School board candidates discuss district, educational issues at community forum

School Board candidates Judy Appel, Norma Harrison, Tracy Hollander, and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler sit during a forum at LeConte Elementary School.
Daphne Chen/Staff
School Board candidates Judy Appel, Norma Harrison, Tracy Hollander, and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler sit during a forum at LeConte Elementary School.

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Four candidates running for director positions on the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education addressed concerns regarding Berkeley schools at a forum held Thursday night at LeConte Elementary School.

About 50 people attended the forum — sponsored by the Friends of Berkeley Two-Way Immersion program — to hear the candidates debate how to address struggles facing Berkeley’s language immersion program before expanding to broader topics such as the search for a new district superintendent and changes to educational policies.

“I’ve become very passionate about how we address the achievement gap,” said incumbent School Board Clerk Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. “How do we, as a community, become the voice, become the movers of how things happen in our district?”

Berkeley residents Judy Appel, Norma J.F. Harrison and Tracy Hollander are challenging Leyva-Cutler in the election for two director seats, including the seat that will be vacated by current School Board Director and President John T. Selawsky, who will be retiring when his term expires after the election.

“When our students enter kindergarten, we need to look at them as college-bound,” Hollander said. “Every single one of those students have the potential to be a college student. We need to see that, feel that, believe that.”

As a former teacher, Hollander said she hopes to provide a more education-focused perspective on the district’s board and advocated greater transparency between the board and the community.

Appel focused on encouraging greater collaborative efforts, while Leyva-Cutler said she has demonstrated consensus-building over the past four years.

“Our English language learners are incredibly diverse,” Appel said. “We need to have a system that is addressing all their needs and all the options available to them … there’s an increased understanding that we really need to look at the academic disposition of our students.”

Harris, however, said she would support a change in the entire hierarchical structure of the educational system.

Candidates also addressed questions from the audience, such as the ongoing superintendent search, which began last spring and has still not resulted in a confirmed permanent replacement for former district superintendent Bill Huyett.

Recently, controversy arose when the school board announced Edmond Heatley as the sole finalist for superintendent of the district, and dozens of students, teachers and community members expressed their disapproval of Heatley’s management style at a board meeting earlier in September. It was announced that Heatley had withdrawn his candidacy on Sept. 18.

The process could have been done differently, said Leyva-Cutler, and the board is focusing on the priorities that the community articulated.

“I liked it,” said Berkeley resident and district schoolteacher Mary Patterson after the meeting. “It was a good chance to hear the different perspectives.”

Daphne Chen covers city government. Contact Daphne at [email protected]

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  • My name is Harrison, not the Harris said here. The reporter made up what I described, lied, actually, because she didn’t understand what I was saying.