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Newport-Mesa school board candidates state their case at forum as election nears

Seven candidates for November’s Newport-Mesa Unified School District board election participated in a forum Wednesday evening in Costa Mesa, addressing topics ranging from mental health to charter schools to budgets.

The forum, organized by the Harbor Council PTA and the League of Women Voters of Orange Coast, attracted an audience of about 50 people to the Harper Assessment Center. All candidates were asked the same questions.

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Area 2 trustee Charlene Metoyer, who has been in office since 2014, participated, as did challenger Michelle Murphy, an associate director for United Way.

Area 4 incumbent Karen Yelsey, a board member for 12 years, attended. Her challenger, Gina Nick, a medical practice owner, was absent.

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Area 5 candidate Michelle Barto was present. Her opponent, businessman Paul Hillson, did not attend.

All three candidates for the Area 7 seat participated: nonprofit education director Ashley Anderson, real estate broker Diane “Dee Dee” RuoRock and tax preparer Bertha Rodriguez.

When asked about her favorite school projects, Murphy spoke of her experience volunteering in elementary school classrooms. “It gave me an excellent understanding of how schools work,” she said.

Rodriguez said she feels qualified to join the school board because she has been helping others in the educational community for years. “To me it’s nothing new,” she said. “It comes naturally.”

Metoyer, a former teacher and principal, said that during her tenure with Newport-Mesa, the district has experienced an 80% drop in truancy and that Costa Mesa High School had a 97% graduation rate last school year. She also cited more staff to help with mental health issues.

Yelsey pointed to the creation of signature academies in all school zones. “They really make a specialized school within a school,” she said.

Barto touted her contributions in engaging English-language learners who hadn’t felt “welcomed in” otherwise.

Anderson pointed to her efforts to create a greater sense of community in Costa Mesa’s Westside and a “kindergarten readiness” task force.

“I’m getting everyone up to speed, making sure all the preschools in the area are connected and really know what the kindergarten requirements are,” she said.

She also cited her endorsement from the Newport-Mesa teachers union.

When RuoRock was asked about her ability to manage Newport-Mesa’s roughly $300-million annual budget, she cited her experience balancing budgets in the business world, including as owner of a real estate company.

“There is a lot that goes into a budget,” she said. “I love math.”

Murphy pointed to her experience with managing and running multimillion-dollar grants and programs.

Yelsey called Career Technical Education one of the best contributions to Newport-Mesa. The program involves a multiyear sequence of courses that integrates academic and technical and occupational knowledge to help put students on a path to higher education and careers.

“We are on the forefront of what we’ve done,” she said. “When [students] graduate high school, they are ready to intern with construction companies” and in other fields.

Anderson called for the expansion of such career-focused education, particularly for children who may not want to go to college.

“I think student success looks different for everyone,” she said. “We need to provide avenues for everyone to follow what their passion is.”

Barto called students’ mental health her biggest safety concern for the district.

“A lot of times when you see these serious safety situations, it comes from a desperation that the children have,” she said.

RuoRock called bullying in school a “huge issue.”

“It makes it hard for some of those kids to even go to school,” she said. “We have to address that and we have to address mental illness.”

Metoyer called for “safe spaces” for children, starting in elementary school.

She noted that hours have been added for health assistants, who often see problems first.

“Our kids have way more on their plates than we ever did when we went to school,” Metoyer said.

Most candidates at the forum said they don’t support charter schools within Newport-Mesa. Yelsey said “that if a charter school with a concept that is unique and inspiring and offers something our district does not already have, I would consider that petition. ... To date, we have not seen a need to approve a charter.”

Rodriguez said the board needs fresh faces.

“We need more parents to be on the board, not just lawyers, doctors, attorneys and whatnot,” she said. “We need different diversity.”

Bradley Zint is a contributor to Times Community News.

6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with Karen Yelsey’s statement about charter schools.

This article was originally published at 12:25 p.m.

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