Last Wednesday, October 14, in an online forum sponsored by the Bishop Rotary Clubs, they answered a series of questions on their thoughts ranging from the safe parking for the homeless and how to improve mediocre state accountability scores to how best to work with minority students, of which Native Americans and Hispanic students comprise a majority of the district’s student population.
There are three candidates vying for a seat on the Bishop Unified School District Board of Trustees. Steve Elia, Meryl Picard, and Kathy Zack are asking for your vote on November 3rd.
Steve Elia is a 25-year resident of Bishop, a former 15-year high school teacher in BUSD and a former BUSD board trustee. He then went to work for AVID.org (Advancement Via Individual Determination) which is described as a nonprofit that changes lives by helping schools shift to a more equitable, student-centered approach, which acts as a “digital hub” where parents can ask questions and get information.
Kathy Zack is practically a career school board member, if such a thing exists. She is a graduate of the 1976 Class of BUHS. She went on to get her B.A. at Stanford University, and then an MBA from the University of Chicago. She then married and spent two decades in hospital management in the Bay Area, returning to Bishop in 2003 to run the family ranch in Hammil Valley. Appointed to fill a vacancy on the Bishop Union Elementary School Board in 2006, she successfully ran for the board three times, retiring in 2018, only to then be “re-appointed” to the consolidated Bishop Unified School District in 2019 to fill a vacancy ironically created with the resignation of fellow candidate Steve Elia, who left to avoid a conflict of interest concern when his wife went to work for the school district.
Meryl Picard is new to the race for a seat on the board for BUSD. She is a member of the Bishop Paiute tribe, and is the first in her family to have graduated from college, achieving a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from the University of Montana, despite learning rather late while in college that she was diagnosed as being severely dyslexic.
Currently, there is no Native American serving on the board. According to the District Profile on the California Department of Education website, which breaks down just about every aspect of BUSD’s Enrollment, Assessment, and Accountability, 15.2% of the student population is Native American and are represented almost equally in numbers at every grade level.
Picard works in staff development. Owens Valley Career Development Center (OVCDC), which is a social service organization that was initially created by the local Paiute Tribe, and now serves 14 locations throughout central California, and is the mother of three children who attend or will be attending Bishop schools.
The questioning of the candidates began with their views on supporting IMACA’s efforts to establish a safe overnight parking lot for the homeless living out of their vehicles at the Nazarene Church. The parking lot borders the school property housing the high school’s FFA (Future Farmers of America) farm. All three candidates were sympathetic to the issue and felt that with proper protections in place should assure student safety.
A major area of disagreement or views came on the question of the district’s scores on the state’s academic achievement in English Language Arts/Literacy and Math, which are and have been mediocre for years despite efforts to turn it around. In fairness to BUSD, scores for many other districts in the state and across the country are generally poor to mediocre.
Former school board and current challenger Steve Elia stated the academic achievement levels and test scores have not changed significantly for the past 10-20 years, and that he wants to see “a sense of urgency” to the board’s tasks and give students the tools they need to succeed and “dream big.”
Kathy Zack disputed Elia’s statement and responded that the achievement scores have been going up, showing steady improvement over the years, while new candidate, Meryl Picard, said that she would “bring a diverse perspective that is not currently represented on this board” as a mother of three, who struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia in high school, and yet she went on to earn a college degree.
It was inevitable that the hiring and then subsequent firing of former Superintendent Jon Ray would come up. Picard said that she wants to “include everyone in these decisions,” including teachers, administrators, and parents. “There was a real lack of teacher input on Ray’s selection.
Elia was on the board when it selected Ray unanimously, but now says “it was a mistake” and that it is good that he’s gone. The school board essentially threw Ray under the (school) bus, and he is the latest scapegoat for the district’s ongoing academic woes. Elia claimed it was a decision that was well-intentioned, i.e. to take decisive action to significantly improve the district’s academic success rate, and that there is still the need for the district to significantly improve student performance and achievement.
Piling on, Zack also said that hiring Ray was “another big mistake. It was, she says, what brought her back to serve on the board, noting that communication should “go up and down” from the board and superintendent to the staff and teachers.
Picard said that “Flexibility is the key to managing teaching and schools in the pandemic era, observing that “with three kids, it’s crazy” juggling classes and distance learning while still performing “routine family chores.”
“Teachers and administrators will provide the best answers,” said Zack, “in creating a ‘flexible teaching model.’” “Technology,” she says, “is the key and the district has providing computers and internet “hot spots” to students. She pointed out that a recent online survey led the district to adopt an “a.m. and p.m.” school schedule and customize bus schedules based on parent input.
Elia said the key is in “streamlining instruction” and training teachers while also giving them the tools to successfully handle the combination of “digital and face-to-face” classes. He says, “The whole system has been upended” by the pandemic, which,” he says, “creates an opportunity to look at the district’s blind spots and make improvements.”
The issue of the “minority gap” seen in the district’s student achievement scores at the schools was brought up. Elia repeated his position that the last 10- 20 years of data on student achievement is consistently poor “for minority and all students.” He stressed support for early intervention for minority students in elementary school to help them stay in school and achieve their goals.
Zack insists that school “achievement scores are rising and improving,” and that they have, in the past, addressed the minority achievement gap by doing everything they can think of.
Picard’s message was simple and based on her personal experience with dyslexia, which she only discovered later in life after her time in the Bishop school system while in college. She says that recognizing the need for early intervention, following up on why minority students are dropping out, and don’t seem get the support they need to achieve while in school is the answer.
“Start with representation of minorities on the board,” says Picard.