First published in the Oct. 6 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
The four candidates vying for three upcoming open seats on the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board gathered Monday to discuss issues that are on the minds of community members.
Incumbents Dan Jeffries and Joe Radabaugh and fellow candidates Octavia Thuss and Debra Barsom made their pitches to the audience and answered questions submitted by those present for the forum held at the La Cañada High School auditorium. La Cañada Flintridge residents will elect three school board members in the general election on Nov. 8.
Over the course of about 100 minutes of civil discussion, the candidates, all of whom are LCUSD parents, shared similar sentiments and answers but at times found ways to distinguish themselves on several issues.
One of the talking points was about critical race theory — a decades-old academic movement that examines the dynamics of how race and racism are expressed through socially constructed institutions, especially law — and whether it is present in LCUSD classrooms.
Critical race theory, or CRT, has been a hot button issue throughout the nation the past few years, and the discussion made its way into La Cañada Flintridge when the school district began developing a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative three years ago. Some LCF residents have hurled accusations at educators for allegedly attempting to implement the high-academic concept into elementary and high school classrooms, but the district assured stakeholders that teachers adhere to state standards, which do not include CRT.
All candidates agreed that the college-level concept of CRT is not suitable for K-12 students and has no place in La Cañada, but Barsom went further by saying that the idea of “trying to separate and divide children versus bringing them together is a bad idea.”
“Our goal should be to bring people together, and I think our district has been working very hard at that, and we should continue those efforts,” she added. “The board of our school district needs to have guardrails in place to make sure that CRT is not being taught in all of the curriculum.”
Related to the CRT topic were questions of curriculum and reading materials that parents may not agree with, and Jeffries, currently the school board president, used his time to inform the community of the district’s process in determining which grade levels can access them. He explained that materials are vetted against a national database, which has experts who review each book and determine the age appropriateness. And when it comes to proposed textbooks, the board reviews the material and gives the community an opportunity to provide feedback before deciding whether it can be implemented into the curriculum.
Radabaugh, currently the board vice president, added that there are mechanisms in place for families to opt out of content and not allow their child to check out a specific book.
“There are tools in place, but what I believe in is awareness and choice,” Radabaugh said.
Barsom, an attorney, believes that the elementary school parents seem to be expressing more concern over the issue of student access to classroom materials and that there needs to be more conversations between teachers and parents.
“Rebuilding trust and having respectful conversations is key to this issue,” she said. “Parents need to be involved and be able to review curriculum and know what’s coming up so they can help make good decisions.”
Thuss noted that LCUSD officials have been attentive to stakeholders’ concerns and shown a willingness to work with them on resolving issues involving content.
“I think what’s really important to note that within the last year, sexual education curriculum came under the microscope and LCUSD was very responsive,” Thuss said. “And it changed. I think that says that La Cañada is listening and responsive. I understand that there’s a desire for choice, and I think we can make great ground for that in offering olive branches to our families who might think differently from perhaps the majority.”
Communication being key was an answer again shared by the candidates when asked about educating families about gender identities. They also agreed that how students identify themselves should be respected but were unsure how the topic could be formally addressed to parents and children. Thuss said that the district’s goals should be to “provide an inclusive [environment] and sense of belonging,” a notion that Jeffries strongly agreed with.
“Whether they’re binary or non-binary, whether they’re transgender or cisgender, whatever type of children we have, whatever type of students we have on our campuses, it’s extremely important that we support all of them and we all make sure that they all feel safe and welcome and that this is an environment they can thrive and succeed in,” Jeffries said.
With students reportedly still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, one community member asked what LCUSD could do to improve the mental health of children while still performing at a high level academically.
Each candidate commended the district’s efforts to address the students’ mental health as well as La Cañada Elementary Principal Emily Blaney for piloting a wellness room known as “the spot” at her site, and they want to keep that momentum going.
Jeffries said services offered by the district, especially at the high school, are “starting to change the dynamics of what our kids think. It’s no longer a stigma to get help for mental health issues. It’s OK for our kids to go to the wellness center. It’s OK for them to get a break. It’s OK for them to get help.”
Radabaugh said that more is being considered to help students, such as reducing homework and coordinating with all departments when scheduling exams.
Thuss said a major boost to students’ morale are extracurricular activities, and she believes that the district should invest more in them.
“Our extracurriculars are the ones we must continue to fund,” Thuss said. “They are part of a mental health program. These programs give kids confidence, they give kids community, and they give kids hope, and I believe that that would just be a wonderful path to take in addition to wellness centers and the spot.”
Barsom was thankful that the district added an opt-in process for parents regarding the LCE wellness room, giving them some control over their children in accessing the site.
“So that’s, I think, a very important step to have the families give input,” Barsom said.
Another topic that came up in a few questions was Measure LCF, a $149 million general obligation bond that voters passed in 2017 that is funding repairs and modernizations of LCUSD schools, and the possibility of another bond to fund future projects.
The candidates supported the idea of developing another bond and concurred that it should only be considered if the community favors it. They did, however, express concern over rising costs as a result of inflation and labor shortages.
Barsom was most vocal about the district’s use of Measure LCF funds, saying “there have been significant cost overruns.”
“If we’re going to float another bond, we need to think about, ‘Can we plan better at the beginning so that we have a better sense of where our dollars are going to go and how they’re going to go?’” she added. “Let’s learn from the past so we can do a better job.”
As current board members, Jeffries and Radabaugh defended the district’s recent projects and clarified that they are not significantly overbudget but agreed with Barsom’s point of learning from the current construction at school sites.
“As we go project by project, are there scope changes and revisions? Yes, but overall, we’ve been very good stewards of the money,” Radabaugh said. “We are making choices along the way. We are deciding to reallocate and reprioritize. The bond project overall is not overspent. We are being very careful, and yes, we could have made some adjustments and learn from certain projects, forecast a little better, but I’m very pleased with where we are.”
The fentanyl drug crisis was also addressed at the forum. Earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration warned the public of the highly potent opioid and stated that it is “the deadliest drug threat facing this country” with 66% of drug overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
“I am a prosecutor with 35 years of experience, and fentanyl is probably the most scary thing I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Jeffries, who advocated for community-wide support for drug awareness programs.
The other candidates agreed that the district needs to work with community groups to better inform parents and children about the dangers of fentanyl.
“This idea of one pill can kill, I think we need to continue our efforts to inform students of that fact,” Barsom said. “I think we need to do a better job of involving the parents in training and listening sessions.”
Thuss said LCUSD needs to be proactive and not reactive to the issue and work with the private schools in informing students. She also agreed with Radabaugh that naloxone, a potentially life-saving medication with the brand name Narcan that can reverse an overdose from opioids, should be available for parents and school resource officers at each school site.
One resident spoke out against campaign contributions from outside of California and questioned Thuss about her donors. The candidates informed the audience that they are required by law to report all contributions to Los Angeles County and thanked everyone for their contributions.
Radabaugh managed to shed light on the topic, saying that his friend from Illinois donated $50 to his campaign. “So, I guess I’m guilty of someone out of state donating to my campaign. But that’s what happens sometimes, especially in local school board races — it’s your friends, it’s your families, the folks that believe in you.”
The candidate forum was hosted by the La Cañada Council PTA along with the Pasadena League of Women Voters and moderated by LWV member Veronica Jones. A video of the event can be viewed on the PTA Council website at home.lacanadapta.org.