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Test Scores Key Issue in Fillmore School Race


Whoever is elected to the Fillmore Unified School District board will face the daunting task of raising achievement at the high school, where test scores have lagged for the past three years.

At the bottom half of the state's academic ranking system, Fillmore High School did not meet its target for improvement this year. The 1,100-student high school was selected for a program that gives state money and assistance to low-performing schools. During the next three years, test scores must improve or the school could face a state takeover.

On a scale of 200 to 1,000 on the Academic Performance Index, the high school received a 506. Fillmore Middle School has 568, and the three elementary schools have 630, 601 and 599. Supt. Mario Contini said the goal is to reach a score of 800, the state's target for high-performing schools, at all campuses by 2003.

"I want to see the API scores increase," said school board member Dwight Magness. "The governor set 800 as the goal, and we are at about 600. We've got a long ways to go."

Three seats are open on the five-member board. Rancher Clark Johnson and electrical worker J.T. Wyand are vying to fill the seat being vacated by John Garnica, who was appointed to the board last year to replace Joanne King. Two years remain in the term.

Garnica, a manager at a manufacturing company, is running for one of the two full-term seats against Magness, incumbent Virginia De La Piedra and parent Jess Cook.

Candidates have suggested various ways to raise achievement at the high school: reducing class sizes, involving more parents and holding students to higher standards.

Wyand said the school districts should motivate students by offering them consequences and rewards. Garnica said teachers should reemphasize the basics and stress the significance of standardized tests.

"Some of the best students don't take it seriously," Garnica said. "It's really a matter of focus and getting them to realize these [tests] are important."

Cook said the district shouldn't promote any students who don't meet grade-level standards. De La Piedra said high school teachers and principals should meet with elementary school administrators to learn how they raised their students' test scores.

Along with raising student performance, the school board will also have to find money to build a new elementary school and to modernize the high school. Fillmore voters rejected two $7.5-million bonds this year--in March and again in June.

The bonds would have allowed the district to update the high school science lab and open a new school in north Fillmore in 2002. All three elementary schools are overcrowded, as each serves about 800 students. The district also expects new housing developments to add about 1,000 more students to the area in the next six years.

The district has applied for $7.8 million in state hardship funds and will learn if it will get the money within the next few months. If the money doesn't come, Contini said, the 3,700-student district will have to consider switching the schools to a multitrack, year-round schedule.

Garnica, Cook and De La Piedra all said they would not ask voters to pass another bond. Johnson, Magness and Wyand said they would consider campaigning for one but know it would be difficult to gather enough support.

"I would support it because it's something that we need," Wyand said. "But I can definitely understand the residents' concerns. Everyone has a sour taste in their mouths."

Wyand said voters were mad the district sought another bond just three years after voters approved a $12-million bond to build a new middle school.

The candidates proposed various alternatives. Johnson said the district should keep looking for state money, and Wyand suggested hiring a grant writer. Garnica and De La Piedra are relying on hardship funds, but said they know year-round scheduling could be a reality. Cook said the district should try to get more money from developers.

In another financial decision, the board will have to decide on teachers' salaries, which are below the county average. That, officials said, has led to high turnover.

"I want to see our teachers paid as well as absolutely possible," Johnson said. "Fillmore in particular has had trouble keeping teachers because they can get more money over the hill from us."

Johnson, 47, has four children and has lived in Fillmore since 1983. He served on the school board from 1988 to 1994, when he lost a reelection bid. Johnson said he understands the budget process well and wants the district to handle its money better. He also wants to bring more mentors and volunteers into the schools.

Wyand, 30, grew up in Fillmore and attended local schools. He said he would ensure the district and the board were more consistent in handling discipline issues, and would urge more students to get involved in extracurricular activities.

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