Candidates for the school board speak at Thursday night’s forum. Left to right: Judy Appel, Norma Harrison, Tracy Hollander, Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. Photo: Lance Knobel
Candidates for the school board speak at Thursday night’s forum. Left to right: Judy Appel, Norma Harrison, Tracy Hollander, Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. Photo: Lance Knobel

At the only forum planned for school board candidates before the election, three of the four candidates criticized the existing board’s choice of a Broad Academy graduate as finalist in the superintendent search and committed themselves to an improved process for choosing a new superintendent. The three, incumbent Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, Judy Appel and Tracy Hollander, were diplomatic, but all said Broad Academy policies did not fit in Berkeley.

There are four candidates for two school board positions — the fourth candidate, Norma Harrison, spent the evening not answering questions posed, but outlining her plans to “reform capitalism” and “build the struggle for socialism and communism.” Questions during the forum at LeConte Elementary School last night covered a wide range of issues, from the best policies for English learners (the forum was held by the Friends of Berkeley Two-Way Immersion), to what motivated each of the candidates to run for the school board, to their views on Berkeley’s school assignment system. 

But the most pointed questions looked back to the controversy surrounding the selection of Edmond Heatley as the sole finalist for superintendent. Heatley withdrew his candidacy after a storm arose over his role in a resolution advocating passage of Prop. 8 when he was superintendent in Chino Valley. There were also concerns expressed about his style of management and his training at the Broad Academy, a 10-month executive training program funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

“Going through the process I know we could have done it differently and we could have done it better,” Leyva-Cutler said. “We made a really good decision in stepping back. There is a very good possibility that we’ll be looking for another search consultant.”

“It’s clear there were some big mistakes that were made. I do feel strongly that had a classroom K12 educator been on the board, I don’t think it would have every reached the point it did reach,” said Hollander, who is a certified teacher. “It would have been obvious that these were strategies that would not have worked in our district.”

“It does seem that in the course of the first search that there was a lack of unity on the board,” Appel said, referring to the board’s failure to agree on a candidate last spring. “That seems to have been a big misstep. In the second search, when there was a very limited pool of candidates, to move forward with a candidate without fully vetting him was a big mistake.”

In a follow up question, candidates were specifically asked about the suitability of any candidate from the Broad Academy. The Broad Academy is strongly aligned with the so-called education reform movement, which often stresses high-stakes testing, performance-related pay for teachers, and expansion of charter schools.

“No, I don’t think a Broad candidate would do well at all,” said Leyva-Cutler. “Perhaps in other districts that are supportive of a top down style that could work. Berkeley needs an instructional leader. We need someone who can be out there in our schools and building those important relationships.”

“I think that, no, someone graduating from the Broad Academy is not going to be the best fit for our community,” Hollander said. “We need to make sure we have a candidate that can unify the community and that can respect all the stakeholders that we have.”

“From everything I have learned [in the last few weeks], I would be very disinclined to hiring a Broad Academy graduate to Berkeley,” Appel said. “That said, we hire an individual. It’s very important that we hear from and listen to an individual. But from everything I’ve heard, particularly some of the underlying values and tactics are not a fit for Berkeley.”

The candidates also stressed what they saw as their qualifications for the board. All talked about their commitment to Berkeley students, families and teachers, but each emphasized different strengths.

“For those out there who think I’m a pushover, yes, I’m a nice person, but I’m from New Jersey,” said Hollander, eliciting laughs from the audience. “I don’t back down.”

Hollander also stressed her background as a teacher: “It’s a perspective that is currently not represented on our board. We’re making decisions about teaching, about children. I can offer a perspective that’s needed on our board.”

Appel presented herself as a builder of collaboration and consensus.

“The biggest skill I’ve got is my ability to get people to collaborate together,” she said. “But it’s both my skills and my experience that make me a strong candidate for this position. I have a lot of experience with fiscal oversight. I build budgets, I oversee budgets. I’ve done a great deal of policy work. I’m a really strong leader, I’ve worked extensively in education. I have deep experience in this district. I have a great deal of experience in planning.”

Leyva-Cutler emphasized the importance of her experience on the board, as well as her community organization work.

“This will be a new board. This board will need support and training in terms of leadership and governance. I bring that to the board,” she said. “I am the board member that has a community-based organization where many of our families are going to Berkeley schools. My commitment has always been present. I’ve been able to build a very strong knowledge of what makes our schools successful.”

BUSD board vows to be more inclusive in new chief search [09.20.12]
BUSD potential chief: had “too much explaining to do” [09.18.12]
Lessons learned from the Edmond Heatley fiasco [09.18.12]
Heatley withdraws candidacy for BUSD superintendent [09.18.12]
Questions about Heatley’s role in Prop 8 resolution swirl [09.14.12]
Superintendent candidate supported Prop 8 in Chino post [09.14.12]
Heatley’s Broad Academy connections attract criticism [09.12.12]
Likely new Berkeley school superintendent under scrutiny [09.05.12]
Berkeley school district names likely superintendent [08.31.12]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...