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Test Scores, School Bond Projects at Issue in Santa Paula


While Santa Paula elementary school board candidates are campaigning on how best to spend the proceeds from a $10-million bond measure, the candidates for the high school board are discussing how to raise test scores.

In the elementary school district, real estate broker Ofelia De La Torre, computer systems analyst Chris Graham and business owner George Morgan are competing for two open seats. Neither incumbent is running for reelection.

In the high school district, chiropractor and elementary district trustee Steven Shuel is challenging incumbents Eric Barragan and Robert Salas. Barragan and Salas are running for their second terms.

Last March, voters approved a $10-million bond measure for the Santa Paula Elementary School District, which serves nearly 4,000 students. De La Torre said the district's top priority should be repairing and renovating the seven elementary schools.

"If you need heating, you need it now. If you need plumbing, you need it now," she said.

Morgan, however, said the district should add classrooms and replace portables before tackling modernization projects. "When I grew up there was no such thing as a mobile classroom," he said. "Now half the kids in California are being taught in these portable classrooms."

Graham said he doesn't have a preference how the money is initially used, but he wants the district to develop a spending plan with input from parents and teachers. "We need to properly manage the bond money," he said. "We have a lot of schools that need a lot of work."

Graham, 50, has a 9-year-old son, and is a systems analyst for the Navy. If elected, Graham said he wants schools to focus on reading and math, but wouldn't exclude music and art programs. He also would urge the district to evaluate their standardized test scores and seek advice from the high school on how to raise them.

De La Torre was born and raised in Santa Paula, and has three grown children. She served on the elementary school board from 1975 to 1979, and worked as an administrative secretary at the high school for more than two decades. She declined to state her age.

If elected, De La Torre said she would expand after-school tutoring programs, start reading clinics and emphasize basic skills instruction. She also wants to improve communication among administrators, teachers and parents.

Morgan, 42, owns an insurance agency in Oxnard and writes screenplays. He has six children, ages 11 to 23, and spends his free time volunteering in their schools and in the community. Morgan said he wants to focus on raising test scores by having tutors work with low-performing students.

He also would encourage the district to install Internet surveillance cameras on the campuses, so the "entire city of Santa Paula could be the eyes and ears of the schools." And he said he would discourage the board from fencing off the schools and closing them to the public on weekends.

In the high school district, the top issue is student achievement at Santa Paula High. The school's Academic Performance Index score, 541, improved over the previous year, but is still below the state's target of 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000. This year, the school will also start administering the exit exam, which students will have to pass before graduating.

Barragan, 25, said he wants the school district to focus on English and math instruction, and to offer more workshops for teachers. He grew up in Santa Paula and graduated from the local schools, and said he has a strong rapport with students and teachers. He works in international sales at Mission Produce in Oxnard.

Salas, 62, is a retired Oxnard detective and district attorney's investigator. Born and raised in Santa Paula, he has three children and six grandchildren. He stressed the need to increase parent participation and expand before- and after-school tutoring sessions. He said the district should also ensure that the curriculum is tied to the state standards.

All of those efforts should raise Stanford 9 test scores and the school's API score, he said. "We don't want to do just what the state requires," Salas said. "We want to excel beyond that."

Shuel, 45, has lived in Santa Paula for 12 years and has four daughters, ages 7 to 13. If he is elected, Shuel said his top priority would be to involve teachers in the decision-making process. Sometimes the board makes policy without the teachers' support or input, he said. "I feel very strongly that if we are going to educate students, we can't do it without the teachers," Shuel said.

Shuel also stressed the importance of raising test scores, but said that he doesn't want the school to teach to the exam. And he said he would like to continue ensuring the safety of students. The school recently received a grant to place a police officer and a probation officer on campus.

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