[UPDATED] Eight of nine candidates running for three PUSD Board seats participated in an online candidate forum presented by the NAACP Pasadena Branch Wednesday evening.
The event featured District PUSD parent and retiree Mike Crowley; PUSD parent and attorney Wayne Hammack, and Altadena Town Councilmember Jennifer Hall Lee, who are all running for the District 2 seat; PUSD parent and advocate Scott Harden and PUSD Board President Patrick Cahalan, both running for District 4; and education administrator Crystal Czubernat, nonprofit administrator Priscilla Hernandez and engineer Tina Wu Frederick, both running for District 6. About 50 community members were “in attendance” for the virtual meeting.
Four questions were posed to each of the candidates by a number of representatives of various local community groups, including the NAACP, Adelante Youth Alliance, and POP! (Pasadenans Organizing for Progress).
As with previous candidate forums and PUSD community discussions, Special Education took up a good deal of the conversation Wednesday.
As NAACP rep Nicole Bernard framed the issue, NAACP Pasadena Chair of Education Honey Milloy asked the candidates: “Special education is a hot button issue in regards to remote learning. How do you plan on budgeting for direct supports appropriate to the needs of the SPED students and their families?”
Candidate Crowley responded first, saying “That’s a tough question.” After mentioning that the state needs to “definitely come in” and provide funding, he offered that the issue was “all very relative to how things go in November as well.” Eventually, Crowley declined to answer the question.
But, “Special education is obviously at the height of all of our concerns right now,” said Hammack, “given the learning challenges with respect to funding.
“The first thing,” Hammack continued, “would be to make sure that the funding that we receive as a district is being properly allocated as it was being used to get these kids the care that they need. I know the district is working on that, and I’m hoping that we can get some of the things they’ve been doing remotely done in person very soon, because they are facing challenges with regard to funding.”
Hammack added, “We have to follow the AB602 requirements and really make sure that we are fulfilling those requirements and getting the behavioral therapy that the kids need, and make sure that we are providing amply for that.”
Candidate Jennifer Hall Lee told the forum that some parents of special ed students are upset at not being able to receive one on one instruction.
“And I think that is really essential,” she said.
Added Lee, “Many students aren’t having a very good time with the technology. So it all really comes down to PUSD not having enough funds to fund what we need to fund. It’s essential.”
Lee acknowledged that much of the special education comes from federal funding.
“But what we’re looking at here is that we have to take care of every single student,” she said. “And what I’ve been hearing from the special education parents is that they’re feeling left out, and they’re feeling like they’re not being heard. And it’s extremely important that we do that, and I will fight for more money because that is what we need, and I will fight to make sure that they are heard.”
Calahan, the current president of the PUSD, also acknowledged “issues with our funding streams.”
Continued Calahan, “We do have a number of initiatives currently going to start to open up services special education and English learners, and other first few batches of students that we’re tackling. So there are plans to get those kids, particularly the ones with the greatest need for in-person services on two campuses in small groups faster than the general population.”
Cahalan also explained that, “It’s important to remember that special ed is a very large category.”
As he noted, there are differences between a moderate to severe medically fragile student who requires a number of different services in order to succeed educationally, and students who have an auditory disability or students in the Junior Blind program.
Said Cahalan, “Some of our special ed students are adapting pretty well to distance learning. So you need to be careful that when you say special ed, we’re focused on the ones that actually need the in-person support services.
Cahalan also agreed with Hammack saying, “We need to make sure that we’re making the best use of the funds that we have.”
Harden, who is challenging Cahalan for his seat, said, “I think the main thing as we move forward with the crisis we’re in, and as we emerge from the crisis is ‘What are the best practices? What are we learning? Are we ensuring that our service models are continuously improved?”
Harden said he believes that happens through communication and dialogue, and also offered that, “ it’s true that there is no one size fits all model, but there are sites that are succeeding better than others. And I think that’s where we need to talk to each other, to get together, have workshops as much as we can in leveraging the money that we do have and putting it to its best use.”
Czubernat emphasized that “ everyone wants the same thing and that’s what’s best for the kids, but said, “What I do see from the parents or caregivers side is that they’re often struggling to be heard. They feel not seen, they feel like they’re continually having to fight and negotiate for the needs that they have for their students.”
And teachers feel the same way, she said.
“They want to give more and more to their students,” said Czubernat. “They want to be able to fill the needs that they have, but don’t always have the resources to do so. However, what I do hear often is that our teachers have ideas, ideas, how to maximize and shift resources, um, that we already have in the system now. It’s important to talk to our special education teachers who are working directly in the schools with these kids and ask their friends to see how we can move forward and maximize resources.”
Czubernat added that, “In Pasadena unified, we are better positioned than almost any charter school or private school to do this well. And I think this could be long term.”
Fredericks told the group that much of the problem with special education is tied to low funding and low salaries, saying, “PUSD has a challenge with retention of aides and special ed staff due to the low pay salaries.
“So it’s critical that we invest in our special ed teachers and aides,” she said.. “I’m concerned that we are not able to retain the same special ed director for the past few years.”
Fredericks added that she was “worried” about numerous special ed services that need to be funded.
“Our teachers and aides are poorly paid, ” she said. “We’re not able to compete with other districts to retain our aides and specialists. We must advocate for more funding. The cost of educating a student with disabilities averages $27,000 compared to the general education costs of about $10,000 per student.
Fredericks said she would use her “advocacy experience” and work with local officials, as well as state and federal representatives regarding funding of public schools. Fredericks added that she would “collectively urge them to increase funding and ensure that the budgets match our values.”
Along with the special education discussion, candidates were also asked whether they would be advocates for required Ethnic Studies courses in the District. All answered affirmatively.
In response to a question limiting District police to only being involved in criminal cases, all the candidates, except Crowley, agreed. All of the candidates also agreed that they would support non citizen parent voting in district elections.