ON THE SURFACE, THE TWO candidates running for superintendent of schools March 5 are nearly indistinguishable. With identical views on policy questions, the candidates are making experience the focal point of the campaign -- and both have served in Humboldt County's education system for decades.
But look closer at their resumes and differences that distinguish Carl Del Grande from Garry Eagles begin to appear. Eagles has spent most of his professional career in the county's Office of Education as an assistant superintendent and knows the job of schools chief as only one who has seen it up close can. Del Grande has moved around the county from district to district, accruing on-the-ground experience both as a teacher and an administrator.
That time spent in the field has not been without hazards for Del Grande. Last March he lost his job as superintendent of Ferndale Unified School District in a scrap with the school board.
First the school board voted not to renew his contract. Then the panel went to the trouble and expense of putting Del Grande on administrative leave and hiring an interim superintendent rather than letting him serve out the remaining four and a half months on his contract.
Del Grande responded by suing the district, charging the board had violated the Brown Act when firing him. (One board member was attending by telephone, which had not been noted on the agenda.) The two parties eventually settled and the district paid Del Grande $65,000.
Board members never explained why Del Grande was being hustled out, saying it was a personnel issue. Del Grande would say only that he "resigned in August to focus full time on becoming the Humboldt County superintendent [of schools]."
Eagles has refrained from making the event in Ferndale an issue, but it can't be for lack of knowledge. As part of his job at the Office of Education, Eagles helped select Del Grande's interim replacement.
Both candidates have been taking the high road in this campaign. Ask either candidate why he would make the better superintendent, and you will only hear lengthy descriptions of their own experience and vision -- no trash-talking.
What about that vision? Both identified funding as the biggest challenge facing county schools and both suggested that more teamwork between districts would be required to make ends meet. Their agreement on policy is almost eerily specific: School districts should pool transportation services, some administration and possibly fine arts instruction.
Both identified a statewide education policy that favors urban areas as the culprit for the funding crisis, saying -- and this a quote from both -- the "one-size-fits-all" thinking had to be changed. Both said they would try to lobby in Sacramento for more money for rural schools.
Where does the Humboldt County Office of Education need to place more emphasis? "Vocational education," comes the chorus from both camps. How will the president's new education plan affect Humboldt's schools? Very little, said both.
Those looking for a major policy difference between the two are likely to find only one: their attitude toward the new statewide high school exit exam.
Del Grande is firmly in favor of the exam, saying that "California taxpayers have invested an incredible amount of money into the educational system and want to know their students have minimum proficiencies." The development of statewide standards and tests will help assure Californians that their high school grads are up to snuff.
Eagles said he supports an exit test for high schools but thinks the current test is flawed. "The math requirements are at a 7th grade level plus algebra; the English required is at a freshman level. That is not a high school exit exam to me." The test Eagles would like to see would be both more difficult and less binding. Students who fail should still be able to get a diploma at the district's discretion, he added.
Voters looking for an ideological hook on which to hang their support should be wary of the exit exam issue. The area where the two candidates are taking their clearest stands is also one in which they will have precious little say. The job of superintendent is mostly an administrative one. They can advise lawmakers, but they cannot vote on the education legislation that mandates policies like the exit exam.
So the race really does come down to one word: experience. And that's where they are campaigning hard. Del Grande is even trumpeting his heritage as a qualification. He likes to remind potential voters that he's the only candidate "with five generations of history" in Humboldt County. He's counting on his career on the front lines to pull him through.
"I'm the candidate who has supervised the high school athletic event and then chaperoned the dance afterwards," Del Grande said.
Eagles is stressing the support of people he's worked for and with as proof of his successful job performance over the last 17 years. There are 32 superintendents of schools throughout the county and 28 of them are endorsing Eagles. Even Louis Bucher, outgoing superintendent and Eagles' boss, has thrown his support behind the assistant superintendent.
"I think he's a capable administrator. His leadership would enable the transition to be very smooth," Bucher said
But even Bucher had to admit it: The two candidates are long on experience.
"Both have the credentials," Bucher said.
School Bonds: Measure S and Measure T
NO ONE QUESTIONS THE FACT THAT EUREKA'S schools need help. The 13 elementary schools were built over 45 years ago; Eureka High's main building is 75 years old. The last time the residents passed a school bond it was to pay for the two middle schools and that was 37 years ago. But no one likes the idea of paying more taxes, so supporters of Measure S and Measure T are mounting an aggressive campaign.
If passed, the two bond issues will supply $43 million for a number of upgrades and repair projects. The bonds will also make the district eligible for $16.5 million in matching state funds -- providing the voters pass a statewide bond in November or in some subsequent year.
A cursory look at the school facilities shows obvious needs. Support beams for the Zane Middle School breezeways are rotting; one section has collapsed. [See photo above] Roofs are leaking at a number of schools.
The buildings were built before current standards for earthquake safety, before the Americans with Disabilities Act and before computers were invented. Many classrooms have only one or two electric outlets so extension chords and power-strips run every which way to power computers.
According to Eureka City Schools Superintendent Jim Scott, money from the multimillion dollar bonds will not be enough to fix all the districts infrastructure problems. "But at least it's a start."
Essentially, the bonds are loans repaid by the districts' property owners over the course of 38 years. According to figures supplied by Eureka City Schools, that amounts to around $53.80 a year for the average homeowner, someone whose property is worth $78,732.
The amount will be less for those who live in South Bay, Cutten, Freshwater, Garfield and Kneeland. Those voters are in elementary school districts outside the boundaries of Eureka City Schools that feed the high school and middle schools. They will only vote on -- and be obligated to pay for -- Measure S.
Scott feels confident that the measures will pass, in part because the committee decided to use provisions of Proposition 39, which shifts the two-thirds majority required for passage down to 55 percent. In exchange, Proposition 39 bonds require a citizens oversight committee and two annual audits.
So who is against S and T? At press time the Humboldt Taxpayer's League had not taken an official position, but it has been a topic of discussion at recent meetings and it was set for a vote by its members on Wednesday, Feb. 13.
Howard Rien, a former executive director of the league, emphasizes that he speaks for himself and not the organization.
"I know that the schools need a lot of maintenance work, but there are things that really disturb me about this measure," he said. "One thing is the fact that the brokerage firm that will be handling the bonds, Salomon Smith Barney, has contributed $25,000 in support of the measures."
So far that "fact" is a rumor, as is another that has the Humboldt Area Foundation contributing $18,000 to the campaign. The "Kids First" committee handling the campaign for S and T has only raised $8,550 so far, according to Tim Cochrane, finance committee chair.
There have been a number of $100 donations, said Cochrane. "We have one large one, $7,500 from California Financial Services of Santa Rosa, a company that provides financial consulting services to school districts and other government entities."
Mark Epstein, managing director and co-owner of California Financial Services, said his firm has provided the Eureka district with consulting services regarding the bonds. CFS is also involved in six other bonds on the March ballot around the state.
According to Epstein it's routine for "those who are stakeholders in the outcome," like engineers, architects and financial advisors, to contribute to bond campaigns.
"And if the bond wins we will be the financial advisor and assist the district in selling the bonds," said Epstein. "Salomon Smith Barney is the underwriter; typically they would be large contributors."
(The local Saloman Smith Barney office referred media inquiries to its New York headquarters. A spokesperson there said no decision had been made regarding donations as of press time.)
Rien has two other general complaints against bond effort. One, that the "Kids First" committee has hired Eureka Councilmember Chris Kerrigan as a consultant for $10,000. (Cochrane said everyone on the committee has full-time jobs and they need someone to coordinate the bond campaign.) And Rien is concerned that the 38-year bond will be used for some projects that will only last for 20 years. Scott concedes that it is true, but unfortunately the district has no other choice.
"School budgets were not designed to do major capital improvements," said Scott. "We do maintenance and our staff does a good job with what we have, but what we have are a bunch of old buildings. And they're getting older and older. We have to bring them up to contemporary standards as best we can with the resources we generate from the bond. It won't solve all our problems, but we have to start somewhere."
What if it doesn't pass?
"We'll pursue every nickel that we can possibly find knowing that we'll never catch up and be on a level playing field. We'll continue to devote as much money as we can to ongoing maintenance. Then we'll come back to the community and ask again."
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