Three of the five Rancho Santa Fe School District candidates vying for two board seats took part in a forum moderated by the League of Women Voters on Oct. 9. Candidates Jee Manghani, Kali Kim and Ben Brown tackled audience-generated questions on the school budget, the gym, labor issues and school safety.
Glen Griffin and Dan Dufresne did not attend the forum.
Manghani, a father of two children at R. Roger Rowe, works in business software and said his family is heavily focused on science and technology. As a board member, he said he would be “quick to listen and slow to speak,” listening to all opinions to find common ground and consensus.
“Our district needs to fill the empty board seats with people who can bring the community together and solve the difficult issues facing our school,” Manghani said, noting the most urgent of those issues is balancing the budget.
Manghani said he believes Rowe is a “shining example” and yet can still improve in many ways. One of his priorities is improving the curriculum and attracting more families to the district by promoting all of the positive things that happen in the district.
Kim, a certified public accountant and parent of three children at Rowe, said she has become increasingly involved over the last five years. She said she is the only candidate who has attended 17 of the last 22 board meetings and has become uniquely aware of the challenges facing the board.
“I will make the tough choices to be fiscally responsible and put the dollars to work where it is most impactful: in the classroom,” said Kim.
Kim said as a board member she would advocate for a safe and inclusive school environment where every student feels valued and included. Kim said she would push to set a clear vision for the school with superintendent goals in line with that vision; work on giving parents an impactful platform to interact with the board and the administration; and bring a new chapter of board dynamics.
Brown is an U.S. Army veteran and father of six children, four of them currently enrolled at Rowe. He attended Rowe as a child and his mother was a teacher at the school for 37 years. He is an active volunteer in the classroom and coaches lacrosse and basketball.
Brown said his priorities include improving relationships and communication, balancing the budget, striving for academic excellence and protecting the school.
“What I think is most important is that you get your kids home safely at the end of the day,” said Brown, who would like to use his experience to help set a plan for a more physically-secure campus as well as one that promotes health and wellness.
The district had a deficit of $634,130 for the 2017-18 school year and is projecting a deficit of $429,000 for 2018-19. Multi-year projections at current staffing levels show that deficit spending will continue and the reserve fund will decrease year over year unless changes are made.
When asked how they would address the budget, all candidates said that they would look to evaluate expenditures and programs for efficiencies. Manghani noted that some of the budget expenditures they have no control over, such as the pension contributions that continue to increase, so they will have to closely evaluate all programs.
“We have gotten into the deficit spending situation because the administration has been built slowly, one position at a time, and I don’t think we’ve taken a step back to evaluate if those positions are effective,” Kim said, who has noted at past board meetings that the one school district is “top heavy” when it comes to administrative positions. “I also think that technology has snowballed and kind of become an animal of its own.”
Brown said the district needs to develop a long-term plan for the budget based on priorities. The budget planning should be driven by clear communication between the board, parents and administration. “I would like to be that person to bridge that gap,” he said.
Earlier in the year the board had been considering a November 2018 bond for a new gym on campus and in April, then-Superintendent David Jaffe made the recommendation not to move forward.
The candidates were asked how they would handle the school gym, as it is “shabby and an embarrassment.”
None of the candidates said they would support a bond for a new gym. Brown said the district has higher priorities than replacing the gym. Manghani cited that the board received a report on the condition of the gym this year which found that the building is safe and has been well-maintained. The report listed the need for immediate repairs for the roof and fire system estimated to cost between $300,000 and $500,000.
“As long as it’s safe, we can limp by,” Manghani said, noting while he would like to see the repairs done for the roof and fire system, they do not have the money.
Kim said if the district truly wants a new gym, they would need community buy-in—she said the support for a gym bond has not been there in past opinion polls for a bond.
The moderator led a speed round asking the three candidates if they supported the teachers union, the Rancho Santa Fe Faculty Association—Manghani was the only candidate who said he did not support the union.
“I support our teachers. Our teachers should be paid the best… as much as we can. I don’t support the organization that’s trying to extract more concessions from the district,” Manghani said. “I love our teachers, every teacher that we’ve had has been awesome. I wish we could give them raises but it has to be budget first so if we don’t have the money, we can’t do it.”
Brown said he believes that the district could look at current spending and find ways to adequately compensate the teachers: “They’re the most important cogs in the whole wheel here,” he said.
Kim said in the teachers’ negotiations process, she would like to see the board involved instead of the union just working with the district’s lawyer. “I think there needs to be some taking of responsibility by the board,” she said.
The candidates were also asked about the board policy that ended in 2016 which allowed teachers’ children to attend the school. As part of negotiations, the teachers have proposed adding language to their contracts to allow their children to attend R. Roger Rowe.
Manghani said he believed teachers should be able have their kids at the school but it should be a point reviewed every time in teacher negotiations because it is a “perk,” it should not be automatic.
Brown said he is a little biased as he was one of those teacher’s children, although his family always lived within the district boundary.
“I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be able to,” Brown said. “The teachers do an outstanding job taking care of all of our students every day, I don’t think their lives should be any more challenging by having to get their kids to another school.”
Kim said she could not support teachers’ children attending the school at this time due to the financial implications.
The question of school safety is a topic on every parent’s mind, particularly following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February. Manghani said he believes these incidents often occur when a kid lashes out because they have felt bullied or isolated.
“We have got to make sure our kids know one another, take care of one another and stand up for each other,” Manghani said, advocating for assemblies and guest speakers that help teach students those skills.
Kim agreed: “Our students deserve a safe place to learn”. Kim said she concurred with the School Safety Operation expert’s evaluation of the school when he said that the best defense is having a positive culture and climate at school. She said she would like to see more teachers out in the hallways, out with students during recess and lunch so they are able to observe the students and take a proactive approach if there’s a problem.
Brown recalled his time at the school when then-Superintendent Dr. Rowe would visit classrooms every day.
“Relationships and positive environment is important but at the same time, you have to be prepared,” Brown said. “Having a single RSF Patrol sitting in his vehicle in front of the school does nothing at all.”
Brown said he would like to implement a safety plan that better secures the campus, including having a highly-trained individual on campus who would also work to train the staff.
Potential school expansion
The district’s master plan, approved in 2015, called for the acquisition of future properties along El Fuego. The plan details the district’s desires to potentially expand parking, add kindergarten through fourth grade fields and hard court play areas, and purchase the remainder of El Fuego and extend it to Mimosa.
The board members had been considering a master plan “refresh” earlier this year as they discussed the potential gym bond but did not move forward.
The candidates were asked their opinion on acquiring adjacent properties for expansion.
Considering that the school enrollment is 601 and the school capacity is 800 students, Manghani, Kim and Brown all said they did not see the need to expand.
“No way,” Kim said. “At our current situation there is absolutely no reason to look at adjacent properties for purchase. We already have properties that we own that are not being used for education purposes.”