La Cañada school board candidates talk master plan, student wellness in community forum

Issues surrounding La Cañada Unified’s facilities master plan, a $149-million bond measure on the November ballot and tempering the pursuit of academic excellence with a focus on student wellness were put before five school board candidates in a forum Monday.

Co-sponsored by the La Cañada Council PTA and the League of Women Voters - Pasadena area, the event introduced an audience of about 50 community members to the three newcomers and two incumbents — Josh Gottheim, Joe Radabaugh, Chris Salvo and current board members Kaitzer Puglia and Dan Jeffries — who will be vying for three open seats on the La Cañada Unified School District Governing board on Nov. 7.

David Sagal, occupant of one contested seat, announced he would not run for a second term.

Candidates largely supported the district’s plan to modernize campuses in the coming decades, under the guidance of a facilities master plan adopted in June. They also confirmed their support for Measure LCF, a bond that would raise money for a portion of the renovations by maintaining district residents’ current taxation rate over an extended period.

But when it came to how to execute the master plan — whether two-story buildings proposed for the elementary schools are appropriate, or if campuses should be closed for better security — perspectives differed.

Jeffries and Puglia said two-story buildings maximize efficiency on landlocked campuses and would use natural slopes to reduce visual impacts. But Radabaugh questioned the move.

“I think we need to revisit that,” the retired Nestlé executive said of the master plan. “These are not cemented in stone priorities. There’s more work to be done in terms of the scope and the design objectives. I’m not convinced two-story is the way to go.”

Salvo, an aerospace engineering manager at JPL, said an effective architectural solution could be developed with further community input and an “eyes open” approach. Land-use attorney Gottheim favored the additions.

“Two-story is a no-brainer,” Gottheim said. “We’ve got two-story homes in the community — we don’t want to use up our precious ball fields and limited land on campuses.”

To increase campus safety, Puglia agreed with Gottheim that recommendations developed by a district Safety and Security Committee and adopted by the board in 2014 could stand an update.

“The community gave feedback and the feedback they gave was split. Half felt we did not need to be completely closed in, and half felt we did,” said the Pasadena City College education professor. “So I do think we need to revisit [this] again.”

Jeffries advocated for the use of trellises, building lines and natural features over gates and walls.

“We’re hopeful the bond measure passes so we have additional funding and can implement some of the physical changes we’d like to make to our campuses to make them more secure,” said Jeffries, a prosecutor for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office.

On the subject of instruction, Gottheim and Salvo strongly favored bringing in resources and technology that would let students in the same classroom learn at different paces.

“Clearly one size doesn’t fit all, and kids don’t learn all at the same rate,” Salvo said. “We need offerings that respond to that reality, and [not to] just move everyone along at the same pace — that’s just demoralizing for the kids.”

When asked about student wellness keeping kids at their highest performance levels without causing undue stress, incumbents leaned on the benefits so far of the researched-based Stanford University program Challenge Success, implemented at La Cañada High School last year and now being introduced at the elementary level.

The program focuses on campus conditions, policy changes and behavioral modifications at school and at home that directly address children’s social and emotional needs.

Radabaugh said he’d like to see the program tailored more specifically to the unique needs of La Cañada families and act as a springboard for more local actions and decisions.

In closing statements, the five candidates distinguished themselves from competitors. Puglia said content standards, school funding, teacher support and board policy review would take a central role in the coming years, and promised to be an advocate for children.

Jeffries said he’d continue to exercise diligence, communication, cooperation and responsiveness and to give back to the community through his service on the board. Gottheim said it is imperative to maintain a culture of excellence and said he’d use his passion for STEM subjects and arts education to endorse a “whole-person” approach to education.

Salvo said he’d use his background in management and practical decision-making skills to ensure the district runs a tight ship, while encouraging parents to share their own talents and expertise with LCUSD students. Radabaugh said the board needs someone with leadership experience and promised to hold the district accountable and be visible, accessible and open to community input.

Voters will be asked to select three candidates on election day, Nov. 7.

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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