The five candidates seeking a seat on the next Chandler Unified School District Governing Board answered five questions during the first forum on Sept. 6. Candidates in the Nov. 8 election for two seats include Lara Bruner, Marilous Estes, Charlotte Golla, Kurt Rohrs and Patti Serrano.
One question dealt with one of the hottest topics facing the district: the mental health of students and staff.
The Chandler Education Association, which represents teachers, and Valley Interfaith Project hosted the event. Candidates got the questions in advance and did not interact.
Rohrs, said the mental health crisis cannot be solved by the district alone.
“I don’t know if we’re being asked to do more than we can really do as a district,” Rohrs said. “Typically these issues have been cared for by the county, which does an awful lot.
“We should rely on the city but also the community, particularly the faith-based community, as well. I think we need to utilize those resources instead of trying to reinvent the wheel to these kids.”
Serrano said the district needs to recognize the stress COVID put on kids.
“Our kids and families are suffering,” she said. “Prioritizing and pushing academics alone is clearly not the answer. One of my main issues as your candidate for CUSD is supporting the implementation of whole child learning, this includes social, emotional, and mental health in addition to academics.
“Given the current pandemic and turbulence of the last few years, our students returned to school with a high priority put on catching up academically. But we have now been witnessing the failure of recognizing the need our students have had in catching up emotionally.”
Golla said the district needs to expand what it’s already doing to include more parts of the city, such as its school-based family resource CARE Center.
“We have a lot of current programs that are fantastic and working,” Golla said. “So especially those in partnership with the CARE Center, I would want to look to create more regional programming for the southern part of our district as well. So ideally, we could look to work with other nonprofit agencies, like ICANN community bridges, Not My Kid or Teen Lifeline to partner and offer a satellite center similar to the CARE Center.”
Estes says she’s seen progress in what the district has done to tackle the crisis.
“I believe CUSD is on a path to improved support for mental health for the many needs of CUSD students, but it is a long and winding road and CUSD has yet to complete the journey,” Estes said.
“Over the past five years CUSD has committed to improving mental health support to train professionals, as evidenced by the commitment of $5 million set aside for student health services. These funds employ 92 counselors and 21 social workers.”
Bruner, who is seeking her second term on the governing board, called the topic important to her.
“I’ve been trying to push for the district to have an evidence-based, community-based program that’s comprehensive that includes community supports and ties to nonprofits and to our faith-based organizations that also have counseling supports,” she said.
“We need to expand our student clubs. They just started in the last couple of years and we need to make sure junior high kids have opportunities with that as well.”
The first question of the night was what to do about the teacher and staff shortage.
Golla suggested changing the pay structure to recognize that teachers are often doing more than they were in previous years while Estes says CUSD needs to find out why teachers and staff are leaving and then address those issues.
Bruner said the district has to look at compensation first, but added teachers need the proper level of support in the classroom to do their jobs.
Serrano said they must have an open dialogue with current teachers to ensure there is a strong work environment and all employees feel valued and respected.
Rohrs said he wants to understand why employees are leaving the district so he would know how to solve the problem. He said he doesn’t think it’s always about money, but it may have something to do with conditions in the classroom.
Four of the five candidates said they would advocate for an end to the aggregate expenditure limit that caps spending by the state’s school districts unless the Legislature overrides it.
But Rohrs says it was a taxpayer protection initiative and he would handle it differently. Instead of pushing for a repeal, he would push to change the funding formulas, which he called very complicated.
All five candidates admitted the high cost of housing in Chandler was contributing to the difficulty in recruiting teachers and staff.
And they all promised that if they are elected, they would commit to meeting within a month of election day with CEA leadership to discuss the issues in the district.