Quick Take:

Sixteen candidates are running for nine seats in five school districts across Santa Cruz County. Lookout sent questionnaires to all of them asking about the most pressing issues facing their schools. Here, we take a look at San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District.

Election 2022: Santa Cruz County

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Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, Lookout is diving deep into school district races around Santa Cruz County with a three-part series exploring the biggest issues in education, school board candidates and bond measures.

On Monday, we launched the second installment: school board candidates, starting with the Scotts Valley Unified School District. (You can find Part 3, an analysis of Santa Cruz City Schools’ ballot measure K and L, here.) Here we look at the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District.

Voters must pick from two candidates to fill one open seat in the district — Trustee Area 4. Voters will choose between incumbent Gail Levine, a former principal and superintendent, and Ryan Lipert, who works in the oil, gas and real estate industries.

Students, parents and administrators previously told Lookout that their top issues are teacher pay and retention, equity, mental health, declining enrollment and learning loss from the pandemic.

We asked the candidates how they would approach each issue. Here are the highlights from their answers. Their full responses, edited for length and clarity, are also included below:

1. Increasing teacher pay

Main takeaways: On this point, the candidates agree on most everything, differing only slightly in their approach. Both candidates emphasize that retaining high-quality teachers with competitive pay will be their top priority if elected, especially when facing wealthier surrounding districts that can offer higher salaries to lure qualified teachers.

As solutions, both candidates offer creative budgeting practices and appealing for state funding. Lipert adds that he wants officials to seriously consider using district lands to build affordable teacher housing and offer programs that help teachers purchase homes.

2. Addressing student mental health challenges

Main takeaways: While the candidates agree that student mental health is important, their conclusions about how to address the issues differ. Levine argues that previous federal funding to hire more student health counselors has already made a difference. Lipert, on the other hand, argues for increasing parent-administration partnerships as well as greater investment in social and emotional learning programs.

3. Closing the student achievement gap that widened during the pandemic

Main takeaways: Candidates are divided on how to close the achievement gap. Levine says that trained personnel are already working with students, but didn’t offer more detailed solutions. Lipert argues that high-quality tutoring is key, as well as after-school and summer programs.

4. Reversing declining student enrollment

Main takeaways: Candidates agree that declining enrollment is a concern, but differ in their opinion on the urgency of reversing the trend. Levine said, “This cycle is normal and over time corrects itself.” Lipert said, “We must do everything in our power to correct it.” Neither candidate offers solutions, though Lipert points to the need for high-quality education.

5. Tackling equity and inclusion issues

Main takeaways: Candidates agree on the importance of this issue, but offer different solutions. Levine says that faculty and staff visited the Museum of Tolerance and those meetings helped inform the district’s approach to equity issues. Lipert advocates for programs that foster connections among students from different backgrounds, such as sports, theater, music and 4H clubs.

6. Discussing other issues that concern them

Main takeaways: Levine mentions several issues of concern, including book banning, which she says is not happening in the district but is a trend elsewhere that deserves attention. Lipert emphasizes increasing parental involvement.

Full questions and answers are below (edited for length and clarity):

1. How important is it to your district to pay teachers and staff competitive salaries compared to other higher paying districts? How do you propose increasing pay?

Gail Levine: Paying teachers and staff competitive salaries is foremost on the agenda for the board. Our goal is to attract and retain the most qualified employees who will continue to remain in our community. Over the years we have worked diligently to address this issue. We continue to be mindful of salaries in the surrounding districts and work on achieving the goal of raising salaries. Of course, we must be creative with the budget and look into future state allocations.

Ryan Lipert: High-quality teachers are one of the most important factors in ensuring that our students receive the best education possible. We simply can’t lose our best teachers to higher paying private schools and districts if we want our students to succeed. If elected, increasing pay and benefits for teachers will be a top priority.

It starts by making sure we are wisely spending the money we already have. We need to take a hard look at administrative and overhead expenses to see how we can allocate more money to the things that directly result in improving educational outcomes for our students.

Additionally, as district performance improves and funding increases, our teachers need to be first in line for sharing in that increase to help create a virtuous cycle. Other things to examine would be advocating at higher levels of government for increases in district funding and, as a last resort, proposing increases in taxes.

There is an opportunity to look at new and creative solutions, as well. Given the high cost of living in our county making it difficult to retain teachers, I would want to seriously consider the possibility of using district land to build affordable teacher housing and promote initiatives like the Landed program that help teachers with buying homes.

2. Do you think there are enough mental health resources in your district? If not, how would you change or add to them? If you do think there are enough resources, have the recent additions of more mental health counselors had a positive impact?

Gail Levine: The federal government provided funds to support the district’s efforts in these areas. These funds are helpful as we tackle them. This is a revolving door as the mental health needs are surfacing in our schools. The family dynamics are complicated and one size doesn’t fit [all], nor is there a quick fix for all students. We continue to recruit qualified counselors to work in our schools.

The district has continued to address providing sufficient mental health counselors. We recognized the need for additional support personnel with the onset of COVID, closing schools and addressing physical and mental needs of students and staff. We brought in personnel from a variety of sources who were prepared to respond to our needs and to explore how to fit our needs over time. We reach out to a variety of resources as the need arises, as well as anticipating future needs.

Ryan Lipert: Prior to COVID, student mental health was already suffering. Add to that a worldwide pandemic and nearly two years of remote learning, which increased anxiety and depression levels to an all-time high. We need to partner with parents in being more aware of their students’ mental health and, as a district, provide students with as much mental health support as we can. Social and emotional learning initiatives have definitely helped give our students valuable skills and techniques for dealing with mental health challenges, therefore we need to keep investing in these programs. However we also need to recognize that there is no substitute for strong parent and health care provider involvement.

3. Do schools have enough resources to address learning loss caused by the pandemic? If not, what do you propose for your school district to close the learning loss gap?

Gail Levine: Schools need partners in addressing these issues. We have trained personnel working with the students during school as well as in our after school programs. This learning loss can be rectified by carefully identifying the pieces [of] the puzzle and one by one putting them in their places. It is essential to include the adults in our students’ lives and other members of the “village.”

Ryan Lipert: We must find the resources needed to help our students catch up from the learning loss created by remote learning. Otherwise, these issues will compound and drag our district performance down, resulting in declining test scores, enrollment and funding.

We need more one-on-one, targeted, and specific tutoring for all students testing behind in reading, writing, or mathematics. We should prioritize the cohorts who were already struggling prior to the pandemic, including those of lower socioeconomic status and those with learning disabilities. Providing easier access to IEPs [individualized education programs, which are special accommodations for students] is another opportunity to help students with learning disabilities catch up. Lastly, after-school learning programs and summer school have proven cost efficient and effective for catching students back up.

4. How do you plan to address declining enrollment?

Gail Levine: We identified declining enrollment several years ago. Enrollment in elementary schools is increasing, while secondary schools are decreasing. Wildfires impacted this decline as families lost their homes and moved out of the area. This cycle is normal and over time corrects itself. In future planning these factors are considered. Funds are moved, decreases in staff occur, as well as spending is reduced in other areas.

Ryan Lipert: We need to refocus on the things that matter and do everything in our power to offer the highest-quality education in order to prevent students from leaving the district. I have talked to numerous parents who have put their kids in private schools or home school because of the declining quality of education. At the end of the day, students and parents are our customers and if we are losing customers, we need to understand the issues. We must do everything in our power to correct it, even if it requires some accommodations. If students and parents feel supported and successful, they will stay. The painful reality is that losing students results in funding loss, creating a downward spiral we cannot afford to fall into.

5. Do you think schools address diversity, equity and inclusion issues adequately? If not, what else should be done in your district to address equity issues?

Gail Levine: A group of faculty, and staff visited the Museum of Tolerance. During this visit, personnel from the museum facilitated discussions. Meetings to examine diversity and equity issues in our district were an outgrowth of this trip. These topics continue on Professional Development Days, department meetings, and other appropriate times. Reading materials have been distributed to support dialogue with personnel.

Ryan Lipert: The data is showing that of all the harm that was done during the pandemic, students with learning disabilities and lower socioeconomic status were hurt the most. To the extent that we want to help all of our students catch up on lost learning, we need to focus a large part of our efforts on these populations. We also need to make sure all of our students, regardless of race, status, orientation or religion feel welcome and safe at school so they can focus on doing their best. I am a big fan of programs that promote connections across different religions, races and social backgrounds. In these programs, students can focus on what they have in common, while still celebrating their differences. Athletics have proven to be great forums for these types of connections, therefore I would continue to promote them, as well as other common interest groups, including clubs and extracurriculars, such as 4H, theater and music, just to name a few.

6. What other issue most concerns you and what would you do about it?

Gail Levine: Book banning, difficult dialogue, room for different identities. These are not present in the district, however they do exist in the world, and we must be mindful of them.

Ryan Lipert: We desperately need our parents involved. We need to listen to their concerns and do everything in our power to partner with them in providing the best possible education for their children. The challenges we face as a district can’t be solved by the district alone. It takes the whole community coming together to support our students to ensure the highest-quality education possible.

Follow Blaire Hobbs on: LinkedIn. Blaire Hobbs (she/her) joins Lookout Santa Cruz after three years of working in the field of misinformation and media literacy. As a student at UCSC, Blaire worked as...