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I’m gradually getting to know the two candidates for the school board seat that will be vacated in June by outgoing trustee Shelia Jackson.
As I get to know them, I plan to share what I learn. Every week or two, I’ll be posting a new interview with the two candidates, Bill Ponder and Gerald Brown. That way, you’ll get to know them too.
Ponder, a former vice president at Eastern Washington University, was born and raised in southeastern San Diego. He started his career as a teacher in Riverside County and also taught at the school district for a while before moving to Seattle to become a university administrator.
He retired in 2007 and moved back home to San Diego. I sat down with Ponder and asked him five questions that I’ll pose to Brown when we meet.
The school district’s going broke. The school board’s going to have to make some horrible decisions over the coming months and years, from making layoffs to possibly closing schools. Plus it’s a poorly paid, part-time position. Why on Earth would you want this job?
For me, it’s not only because of my background and experience. This is my community, you know. I was born and raised here, so for me to sit on the sidelines and not take a position of saying “What can I do? Is there a place for me to help, that I can bring my expertise and understanding to?”
That’s part of it.
The other part is, I firmly believe there are people within the district who can help us solve the problem. And, I know there are people in the community who are waiting to step up and do that, but they want someone that they can trust, someone who has some integrity, who they can believe is not going to sell them down the road for another position.
It makes sense to me. I live here, my parents are here, the people I care about are here. Why shouldn’t I try and get it and figure out some way of helping the other board members and everybody else fix this?
Shelia Jackson’s had some divides with the rest of the board. She’s also had some financial problems and there have been questions about whether or not she resides in the district. What do you think of her tenure on the school board?
I can only speak since 2007, when I moved back here.
I think there have been some good intentions with Shelia. But it’s the way you go about doing them, and it’s the way you approach the other board members and the community.
You’ve got to work your community piece too, simultaneously as you’re working the board piece. It’s got to go hand-in-hand.
If you have a great idea for a school or a great intervention or way to deal with kids, stuff like that, you’ve got to work there first. Work the principals, work the teachers, work the parents. Get people to believe this is something that can work.
Then, when you bring it before the other board members, you have a level of support that’s overwhelming.
One former board member told me the ideal for the board is a 5-0 vote. She said, “You should work on 5-0 for everything, Bill. Because that says that you guys have sat down and worked out all the other things that need to be worked out, the compromises, the changes.”
People start to see that, the consistency. And they start to trust and believe and have confidence in the board.
A lot of people see this position as a stepping stone to bigger political aspirations. Do you see this as a springboard, or is this its own thing?
I believe, for it to be effective now, whoever gets elected should focus on doing the work here and now. I’ll go on record: I will not run for any other office. I have no interest in running for any other office.
You have a magic wand and you can wave it and make things happen, regardless of cost or practicality. What do you do to change local schools?
First and foremost, you need to look at whether we are measuring students’ success and teachers’ performance on a global level, as opposed to what we’re doing now.
So, my first wave of the magic wand would be to move the standards to global standards.
I think we’re a long way behind in terms of what other countries have done in teacher assessment, and I think we’re either too timid or don’t have the will to say “Let’s really start to measure ourselves.”
People in Sweden and other countries, they put their pants on one leg at a time too. For teachers and others to say “It’s different here,” I really don’t buy that argument anymore.
Businesspeople, they’re not competing with Joe Blow down the street, they’re competing with China and India. Why would they want to hire and train public school kids coming out of public schools who can’t compete at that level? What would be the point of that?
The other wave of the wand is equity. Equity is not equal. Equity means let’s look at all the schools in the district and let’s assess them on equity, from the facilities, all the way up to the leadership.
If you have a principal and you assess that the principal is not the best academic leader for that particular school, you have to change and make it equitable. That means moving principals to schools where there’s the greatest challenge, not the least challenge.
Some of the principals are just fine and well where they are, because they don’t really have to do much.
Will you be seeking the endorsement of the teachers union? And in the light of the adversarial relationship between the union and the district, if you do seek the endorsement, would you do anything to try and close that divide?
At this point, I’m not really sure about how I’m going to approach that.
They’ve asked me to come and talk to them, and my approach is to sit down and have a conversation about this. After that conversation, if in fact there’s some middle ground in our perspectives, then I think we’ll go from there.
The primary issue facing the district is a financial one. What would be your approach to understanding, getting to grips with and ultimately solving the budget issues at the district?
What I’ve watched and observed over the last month is that the board has taken what the staff has provided them at face value. I’m not sure I would go along with that.
I know the personnel issue is a large part of the district’s budget. The other side is to see if there are still some efficiencies or places within the current structure of the district that need to be looked at?
My view would be to look at both of those issues simultaneously and see if we can come to some middle ground, then figure out some ways of negotiating.
One of the practical stepping stones on that is to get everybody in the room. I spoke before the city schools police officers association, seeking their endorsement, and they seem to be one of the only unions that’s willing to sit down.
So, realistically, they have a pretty good idea of where we are financially because they’ve been talking. They’ve been working with the district.
So, first and foremost, we’ve got to get everybody in the room.
Correction: A previous version of this article identified Mr. Ponder as a former vice president of a community college. That is incorrect. Ponder is former vice president of Eastern Washington University, which is not a community college. I regret the error.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently focused on local education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5670.
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