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Conejo Schools Election Lacks Burning Issues

Times Staff Writer

Twelve relatively unknown candidates, all making their first bid for elected office, will compete Tuesday for three seats on the board of the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

The Conejo Valley Board of Education race--in which no incumbent is seeking reelection--is one of the few truly wide-open contests among scores of local elections in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Despite the large field of candidates and the opportunity voters will have to elect a new majority to the five-member board, the race has generated little interest.

“There are really no burning issues,” said Ellyn Wilkins, one of the two board members not up for reelection. “Nothing has touched anybody’s heart or their pocketbook.”

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14.9% Voted Amid Controversy

That was not the case two years ago, when Wilkins and Dolores Didio defeated incumbent school board members amid the closings of two schools. Even with the controversy, though, only 14.9% of the eligible voters went to the polls.

This year, the campaign season was preceded by a hotly debated proposal, called Measure K, that would have imposed a $77-per-parcel property tax, with revenues to be used to reduce class sizes. It was resoundingly defeated by a 76% margin in early June.

Soon after the defeat, three incumbent board members announced that they would not seek reelection. Priscilla Schroeder, who favored the tax, and Lori Kissinger, who opposed it, cited personal reasons. Gary Pederson, also an opponent of the tax proposal, said he was fed up with board politics.

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Dozen Candidates Seek 3 Seats

The dozen candidates are Laurie A. Brown, 34, educational consultant; Weber A. Bunnell, 21, political science student; Kate Cox, 42, business owner; William H. Henry Jr., 58, assistant director for human resources development at a large aerospace firm; Therese Hughes, 37, parent, and Larry S. Lindsay, 37, financial consultant.

Also running are Tina Longenecker, 41, housewife; Mildred C. Lynch, who declined to disclose her age, educator; Edwin L. McCalmont Jr., 54, telecommunications technician; Gary Nelson, 42, product marketing director; Barbara A. Sponsler, 40, businesswoman, and George Webb II, 36, consultant.

The top three vote-getters will take office. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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The candidates are vying for three at-large seats on a board responsible for a district that will educate 18,000 students on a 1985-86 budget of about $52 million.

Webb, who has been involved in Democratic Party politics in the area for several years, is the only candidate well-known in Thousand Oaks, a city of 95,000 that forms the bulk of the district.

Half of the candidates have moved into the area since 1980. Lindsay, Nelson, Cox and Sponsler have lived in Thousand Oaks for five years; Henry and Hughes moved in two years ago. The other candidates have lived in the area from 10 to 25 years.

In a few forums and several small gatherings, the candidates have spoken mainly of traditional issues, such as funding and quality of education. Four candidates--Hughes, Longenecker, Sponsler and Cox--actively supported Measure K, but none believes the issue has damaged his or her chances in this contest.

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In interviews and in the forums, Brown and Bunnell have sought to stress their unhappiness with the education the district offers its students.

‘Mediocre’ Test Scores

“I don’t think the 70th percentile is anything to jump for joy about,” Brown said in an interview, referring to the district’s scores on standardized tests that are given throughout the country. She called those district scores “mediocre.”

Bunnell, who attended district schools and now attends Moorpark College, was more blunt. “I feel I’ve been cheated,” he said.

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But other candidates dispute the assertion that the district’s education is not up to par. “You can’t knock improvement” in the standardized tests, Henry said. “I am concerned about the SAT scores, but we are headed in the right direction.”

Scores on standardized tests called the CTBS have increased dramatically in the last four years, Supt. Thomas C. Boysen said. For example, in 1981, district students in grades two through 11 scored in the 59th percentile, nine points above the average student in the country. This year, district students scored in the 77th percentile, Boysen said.

However, he said, verbal scores on college entrance tests are lower now than in 1974.

There also appears to be some disagreement among candidates concerning what to do about drug and alcohol abuse, although all agree that it is worsening.

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Drug Officers on Campus

Bunnell said he favors having undercover narcotics detectives on high school campuses, but other candidates said the problem has not become bad enough to warrant such action. Webb said he favors using some of the state lottery revenues the district expects to receive for preventive programs.

A member of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department narcotics unit, who requested anonymity, said drug abuse in the district is no worse than in any other urban area. Undercover officers would not solve the problem, he said. “We don’t have the resources. I don’t see how it would be effective.”

Merit pay, in which teachers receive pay raises if their skills improve, also has provoked some discussion. Some candidates have proposed such a system, which is opposed by the local teachers’ union.

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“It’s the American way,” Lindsay said. Another advocate, Bunnell, said he favors basing the decision on whether to give a merit raise on how well students have done academically.

Some candidates said they approve of the concept of rewarding good teachers but would negotiate specifics with the teachers union.

Still other candidates oppose merit pay. Webb said a merit pay system would only add more stress to an already difficult job.

Seventh Period Favored

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All candidates said they favor a seventh period in high school. That would allow students, whose academic requirements have increased in recent years, more time to participate in extracurricular programs. Many candidates said they favored using adult education funds to pay for the extra period.

In fund raising, Sponsler, Lindsay and Cox have led the pack, collecting $1,960, $1,730 and $1,500, respectively, according to reports filed with the Ventura County registrar-recorder’s office. Webb reported raising $1,290, and Hughes $725. The other candidates reported raising less than $500 each.

With only little-known candidates and no incumbent running, and very little in the way of hot issues or controversy, observers are finding it difficult to determine which candidate is leading.

“I don’t get any sense of anyone being in front,” said Steve Rubenstein, president and chief executive officer of the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I wouldn’t even start to call this one.”

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