As Oxnard Elementary School District officials scramble to find sites for new campuses, two of the three school board candidates are criticizing the district's plans to build schools near farmland.
Computer engineer Ted Cartee and retired teacher Roy Caffrey said the district should search elsewhere for sites, so Oxnard can preserve its agricultural land and so students won't face possible dangers from pesticide exposure.
Businessman Tom Nielsen, however, said the district has no choice, because schools cannot be built beneath flight paths, near railroad tracks or in the middle of industrial parks. "We are in a city and we are growing and we don't have any other alternative," Nielsen said.
Enrollment in the district has jumped from 12,775 in the 1992-93 school year to more than 16,000 today. Supt. Richard Duarte said the district needs to open three elementary schools and one middle school in the next five years to relieve overcrowding and meet the needs of the growing population. The Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiatives restrict residential and business development on agricultural land without voter approval, but school construction is less restricted.
Despite dozens of complaints by community members, the board voted last year to build Juan Lagunas Soria Elementary at the east end of Emerson Avenue on agricultural land bordered by fields on three sides. Now the district is waiting to get approval to annex the land to the city of Oxnard. Trustees also approved building the Thurgood Marshall Elementary campus on farmland across from Oxnard High School.
"Where there are several other options, there is no need to choose a place like Emerson," said Cartee, 58. "There are easily more than 10 [sites] that are not surrounded by farmland."
Cartee wants the district to reexamine all of the potential sites in Oxnard, and avoid building on farmland at all costs. Caffrey said the district should try to keep its schools small, with a cap at 500 students, and should consider building campuses within the city.
"I think it's very important that the farmland is protected," Cartee said, "and that we don't cover every bit of farmland with factories and buildings and parking lots."
In addition to disagreeing on where to build schools, the three candidates clash over how Oxnard educates its Spanish-speaking students. About 50% of the students speak little or no English, most of whom are enrolled in traditional bilingual programs.
Under Proposition 227, which aimed to eliminate bilingual education, parents can sign waivers to allow their children to be taught in Spanish. Each year, thousands of parents in Oxnard sign the waivers, requiring the district to offer bilingual classes.
Caffrey, 65, said the district is placing the students at a disadvantage by teaching them in their native language, and that English should be the primary language in every classroom in Oxnard. "We must improve the English-language skills of these children, so they will be able to compete," he said. "We are holding them back." The students speak Spanish at home, at school and in the neighborhood, Caffrey said, "So where is the exposure to English?"
But Cartee and Nielsen believe the traditional bilingual programs are working. The students in the district who speak limited English have improved their scores on the Stanford 9 exam in the past few years, but still score lower than their classmates who speak fluent English. "Though we have a challenge of having so many second-language learners, we are getting better," Cartee said.
All three also said they would be open to having creationism taught in the schools.
"I think it should be included and allowed," Nielsen said. "I think it is no more or less viable than Darwinism. I think you can't tell students that just because you don't feel comfortable with the issue, it can't be taught."
All three candidates say they want to raise test scores of all students by focusing on student achievement, training teachers and aligning the curriculum with the state standards. They all also want to ensure that campuses are safe and secure for students. They all oppose Proposition 38, the statewide voucher initiative, and all support Proposition 39, which would lower the percentage required to pass local school bonds to 55% from two-thirds.
Caffrey, Cartee and Nielsen are competing for a two-year seat previously held by Ray Gonzales, who resigned from the board in June after his arrest on suspicion of selling drugs. In July, he pleaded guilty to transporting cocaine and was ordered to enter a work-release program.
The board appointed retired high school administrator Bill Thrasher to replace him, and now Thrasher is running unopposed for a four-year seat being vacated by Susan Alvarez. Francisco Dominguez, who recently resigned as head of the nonprofit El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, is also running unopposed for reelection to his seat.