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Common Core at Center of Education Debate in Orcutt School Board Race

The three incumbents and a lone challenger seeking a trio of terms on the Orcutt Union School District board of directors met recently for a candidates’ forum where they aired their stances on Common Core standards, teacher salaries and class sizes.

Incumbents Robert Hatch, Rob Buchanan and James Peterson participated alongside Eric Melsheimer, a business owner and parent. The top three vote-getters in the Nov. 4 election will take the three four-year seats on the board.

Held at the Luis OASIS Senior Center in Old Town Orcutt, the approximately 90-minute forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Santa Maria Valley. The candidates made opening statements and answered questions from the audience of approximately 40 people Tuesday.

The Orcutt school districts, like its counterparts across the nation, is making the transition to Common Core, the new academic standards for teaching basic subjects. But Orcutt is without state-adopted textbooks for classrooms, prompting a question from the audience how candidates would influence or support resources teachers need for teaching Common Core standards.

Buchanan noted that Common Core has been rolled out loosely.

“We do rely on teachers’ input to let us know what resources they need,” Buchanan said, adding those requests should be made to principals to pass along to the superintendent who would then present it to the board.

Hatch said he has become a student of Common Core, a program the district backs because the state supports it. But some of the textbooks reportedly contain controversial items, or things Hatch said “would just curl your hair.”

“We have no intention of just randomly adopting those things,” Hatch said, adding he personally plans to really look at the textbooks and make comments on what’s proposed before items are approved for classrooms.

Melsheimer said he is studying Common Core to a get a better understanding of it.

“I like what I read as far as the theory of it, emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and things like that,” he said. “It does look like it’s more results-oriented than specifying how you get there so it seems like it gives the teacher a bit more flexibility in establishing their own curriculum.”

Peterson said the “jury’s still out on Common Core.”

“I think it’s unfortunately one of the things in education that the pendulum swings and it’s swung toward Common Core,” he said. “I’m like Mr. Hatch. I’m treading lightly through Common Core just for the simple fact that I don’t think they got enough teacher input before they decided to go with Common Core.”

A professor of math from UC Berkeley recently wrote an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal that Common Core for math standards will result a step down for California students. Other critics have noted that simple math lessons under Common Core require lengthy equations to get answers instead of the traditional “carry-the-1” method.

Hatch said he is troubled by reports about complex equations for simple problems, saying it’s “gone a little bit too far in my mind.”

“In business, we all know quick answers that are easy to come by are the ones that we want as employers,” Hatch said. “We don’t need to have a person spend three hours to try to figure out the answer to a problem.”

Melsheimer, noting he employs a lot of engineers and technical people, said problem-solving skills are essential and an ability to take facts and apply it to a problem that isn’t defined is valuable.

“I think a lot of the Common Core is geared toward developing those type of problem-solving skills ...,” he said, adding there must be a balance, especially with math.

Peterson said his doubts about Common Core stem from the mistakes that already are being highlighted.

“My thing is we need to build those fundamentals and those foundations in math before we begin the analytical thinking,” he said. “I think that’s where we’re having a big problem with the math part of it is we’re not getting the foundation of math down before we’re pushing into all this analytical thinking.”

Buchanan said Common Core sounds good in theory, but like many big government programs was poorly thought out and pushed through. The Smarter Balance Assessment System is a prime example, he added, noting results haven’t been released, likely because the scores are so bad. However, the Orcutt district has another assessment program it uses so teachers, parents and board members will get a review of student performance, he said.

“I think Common Core’s a long way from being implemented correctly,” Buchanan said.

Other questions centered on vocational education and alternatives for students who don’t intend to go to college, class sizes, teacher salaries and a low supply of substitute teachers.

Buchanan has lived in Orcutt since 1973 and works in the insurance industry as a senior vice president with HUB International. The Righetti High School graduate’s children also attended Orcutt schools.

The 20-year board member said he’s running for another term because he’s excited about continuing a number of projects and wants to see them to completion.

Among the challenges facing the district is pay equity, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a more rewarding job being a teacher,” Buchanan said. “I don’t think there’s a more challenging job than being a teacher.”

As for the perception the board doesn’t support teachers, he said, “I can’t think of anything further from the truth.”

Hatch, who grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley, recently retired at president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce after 20 years. His children attended Orcutt schools.

He has served on the school board for 12 years and said he has tried to apply business philosophy to the district, when appropriate.

“I bet you, teachers thought most of the challenges that they were going to face in their careers were over, but I think when you are talking about Common Core you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said, before ticking off several aspects of Common Core that teachers will have to deal with in the coming years, including explaining to parents about the standards and students’ results.

Hatch said the board of trustees will continue to support teachers.

“Somehow the perception that the board of trustees doesn’t support teachers 100 percent, in my mind, is just plain ridiculous, and we’ll continue to do that the best the budget will allow us to do,” he said.

Hatch added that he is proud of the collegial attitude among board members.

Melsheimer is an engineer and co-owner of Melfred Borzall, which designs and develops horizontal drilling tools. He moved to Orcutt 15 years ago and has daughters who attended district schools.

He said one challenge for teachers involves developing new curriculum, something he became familiar with through teaching part-time at Allan Hancock College.

“It’s a daunting task,” he said.

While the Common Core theories are good, he said the challenges will come in implementing the standards and dealing with uncertainties surrounding the program.

“To move Orcutt forward, we need to have a strategic plan that’s visible and broadly supported,” Melsheimer said, adding the district needs to look for partnerships and ways to foster self-directed deeper learning.

“I think this is a real exciting time for education,” he said, pointing to research-based teaching methods, technological advancements, blended learning, global collaboration and more.

Peterson has lived in Orcutt since 1980 and works as a chiropractor. He has served on the Orcutt board since 2006. His two daughters attended Orcutt schools, as did a step-granddaughter.

He expressed excitement about the new superintendent’s proposal to launch a digital media academy.

“I think it’s going to be great program for our kids,” Peterson said. “It gets technology into our schools. It’s going to get some more equipment into each of our schools that teachers can use.”

He said pay equity will be a challenge because the district’s share of state funding under a new formula is much lower per student than other districts as a result of fewer English language learners and foster children.

“I think one of the challenges that we have is to try to keep the equity in pay for teachers to that of our neighboring districts,” Peterson said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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