Candidates for the Fresno Unified Area 5 trustee seat agreed at Thursday’s forum that the district’s dismal record of academic performance — only two out of 10 Fresno Unified high school graduates meet literacy standards — but shared different ideas on how to turn things around.
Only a few dozen people were on hand to hear the four candidates at the forum, which was in the cafeteria of Fresno High School.
They munched on free pizza while the candidates — Russ Allen, Andrew Fabela, Andy Levine, and Daniel Renteria — answered a series of questions about what changes they would make and their priorities if they are elected to the School Board. The audience included Trustees Veva Islas and Terry Slatic and several trustee liaisons.
The deadline for Area 5 voters to cast their ballots in the special election is April 12. The winner will serve the remaining two-plus years of the term of longtime Trustee Carol Mills, who died last July. Mills had been re-elected to a four-year term in November 2020 but lost her battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease eight months later.
The forum was co-hosted by Building Healthy Communities and GO Public Schools Fresno. The live broadcast on CMAC got off to a rough start when the audio system failed, causing a brief pause in the questions and answers. The forum was recorded and will be available on the CMAC government channel, a staffer said.
The candidates appeared to be in agreement on many topics, including the need for more accountability by Fresno Unified administrators, staff, parents, and students; better air filtration systems in schools; heightened campus safety; increasing student supports by adding counselors and school psychologists; and putting resources into boosting the academic performance of specific student groups such as African Americans, students receiving special education services, and English language learners.
As for improving the district’s academic performance, Fabela said he would advocate for ending social promotion, reinstating end of year testing, and worry less about students’ self-esteem if they are held back a grade so they can gain the knowledge they’ll need to succeed in their next grade level.
Levine said he favors personalized supports for students that he says would be more effective than a one-size-fits-all approach to raising students’ academic performance.
Renteria said he would make reading a high priority, and district resources should be spent on tutoring and after-school sessions for students who struggle with reading.
Allen said his focus would be on expanding the number of Head Start and preschool classes, encouraging parents of preschoolers to prepare their kids for school, and providing extra services for English language learners.
Allen said he would advocate reinstating physical education as a requirement and encouraging students to actively participate to improve their physical health.
Levine said he would like to see the district apply for a portion of the $3 billion the state of California has allocated for community schools, which in addition to educating students provide a variety of resources to families and residents of the school community, including healthcare, mental health, and social services.
Fabela said he would advocate having retired teachers return to evaluate and mentor current teachers, offering help as needed.
Renteria said he favors using district resources to encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s schooling and remove the barriers that now exist that prevent them from engagement and involvement.
Many studies have shown that students are more successful academically when their parents take an interest in and encourage them in their studies.
Who to Vote for?
Afterward, several Fresno High voters said that they were glad to have the opportunity to see all four candidates at the same time.
But Terry Shelton Jr. and Mike Wells said they haven’t yet made up their minds who to vote for.
For Wells, “it’s a tie between Danny (Renteria) and Andy (Levine),” he said.
Thursday’s forum came nearly a month after a candidate forum hosted by GV Wire.