Newport-Mesa school board candidates weigh in on teacher morale and fiscal responsibility at forum

Six candidates contending for spots on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board turned out for a forum Tuesday evening to deliberate issues such as teacher morale, fiscal responsibility and student mental health.

The forum — the first of three scheduled before the November election — was presented by the Newport Beach Women’s Democratic Club and drew an audience of about 30 people to the Oasis Senior Center in Corona del Mar.

A total of nine candidates are vying for four available seats on the seven-member board. Trustees will be chosen by voters in the areas where they live rather than by voters throughout the district, a change adopted last year.

In Area 2, incumbent Charlene Metoyer is running for a second term against Michelle Murphy, who works for United Way.

In Area 4, 12-year trustee Karen Yelsey is facing Gina Nick, owner of a Newport Beach medical practice. Nick was absent from Tuesday’s forum.

In Area 5, Michelle Barto is running against fellow small-businessperson Paul Hillson, who was absent Tuesday.

In Area 7, local nonprofit education director Ashley Anderson and real estate broker Diane “Dee Dee” RuoRock are vying against tax preparer Bertha Rodriguez, who was absent.

Yelsey, who spoke first and left the forum early, touted her 40-year residency in the community and her experience working through many crises while on the board, including the national economic decline of 2008, during which she said Newport-Mesa didn’t suffer the level of program cuts and staff layoffs that neighboring districts did.

Yelsey claimed Nick has filed for personal bankruptcy twice, including last year, and argued she shouldn’t be trusted “to manage our children’s education dollars.”

Reached Wednesday, Nick’s campaign spokesman Steven Baric did not say whether Nick had filed for bankruptcy, but he called Yelsey’s statements an “attack [on] a single mother” meant to distract from the board’s “failures” during Yelsey’s time as a trustee. He cited issues such as district debt and low math scores. He said Nick was not present Tuesday because she was observing a religious holiday.

Metoyer spoke of some of the same successes Yelsey brought up — including the district’s recent addition of new social workers and school psychologists and the hiring of 58 new elementary school teachers this year.

But Murphy spoke of her disappointment in the board’s responses to the concerns of parents, especially those of special-needs children, and in the district’s “waste of money” on legal issues involving the teachers union and individuals’ public records requests.

Both of them advocated a better working relationship between bargaining units and the board.

Barto said her priorities include technology, data privacy and increased mental health services.

“One thing we need to focus on is to make sure [teachers] have the tools they need to do their job so they are happy to be there and they don’t get burned out,” Barto said.

Anderson advocated increased spending directly attached to the classroom, noting that many teachers spend their own money to provide materials for their classes. She also championed dual language immersion programs and a focus on reading.

“We do not need to be building state-of-the-art facilities,” Anderson said. “We need to be focusing on teaching our children to read. That is the No. 1 thing that we need to be doing.”

RuoRock, a Costa Mesa resident for more than 40 years, emphasized the importance of teacher morale, suggesting that “little things” like teacher appreciation days could make a big difference. She also said “a lot of wasted money” goes toward rushed school projects and that she would like the board to “take a little more time and think things through.”

Two school board candidate forums are scheduled for next month. The Newport-Mesa Community for Students’ “Toes to the Stove” forum will be held at 6 p.m. Oct. 1 at Fairview Community Church, 2525 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. The Harbor Council PTA and League of Women Voters of Orange Coast will hold a forum at 6 p.m. Oct. 10 at Harper Assessment Center, 425 E. 18th St., Costa Mesa.

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