Vickers notes that the district’s cash reserves are strong and help fund the commitment to facilities repair and replacement as promised to the voters who approved Measure R allowing large capital improvement projects based on an annually-reviewed 10-year plan—such as the long-awaited concession, restroom, and storage building at the high school field.

Vickers also advocates for a return of common courtesy. For years, the school district has focused on helping students learn how to be kind and caring and has seen progress in that mindset. 

“Our students treat each other well and treat their teachers with respect,” Vickers wrote. “In the last few years, the board and district leadership have not experienced the same attitude from some of the parents/community members.  This is counterproductive to working together.  The cornerstone for showing our students how we can work together is to be able to respectfully disagree while understanding that having a difference of opinion is not a negative—it is just human nature based on different backgrounds and cultural habits.  We can do better.”

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