Leadership criticized at board election forum

Flashpoint issues including high school math scores, teacher collaboration days and declining enrollment dominated a La Cañada Unified School Board candidates’ forum, the first in a charged election season that has largely unfolded on social networking sites and in the editorial pages of local newspapers.

The four candidates — incumbent Jeanne Broberg and challengers Ernest Koeppen, Ellen Multari and Andrew “AJ” Blumenfeld — drew about 250 people to the La Cañada High School auditorium Monday night, more than twice the attendance of a 2009 forum that featured six people running for three seats.

There are two seats up for grabs on Nov. 8, and with sitting member Cindy Wilcox declining to seek reelection, the board will have at least one new face.

Challengers dug hard at the current leadership, criticizing what they described as a lack of transparency on several controversial issues, including the approval of four non-student teacher collaboration days during the 2011-12 school year.

“We owe our kids as many instructional days as we can give them, not fewer,” said Blumenfeld, a 20-year-old Princeton University student. “That being said, this situation is particularly frustrating to me and many in the community because it really demonstrates a moment of a concession to an adult special interest on the backs of students who lost those days.”

Koeppen also came out strong on the issue, calling for the days to be restored for student instruction. The technology entrepreneur also spoke to La Cañada High School’s standardized math scores, which for many years have lagged behind the school’s scores in other disciplines.

“La Cañada has been No. 2 for a long time,” Koeppen said, a reference to the district’s state-wide ranking as based on standardized Academic Performance Index scores. “Let’s get to No.1. Task this board to raise the math and science scores at least four points every year until we are No. 1.”

Multari said that her children have benefited from the rigors of a La Cañada education, adding that it rivals that of many good private schools. But she added that the need for more upfront communication between the school board and the community has never been more apparent.

“We need greater teacher and board accountability to student performance and parent concerns,” said Multari, a Stanford graduate and parent volunteer. “Teachers, administrators, the district and the board must have clearly defined performance standards to which they are held accountable.”

The sole incumbent running this year, Broberg has a deep history with La Cañada schools. She sent eight children through the system, and now has several grandchildren enrolled. She served on the board from 1993 to 2001, took several years off to serve her church abroad with her husband, and then was reelected in 2007.

Broberg defended the current board, noting that its members have balanced the budget with a 3.5% reserve and avoided furlough days, all while guiding La Cañada Unified to a top-two state-wide ranking.

“As wonderful as La Cañada is, there are a lot of districts like us who have families who gather for the schools, who have very intelligent, hard working, educated residents [and] who have beautiful homes,” she said. “But they are not second in the state three years running. We are.”

Touching on the district’s declining enrollment, Broberg said that she wants the district to maintain its out-of-district permit students at current levels of 15%. Multari said that the distribution of such students should be more carefully placed so as to avoid classes with high numbers of non-La Cañada kids, while Koeppen said that he has no problem increasing their numbers to a degree, so long as the district has the capacity for them.

Blumenfeld said that district officials should try and recruit the more than 100 local children who are enrolled in private schools as a means of stemming declining enrollment numbers.

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