School Board Leaders Are Ready for Change

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By Rita Robinson | LB Indy

Both outgoing Laguna Beach Unified School District board members leave feeling satisfied as well as some heart pangs after multiple terms of service. But neither is going far, they said.

Betsy Jenkins
Betsy Jenkins

Betsy Jenkins was elected in 2002 and served three four-year terms. Theresa O’Hare was elected in 2004 and served two four-year terms. They both decided not to seek re-election, saying change is healthy and they’re ready to focus on other things, mostly close to home.

“I’m happy with the way I’m leaving it,” said Jenkins. “Twelve years is long enough.”

“I gave it my all for eight years,” added O’Hare. “It’s time for somebody else to come in and start fresh. I didn’t want to become a lifer. You’re never quite finished, you just have to stop.”

During their tenure, the district went through several upheavals, including hiring a new superintendent, seeing several top administrators leave and the city’s adoption of a social host ordinance, which gives police the ability to fine adults for hosting parties where underage drinking and illegal drug use is taking place.

The turn-overs in administrators left some community members disgruntled, admitted Jenkins. “And that happens. I’ve certainly listened and I’ve certainly learned. It’s part of the process,” she said.

Laguna Beach has ranked No. 1 for underage alcohol and drug abuse among Orange County cities, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey. Both outgoing board members agree that the social host ordinance is heading in the right direction. As for the reason for the high ranking, “It’s anybody’s guess,” O’Hare said.

“I see it as just one little positive step in trying to keep our kids safer,” said Jenkins. “I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all. I think it helps in trying to get parents to see the dangers.”

An antidote, Jenkins and O’Hare agree, is making sure there are adults, particularly at the schools, with whom students can confide. “Sometimes kids make some bad choices; sometimes life and death choices,” said O’Hare.

Theresa O'Hare
Theresa O’Hare

If teenagers opt to get drunk or high in parks or on beaches, citations and arrests are possible. “We’re trying to avoid that and give them a better, healthy choice to be mentored,” O’Hare continued. “If they have a connection with an adult, a person they can go and talk to about a problem, that can save a life.” Having an adult to turn to, said Jenkins, is key to avoiding a life-long addiction. “We have a lot of caring people in this district who want to help,” said O’Hare.

As members of the Laguna Beach Community Coalition, a group of parents and community members working to provide prevention and intervention strategies for alcohol and substance abuse, Jenkins and O’Hare said the word is out that underage drinking and drug use is not okay.

“Having two sons myself, I know it’s not easy to keep them from totally abstaining,” Jenkins said. “But we can keep usage down and eliminate it as much as possible with things like the social host ordinance. A lot of people I know really well don’t like it.” But the results of underage drinking and drug use can be devastating and, so, she said she supports anything the community can do to abate that.

Both outgoing members feel they’re leaving the district fiscally sound.

As a result of a downturn in home values, the Orange County bankruptcy and a fire that destroyed 400 homes and removed them from property tax rolls, the school district found itself in fiscal difficulty in the ‘90s. Laguna Beach voters enacted a $39-million bond measure in 2001 that bolstered school finances and allowed for districtwide improvements.

As part of their tenure, O’Hare and Jenkins said they promised voters to save enough money to cover emergencies and keep facilities up-to-date, never needing to be bailed out again.

“We’ve all been good stewards and saved for the future, just like we promised the voters,” O’Hare said. “It all starts with the money.”

Jenkins agreed that the money has been spent well. “I love the way our campuses look,” she said. “I’m filled with pride. We promised the community we would keep them in good shape.”

The district is also revamping teaching standards to comply with state-mandated curriculum changes. Some critics of the new standards voice fear that arts and literature will be overshadowed by emphasis on technology and text writing. Both Jenkins and O’Hare supported expansion of music and arts in the schools and cited the new strings program in the elementary schools that will be continued through the middle and high schools.

“I think we’re in a good position,” commented O’Hare. “It’s kind of like turning the Titanic around with changes like this. I have a lot of empathy for the teachers. It seems like we’re dropping everything and starting over but we’re not.”

As a member of the Pacific Symphony’s Board of Counselors, Jenkins said she would like to start the Class Act elementary school program again with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts orchestra. The program brought in a Pacific Symphony musician several times a year to the elementary schools to talk about his or her instrument and give pointers on how to play it well. The program culminated with a trip to hear the symphony play at the Segerstrom Center.

O’Hare will continue to volunteer for theater productions at the high school. “I’ve worked on all of the shows,” she said, “planning them, getting volunteers, selling tickets, doing sandwich boards, bringing the plays to the other schools. I even curl hair. I love that.”

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