Debate addresses school facilities, programs

Editor's note: This adds the names of the other candidates in the photo caption.

COSTA MESA — A popular after-school program, sports fields and quality of education were discussed Wednesday night at a candidate forum hosted by a local nonprofit.

Costa Mesa United invited candidates for the City Council and school board to share their plans for "academics, athletics and activities" at the Neighborhood Community Center. The panelists were Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis, Sports Editor Steve Virgen and Publisher Tom Johnson of the Newport Beach Independent.

Loretta Zimmerman, who is running for a school district seat in Area 5, stressed the need to keep students in this district.

Some parents here would rather send their children to private schools or schools in Huntington Beach, she said.

"Costa Mesa has a world-class shopping center, a world-class performing arts center, private and public golf courses, athletic facilities. It has areas with million-dollar homes, and it's the envy for many, many communities," said Zimmerman, who is challenging 30-year board member Judy Franco.

But something is missing from the discussion, Zimmerman said.

"We need to look at schools," she said. "That's the thing — when you have excellent schools that are performing well, parents want to send their children to these schools."

The other school board candidates agreed.

Councilwoman Katrina Foley, who's challenging school board incumbent Mike Collier in Area 2, said, "We don't do a good job of promoting our schools."

Foley added that schools should partner more with the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, businesses and various organizations to promote their campuses and enrich student experiences.

Reading from a statement, Franco said the district needs to ensure that kids are "learning what we taught them."

"This century is theirs; not mine, not yours, but theirs," she said. "We need to provide rigorous course programs for the students in all of our schools."

Collier said it's important to look at the students as individuals and to collect data to measure their needs and their success. He said many people might not be aware that a high percentage of students from Estancia High went on to attend college.

"It's an interesting concept, thinking about Westside schools," he said.

When asked to grade school sports fields, council candidate Jim Righeimer gave Jim Scott Stadium an A, and gave the others lower marks.

"One of the major issues is over-use," said Righeimer, who chairs the Planning Commission.

Righeimer, a former Pilot columnist, said that leagues made up of players primarily from other cities need to be limited or pay for more of the costs for field maintenance.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who is seeking reelection, said that she and Foley spent many hours over spreadsheets trying to find a solution for the fields.

"A lot of money is spent foolishly, but there's no good irrigation," Leece said. "We need to work with the school district and work on the same page for much better-shaped fields."

Costa Mesa, which has a joint-use agreement with the school district, recently approved a master plan for fields that would provide answers and solve the issues of over-use, Foley said.

But the district did not adopt the plan, she said.

Sue Lester, who became involved with politics after the city began cracking down on illegal medical marijuana dispensaries, said she's not just a one-issue candidate.

"I want to beg everybody to do your own due diligence," she said. "Look at all of your candidates, and look at what they offer you, and what is it that they are trying to accomplish.

"I will make decisions based on what is best for the greater good," she continued. "We need to look at our budget and see where our dollars are going."

Council candidate Chad Petschl wasn't familiar with some issues, and he acknowledged this immediately. Instead, he mentioned that he is a student of political writings, including the Federalist Papers, and is running for council as a way of giving back and getting young people motivated and involved.

Petschl said he would like to improve Costa Mesa's profile by hosting a nationally recognized tournament here, perhaps one in youth sports.

Chris McEvoy portrayed himself as a political outsider who has no ties to any interest groups. He said he will do what's the best for the city and find ways to fund Recreation on Campus for Kids After School (ROCKS), a city-funded program that was recently cut as part of budget cuts.

"I bring a different perspective from the current majority," he said.

Unlike the recent Feet to the Fire Forum at the same location, the Costa Mesa United debate did not feature much in the way of personal attacks. But there was one salvo fired.

When Righeimer told the audience the police union is spending $100,000 to defeat him, McEvoy told him the police union isn't the only group, and there is a "whole bunch of people that don't want to see you elected."

Outside the debate, members of the police union parked a mobile trailer with a sign that urged voters not to support Righeimer.

Righeimer did not fire back at McEvoy during the debate; afterward he said the Costa Mesa Police Assn. is targeting him simply because he is calling for fiscal responsibility, particularly when it comes to the high costs of public employee pensions.

The debate was moderated by Gordon Bowley and Colin McCarthy of Costa Mesa United.

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