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Ready, Set, Vote

HOW SATISFIED ARE YOU WITH THE PEOPLE WHO RUN your school? Fairly satisfied, apparently. In 30 elementary districts throughout the county, most incumbents have already been re-elected because no one filed to run against them. And the incumbents for all six seats on the county board of education are running uncontested as well.

Voters may also be satisfied with the status quo on the governing board of College of the Redwoods. However, all four incumbents have to face challengers in their districts next Tuesday. In the voters pamphlet, Katherine Queen-Ziemer, executive director of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, challenging financial adviser Bruce Emad for Trustee Area No. 5, charges that the community college should focus more attention on vocational education which she says is just as important as preparing students to transfer to four-year colleges.

But by far the most contentious school races to be decided next week are the Fortuna and the Northern Humboldt high school districts. The turmoil in both districts is centered on the status of their respective superintendents. In the Northern Humboldt (Arcata and McKinleyville) high schools, the superintendent resigned the first week of school -- no one's saying why -- and is not coming back. It cost the board two years' salary and, at least for now, he is not being replaced.

In Fortuna, the job of the superintendent, a 20-year veteran, will depend on the election outcome as you will learn in the close-up report below.

Voter turnout for next Tuesday's election is expected to be light typical of off-year elections. Peninsula School District voters are facing a $1 million bond measure to upgrade the school. Other races on the ballot include harbor district, fire protection and community services districts throughout the county. Two veteran members of the McKinleyville Community Services District are not running for re-election and the scramble for their seats will undoubtedly change the direction of the board for years to come. That race is profiled in a close-up report.

CLOSE UP: Superintendent contract an issue


UNTIL RECENTLY IT APPEARED THERE WOULD BE VERY FEW candidates for the three open seats on the Fortuna Union High School District Board of Trustees. That might have surprised some after the contentious, standing-room-only board meetings last summer that followed the trustees' 3-2 vote to not renew Superintendent Dennis Hanson's contract.

Fortuna Union High School District Superintendent Dennis Hanson.

[photo of Dennis Hanson]

But in the final days before the filing deadline more candidates emerged and now nine are seeking positions on the board, an unusually large number for any school board election where trustees often are appointed due to a lack of candidates.

So what's going on in the district to cause overflow attendance at board meetings and the plethora of candidates?

The answer depends on who's talking, but unquestionably it is the board's decision about the superintendent's contract and the surrounding issues of how and when to hire a replacement.

"There's no doubt that this school, this district reflects my attitudes, opinions and beliefs," said Hanson, 59, who's been in the district since 1980, first as principal and since 1988 as superintendent.

"That's what you pay leadership to do. And if there weren't good things happening I would expect to be fired, released."

Hanson said there are many examples of positive things happening at this school of almost 1,100 students, citing financial stability, progress in discipline, a decrease in incidents of violence and drug use, and curriculum revisions.

Hanson said the students have done "relatively well" on the state testing with scores improving over the previous year. And the district just passed a $1.5 million bond issue with the highest "yes" vote that has ever been recorded in the state 88 percent.

"Unheard of," Hanson said, holding a congratulatory letter from Congressman Mike Thompson.

"All these things happening and a school board finds my leadership it's difficult for me to phrase this `too strong.'"

Hanson claims the goals he was evaluated on last December when his contract was not renewed were not the same goals agreed to four months earlier.

Board members are not allowed to talk about personnel matters but Hansen said they gave him the option of sitting out the last year of his contract to look for a new position or continuing to work. He chose the latter.

The June board meeting was packed with those who spoke out against a proposal from board President Steve Hubbard who, along with Matt Kelley, is not up for reelection. Hubbard wanted to replace Hanson with someone from within the district, preferably by July.

Speakers protested, asking instead that a wider search be conducted and that the board wait until after the bond election in September.

The board agreed to extend the search outside the district, but then, just prior to the July meeting, Hanson said he was told the board intended to buy out his contract, amounting to about $100,000.

Another crowd showed up at the July meeting and convinced the board to delay the search for Hanson's replacement until December when a new board is seated.

"It comes down to one person wanting his job back and the way he gets it is to get three members on the board that agree with him," said incumbent Marty Ross, a Carlotta resident who is running for the two-year seat on the board.

Ross, 72, one of three trustees who voted to not renew Hanson's contract, was appointed to the board two years ago when former board President Paul Farnham resigned due to a conflict of interest involving his wife's tenure as a teacher there.

Ross claims the split board voted as it did "because we felt (Hanson) was non-responsive to the board, non-responsive to problems with students. He has his flag up as having done wonderful things, yet on some of these wonderful things we damn near lost it due to his interference.

"It comes down to the fact that if you're the chief, you don't work everything. You let people work it and then you check on them. (Hanson) has to have his hands in everything.

"I have to admit, he's very knowledgeable; he's quick on his feet. But three of us (on the board) do not accept that as being a reason to keep him," Ross said.

"Coming from community colleges as a teacher and knowing the problems that exist with the kids I got as students, I feel appalled to see what I see and work has to be done. I want to see the standards raised, not maintained," he said.

School Counselor Debra Strahan, president of the 68-member Fortuna Union High School Teachers Association, said the group has not taken a position regarding the campaign, but it opposed the board's plan last summer to buy out Hanson's contract and replace him from within the district.

"The only thing that (the three who voted to not renew Hanson's contract) said publicly in the board meeting was that they don't believe that he's a good communicator and they don't want to work with him any more.

"Those of us who have worked with Mr. Hanson for many years feel exactly the opposite, for the most part," she said. She estimated that more than half the staff also believes he has done a good job and indicated many are backing Hanson.

The teachers, she said, are looking forward to "an improved relationship" with the board following the election. "We've had a good relationship in the past and it's only been very recently that things have taken a strange turn," she added.

Fortuna High School Counselor Debra Strahan.

[photo of Debra Strahan]


The results of next Tuesday's election could also affect the school as it faces increasing mandates and accountability following passage of the $1.5 million bond measure in September.

Incumbent board member Shannon McWhorter, 42, running for re-election to a four-year term and chairman of Yes on Measure K, said his top priority is school renovation.

"I want to make sure that the taxpayers' money is put to the best use that it can be put to at the high school."

McWhorter was one of the two trustees who voted against the majority decision to replace the superintendent in December. (The other, Lee Mora, whose term is expiring, is not running for re-election.)

"I think the issue of our superintendent is very important and I want to see that issue put to rest. I feel that the majority have personal agendas ... and being on the school board is no place for personal agendas."

McWhorter ties his support of Hanson to the condition of the district. "Our school is on a big upswing, and I think it's due to the leadership of the current superintendent."

McWhorter, co-owner of Sequoia Gas Co., and two other candidates, Thomas Bess and Kenneth (Jeff) Nelson, have recently begun advertising together and also share a web site.

But "It's not a slate," McWhorter claims. "It's just three candidates that are pooling their resources and three candidates that have pretty much the same values and concerns about the school district."

Bess, 41, a general contractor, agrees.

"One incumbent and two others running for the seats got together and basically have the same philosophies about things. We're all small business owners. But when we did get together we agreed that each of us individually would look at all the issues and act as individuals, not act as a group."

Bess said he sees the two biggest issues as rebuilding the high school and choosing a new superintendent.

"The only thing I'll say right now is that I think Mr. Hanson has done an adequate job," he said. "From the outside, I don't see any reason he shouldn't continue."

Bess is seeking the two-year seat while Nelson, president and principal engineer of SHN Consulting Engineers and Geologists, is after a four-year term. Nelson, a member of the Humboldt County Board of Education, was unavailable for comment. Alan French, running for the two-year seat, was also out of town and unavailable for comment.

Four additional candidates are running for the four-year seats. Fortuna resident Diana Hutton, 50, a program associate in the Early Childhood Education Department at College of the Redwoods, said significant issues for the board will be the new standardized testing and other mandates coming from the state and augmenting technological resources at the school.

Regarding Hanson's contract, Hutton said she has "no opinion there at all. My No. 1 goal would be to be an independent voice, to be a person that would enter the board with no preconceived ideas or priorities."

Fortuna resident Lynne Anderson, 41, a CalTrans engineer and school volunteer, said she is running because she is concerned about issues of lack of funding and increased state mandates.

"Another issue is the constant problem with drugs and alcohol and we face that on a daily basis," she said.

Concerning Hanson's contract, she said, "I have interviewed all but one of the current board members in order to be prepared as a board candidate. What I will say is that there is much more to this entire controversy than meets the eye. There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the issue. I'm not going to promote either side at this point. I remain open-minded and I want to be fair."

Former trustee Farnham, 53, is again seeking a seat on the board with the conflict-of-interest situation causing his earlier resignation now resolved.

"As an instructor at CR, I see the product of local high schools because the next place that many of them go is the community college," he said.

Farnham places importance on improving standardized test scores, and "constantly trying to encourage the teachers to improve their curriculums, try new things, and give them whatever support that they need to do that."

He also advocates enhancing vocational programs in high schools, especially in the areas of electronics and computers, "something to motivate the middle 50 percent of the high school class, kids that I think are forgotten in many ways."

Regarding Hanson, he said, "It has been decided and potentially could be decided again. I really don't know what the real reasons might have been."

Melvin Kreb, 48, is a Pepperwood resident and a district director with the California Conservation Corps, sees this as an opportune time for the district with the passage of the bond measure.

"I think the board has to have oversight in those matters. I think that's an incredible opportunity," he said, adding that he has been involved with rebuilding several CCC facilities and would like to use the knowledge he gained "to spend the money most effectively."

"I don't know anything about Dennis Hanson," said Kreb of the controversy. "Normally in these cases, people have performance standards and objectives that they were supposed to try to reach in their positions. The thing for the board to do would be to take a look at what he's done, whether or not he's met those goals, and if he has, then he's doing fine.

"It's unfortunate that somehow we've allowed (Hanson) to become the lightning rod for whatever is going on there," Kreb said. "It's really unfair to Mr. Hanson for people to have some preconceived notion about who he is unless they're an incumbent on the board."

What now for Northern Humboldt?

THE ABRUPT DEPARTURE OF THE superintendent for the Northern Humboldt Union School District at the start of the school year may have been considered "poor timing" by some. But the community is not up in arms and it isn't the campaign issue it is in Fortuna.

That isn't to say Bruce Griffith's retirement in August after six years didn't surprise the students and staff of Arcata and McKinleyville high schools. But most seem satisfied with his temporary replacement and are resigned to the fact that it's too late to search for a replacement this year.

For Jim Welsh, who's running against Marsha Eagles, Diane Stockness, Jim Monge and Cathy Minkema for the two seats vacated by two veterans, Louis DeMartin and Mary Jane Schilz, the disruption in the top staff position is a learning experience.

Welsh, 64, a Humboldt State University lecturer and retired Mack High biology teacher, is convinced there's more to the departure than what has been said publicly.

Griffith, who received double his contract's annual salary in his separation agreement, has declined to comment.

"I don't know what he did, but in case he was doing a good job, we need to take a closer look at how we evaluate performance," Welsh said. "I really don't think the procedures for evaluating administrators are very good."

Currently, the principals are evaluated by the superintendent and the superintendent is reviewed by the board each year, depending on the contract, said board Chairman Mark Rynearson who declined to comment on personnel matters.

Welsh proposes that other staffers, including faculty, have more say in evaluations.

"These people know best what's going on on a day-to-day basis," he said. "If you have board members getting information from more than one source, we have some hope," he said.

At any rate, Welsh and other candidates said they are happy with Griffith's temporary replacement, Assistant Superintendent Kenny Richards.

"Right now I feel real comfort that the board took over and put Mr. Richards in charge," said Stockness, 51, a 25-year teacher at Alice Birney Elementary School. "(The selection) is to the betterment of the community. Business can go on without the feeling of the stress, grumblings and rumblings at the school."

Stockness believes communication broke down between Griffith and the board. She said she welcomes input from the community if she's elected to the board.

Another long-time educator, Jim Monge, said he would be a good listener and use his experience supervising student teachers at Humboldt State University to understand the issues the board faces. He cites school safety, academic standards and student responsibility as high priorities, his ballot statement reads.

Cathy Minkema, 47, promises to bring business expertise to the board. Minkema, owner of Apollo Computer Systems in Arcata, is active in youth sport activities among other groups and was chosen as Business Leader of the Year in 1995 in Arcata. Minkema said she holds no opinion on the departure of the former superintendent.

Phone calls to businesswoman/volunteer Marsha Eagles another candidate were unreturned and she submitted no candidate's statement for the sample ballot.

Rynearson said he's encouraged by all the interest and the number of candidates, adding it appears they're seeking the positions "to support the district, rather than for political reasons."

Polls on Election Day Nov. 2 will open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. The two candidates elected for the four-year terms will join Rynearson and board members Gary Hendricksen and Sari Toste.

-- story by   SUSAN WOOD

Town in transition

[photo of MCSD building]WITH TWO POSITIONS ON THE McKinleyville Community Services District Board up for grabs, the makeup and direction of the board will change considerably following Tuesday's election.

Veteran board members Ben Shepherd and Joe Wahlund are leaving after multiple terms. Don Harling is the only board member who has been in office for more than one term.

The first order of business for the post-election board will be finding a replacement for District Manager Bruce Buel, who is leaving for a job in Los Osos. All four candidates agree that finding the right person for the job is crucial. (There is a fifth candidate on the ballot, James E. Thomas. However, he has decided not to run.)

Everyone would like to see a new manager with experience in a similar job although perceptions differ as to what type of experience. Jeff Driver has served on the district's Recreation Advisory Board. Javan Reid is still a member. They both would like to see someone with some recreation background in addition to experience with the primary duties of a community service district water and sewer.

Penny Elsebusch said recreation is not as important since there is already an MCSD staff member who specializes in that field. J. Paul Trepanier said he would like to see someone who has concern and involvement in the community beyond the daily duties of a services district administrator.

All candidates give Buel high marks for his 10-year tenure for advances in recreation and other community projects Pierson Park, recreation planning, the new law enforcement facility, the library, Azalea Hall. But also during that time the water and sewer system has had problems. The sewer system is facing its third major upgrade since it went on line in 1983. The district has frequent, although not serious violations of indcators that measure effluent quality.

Board member Jill Geist said in 1995, before she was elected to the board, she warned in a letter to the MCSD that the treatment plant would exceed capacity in five years.

"It didn't take five years. It took four," she said.

Reid, a minister at Grace Good Shepherd Church, moved to Humboldt County from North Carolina in 1980 and settled in McKinleyville in 1985. He said that the rate of development should be determined by sewer capacity.

"We have to analyze the cost to all of the citizens and make some careful evaluations about what we're willing to take on to supply more water and sewer capacity," Reid said. "If we don't increase capacity, we won't be able to have new development. (But) I think we need to analyze the costs."

Trepanier, an 11-year resident from Southern California, is owner of McKinleyville Office Supply and president of the Chamber of Commerce. He said he wants to bring his business expertise to the MCSD board.

"I'd like to be sure that the future board begins to plan now for upgrading sewer capacity to avoid something like the sewer moratorium," he said.

Is the community growing too fast?

"I wouldn't say we have exploding growth. In a community with only 4,500 customers, in the last year we've only had 71 permits approved. But I want to make sure that when there is growth things like the theater, the airport business park that we plan now."

Elsebusch, a real estate agent and owner of Northcoast Business Service, a transcription service, moved from Southern California to McKinleyville in 1993. She has attended almost every district meeting for the last four years, studying the board packets and often offering comments.

"I have an interest in McKinleyville, I want to see everything kept in good shape," she said. "For example, we have some 1,450 water meters that we believe are not performing correctly. Some of the oldest some are approximately 30 years old are under-reading. Well, an under-reading meter is not fair to the rate payers. Some are over-reading. That's not fair either. We could probably hold off a rate increase just by replacing those meters right away."

Sacramento native Jeff Driver has lived in McKinleyville for 10 years. He works is an auto technician for Northcoast Auto.

"I think McKinleyville needs to prepare for the future but do it in a way that doesn't break the bank. As far as water and sewer goes, I think we have to look ahead, because McKinleyville is the fastest growing community in the county. We need to look at the growth and be able to anticipate and meet the needs for water and sewer in the future. We need to increase the water and sewer capacity before we end up with a moratorium like we had a few years ago."

-- story by BOB DORAN

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