A bilingual woman of color, Virginia Alvarez leads the field of eight candidates running for Santa Barbara school board in years of professional and practical experience managing and coping with the strange and singular complexities of public education administration in California.
The Chief Business Official and Human Resources manager of the Montecito Union School District, Alvarez is a veteran adinistrator, currently working on pandemic-era public school challenges in real time, as districts throughout the state struggle to deal with constantly shifting, and sometimes conflicting, education, health and safety Covid-19 guidelines propounded by the county, state and federal governments,
"I see myself as bringing of value to the board -- I live these challenges every day in my work life," she said in an interview with Newsmakers.
"I have worked in the public school system for thirty years. I have worked alongside board members for about twenty of those years," she added. "I have a pretty good idea of what I'm getting myself into."
In the Nov. 3 election, eight candidates are seeking three seats on the Santa Barbara Unified School District board of education, amid an extraordinary political atmosphere shaped by the pandemic, widespread unemployment, anti-racism protests and the arrival of a new Superintendent.
To provide a platform for the contenders to share their views, and a venue for voters to learn more about them, we've invited each of the hopefuls for a socially distanced, one-on-one interview about some of the major issues facing the district.
A product of Santa Barbara public schools, Alvarez arrived here from Mexico as a seven-year old girl, at a time when there were no innovative immersion language programs such as those the district recently adopted, and so feels an affinity for the thousands of English Language Learner students in the district.
In the interview, she offered her perspective on the persistent and troublesome "learning gap" between White and Latino students, along with a host of other critical challenges facing the district. Some key quotes:
Key issue. "I'm very deeply, deeply concerned about the huge learning loss happening right now because of the remote instruction. The district was already facing challenges in the 'Achievement Gap,' now called the 'Learning Gap...About 20 percent of the district students are English Learners and about 65 percent of the students were already not meeting the (grade standards) and now, with the learning loss, this is going to increase...
"If you look at the composition of the district, about 50 percent of the students are in the free or reduced meal program. Thats really alarming, because not only are most of the students not meeting the state standards but they also are impacted by the closure."
Test scores. "If I was a board member, I'd be asking myself 'What's happening? What am I going to do about it because that's my responsibility"...To me it's a crisis -- what's been done is not working...
"It’s not enough for us to say 'you all have textbooks, you all have iPads' - that’s not enough. I always think of somebody who’s a swimmer. If the students are all taken to a pool and we say 'okay we’re all gonna swim.' Well, there's students who are excellent swimmmers and there’s students that are going to need a lifeguard and a life vest, little floaties. And we as a district have to make sure we have those programs in place.
"For example, we need to have a very robust tutoring program for students that need that little extra help, that little extra floaty, that life jacket. We need to have targeted programs for students that are falling behind because it is not that they can’t learn. They want to learn but they may not have the tools that are necessary to bring them up to grade level.
"You can't say one size fits all because that’s not going to work...we have to meet students where they’re at."
The pandemic, classrooms and distance learning. "There's so much that we don't know about this pandemic...There’s so many things to consider and given that I'm in the thick of it every day, I'm going to tell you -- health and safety is everything. If we don’t have our health what do we have – nothing...
"Schools that have opened in other states have had to close down because of children becoming infected...And then they take it home to their mom and to their dad, to their grandparents. I would not want to live with that,
"I would want to make sure that, number one, I'm following every single guideline, that we are following the CDC, the Santa Barbara Public Health Department, Cal-Osha, that we are providing PPE, that the classroms are ready, six feet distancing. And on top of that, we have to have a robust testing plan for employees and for students and that testing plan is quite challenging because we don’t have enough testing in Santa Barbara....
"(On distance learning) I want to see outcomes. I want to see programs that are evaluated, assessed. If they’re not working, then let’s do something different -- but let’s not wait, let’s not wait unti the school year is over. Let’s look at what’s happening right now, what results are we getting, and if we need to change direction, then let’s change direction because (learning loss) is impacting students."
Just Communities. "I’m very much interested in process...(T)o award contracts of this magnitude, I would want to do my due diigence, I would want to have different vendors make presentations at the board.
"A competivie bidding situation where they’re interviewed at a board meeting. So that gives the public an opportunity to hear what they have to present, it gives the board an opportunity to ask questions, to discuss it as a body.
"Even before we go out to bids for this project, I would want to have clear outcomes – what am I looking for? Begin with the end in mind. How are we going to measure success? Are suspensions down? Are we building bridges, what are we doing?
"I would want to ask first, and once I have a clear understanding of what I'm looking for, then you put out your request for proposals and you interview these people. Make sure everyone has a fair chance…Then let’s move foreward, let’s evaluate their performance -- where's the data? Where's the analysis? I love data. I love analysis."
Finances. "I think this is where I bring a lot of value to the board because I've been doing this for so many years,,,school finance is one of my favorite subjects.
"As a board member I know exactly what questions to ask. Not only do I know what questions to ask, but I also know if I'm getting the right answers...It's a shame so much money was spent on the stadium...Due diligence has to be done, I know what questions to ask, I know the right answers, I also know how to give clear direction."
Click below to watch our entire interview with Virginia Alvarez.
(Editor's note. This is the fourth in our series of one-on-one conversations with candidates for the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education. We post our discussions with candidates as we connect with them).
SBUSD board president and 2020 candidate Laura Capps is here.
SB realtor and candidate Brian Campbell is here.
Photographer and literacy advocate Monie de Wit is here.