David Baskett, Angie Bolden, Jack Garvin, Gabriel Morales, Jennifer Melena and Amy Lopez

Santa Maria Joint Union High School District board candidates, clockwise from top left, David Baskett, Angie Bolden, Jack Garvin, Gabriel Morales, Jennifer Melena and Amy Lopez.

Candidates for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Board generally consider COVID-19 matters the top concern, but definitely differ on a statewide ballot proposition that would raise property taxes on commercial and industrial businesses to increase funding for education.

Two incumbents — Jack Garvin, a retired Orcutt Union School District superintendent, and Amy Lopez, a Santa Barbara County employee — are running against challengers David Baskett, an aviation business owner; Angie Bolden, a community volunteer; Jennifer Melena, an athletic trainer/professor; and Gabriel Morales, a social services administrator.

The top two vote-getters on the Nov. 3 ballot will win the pair of four-year terms and join three other trustees on the board: Carol Karamitsos, Dominick Palera and Diana Perez.

The six candidates recently participated in a virtual forum hosted by the Future Leaders of America and the League of Women Voters of Santa Maria.

Most of the candidates cited the coronavirus crisis’ impacts on education as the top challenge facing the four-school, 7,800-student district.

Bolden said many high school students have to help younger siblings and have other responsibilities that may make it difficult to complete assignments. Others have inadequate Internet access, she added.

A lack of motivation due to being separated from friends, teachers and school activities also is hampering students.

“All we can do right now as a community and as a board member, we need to let the kids know, let the families know, you have unlimited support,” she said, adding that students have noted the stress stemming from remote learning.

Garvin, who has served on the board for 16 years, agreed, but said he views COVID-19 challenges as a short-term problem.

In the long run, he said, the district’s long-term challenges include training students for future careers, noting that partnerships with local businesses and organizations will benefit future graduates.

If asked back on March 1 about the top challenge, Lopez said she would have had a different answer, explaining that the coronavirus has changed how the district is educating students and communicating with families.

“One of the biggest challenges we have before COVID-19, but even more so with COVID-19, is ensuring we’re offering a fair and equitable access to education,” said Lopez, who has served on the board since January 2016.

Educators are assessing both engagement and attendance, she added.

“I think we have a severe challenge ahead of us,” Lopez said. “I don’t think COVID-19 is going away anytime soon so I think we need to keep up with the surveys, engaging our parents and students, asking for feedback on how it’s going, and making changes as we move forward.”

Melena said the board should look at the psychological health of students and staff due to COVID-19.

“I would focus more into the transition back to school, to offer the teachers the most resources they can,” she said. “To maybe hire more help in the form of aides or additional instructional help in order to get those students engaged, no matter what grade level.”

Morales said the coronavirus measures have taken a toll on teachers and students, especially those most vulnerable to academic failure.

Other districts have offered after-school classes or partnered with a youth organization to run academic and support programs for students to re-engage.

He said the district’s truancy rate has risen, making it a concern for the district staff, parents and community. The district also should enlist support staff members who know the community, language and culture to conduct home visits safely on the porch.

“We did that when I worked for the school district — very effective,” Morales said. “A realistic target date needs to be set to bring back students in a structured plan with community involvement, which should include the parents.”

Contending COVID-19 “will be behind us” in a year or two, Baskett said a different issue could affect students seeking careers. He called for standardized language skills centered on English.

“It won’t be popular, but I believe that for the best future of the kids (we need) to focus on English,” he said, adding that a businessman in Japan or Russia deals with documents in English.

Also drawing stark contrasts was the statewide Proposition 15, which would raise up to $11 billion annually for public education and other government spending by boosting property taxes on businesses. The so-called split-roll initiative would eliminate Proposition 13 property tax protections for commercial properties while maintaining them for residential properties.

Recalling the impact on schools in the aftermath of voter-approved Prop. 13 in the mid-1970s, Garvin said he supports Prop. 15 because it will bring money to the high school district. But he warned it is discretionary funding that would be on the bargaining table during employee negotiations.

“I personally favor more tutoring opportunities for students, I favor more counseling services and more students services in general,” he said.

The California Teachers Association is among the sponsors of Prop. 15, Garvin said, adding that he expects a big drive to use the funding for salaries.

Lopez also supports Prop. 15, adding that she wants to use the funding to implement and create innovative programs that currently do not exist.

Melena said she supports Prop. 15, but said caution must be used when allocating the funds, suggesting money could be used for special education students and English learners.

“I also think that we should look at the ethnic and gender studies as well as the LGBTQ issues,” she said. “But let’s also look at the bullying, for example. … Let’s continue with those directions as well as offering the support we’re going to need post-COVID.”

Bolden said she supported the idea of the initiative, but said it was unclear on how the funding would be split. Still, she said, it would provide some much-needed funding for the district.

Morales said the district should not depend on Proposition 15, noting it could burden community and business owners who already support schools in other ways.

“We should seek other potential economic development revenues and other local tax revenue options,” he said.

Delivering a blunt rejection of the proposition, Baskett called it an additional tax on structures and businesses that already are paying steep taxes.

“Much of the money that was allocated for education in past laws and past propositions has not been received in the classroom through Sacramento,” he said.

Noting the virtual forum’s hosts, he added, “I just lost your vote, I’m sure.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.