Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Eastern Sierra Unified School District board of directors.
The district covers all of the schools and communities north of Mammoth to the Nevada border, including Walker, Coleville, Lee Vining, June Lake and the Tri and Antelope Valley areas.
Two years ago, the district nearly imploded as an eleventh-hour budget fiasco led to the elimination of at least one school and the loss of several teachers. Meetings were filled with fury and frustration and neighbors stopped talking to each other.
Every school board incumbent up for re-election lost. A later Grand Jury report put the blame equally on both the district’s top management and the school board.
Two years later, the remaining two school board seats are up for election and four new people are hoping, once again, to make the district a better place.
Here is a look at the four candidates and why they are running. ESUSD assigns school board members to cover certain districts.
James “Jimmy” Little has four children in ESUSD and was one of the parents who attended almost every meeting that contentious spring two years ago, when the district managers told the community they faced an imminent $2 million budget cut. He’s been attending almost every meeting ever since.
Some things have changed for the better, he says.
But not enough.
“I’ve got four kids. I’ve got another 11 to 12 years in this district,” he said. “There is a severe lack of leadership. There are still agenda items showing up with no real discussion, and action is taken without the school board either asking for, or being given, the facts they need to make a good decision.”
Little said his background as the president of the Mono County Tourism Commission for eight years has shown him the value of facts, especially when an issue tends to be emotional, such as a current debate over whether some communities in the district will be eliminated from the school busing system to save costs.
“It’s about asking questions, about holding staff and management accountable,” he said. “You can’t make a good decision, especially about an emotional issue, without the facts.”
Old grudges still affect some members on the board, and there is still tension present that makes the present board less effective, he said.
“I don’t want to just attend the meetings, I want to do something,” he said.
Little is the owner of the Virginia Creek Settlement.
Arya Degenhardt is the longtime communications director for the Mono Lake Committee and a 15-year Lee Vining resident. She has had a lifelong interest in education and volunteered whenever she could in the education system.
“Our kids, our schools, are the lifeblood of this community,” she said. “I know some people think because I don’t have children, I can’t know how to help them, but that’s not true. I am the product of a great public education and it allowed me to move here, to a place I love. I think we all bear responsibility for educating the children of the place we love, even if they are not ours.”
She said she brings to the table more than a decade of skills gained as a communications professional, and the skills she learned along the way will be of benefit to the school board.
“I do communications every day,” she said. “I’ve learned to work with a very diverse group of people on sometimes divisive issues. I’m always looking for what we have in common instead of what divides us. I’d like to use this skill on the school board.”
The biggest challenge facing the district, to her, is the budget.
“We are looking at busing right now,” she said. “But the way I see it, we have a responsibility, in a district spread across such distances, to deal with that, not cut it. That’s part of what it means to educate the students in this district. We need to find a way to give the students the choice of what schools they want to go to.”
Pamela Haas-Durhart is a rancher and mother of two grown children. She moved to Bridgeport 15 years ago, fell in love, got married, and stayed. She began attending school board meetings two years ago when a huge financial crisis hit ESUSD and has continued to attend most of the meetings since then. She is a former teacher, an electronic components worker, and a drag racer.
She is joining the race because of her passion for the students who “fall through the cracks,” and because she simply can’t stand being retired.
“I’m a mother and a teacher,” she said. “My kids are grown, but I think I bring a unique contribution to this board. That brings a different dynamic to the board.”
She said if she is elected, she will visit the schools in the district at least one day each week—and not just those in her district.
“I think this will be a good way to see first hand what challenges we are facing, what resources we have,” she said.
She, too, thinks the biggest challenge facing the district is financial.
“We are looking at a $800,000 cut if Proposition 30 doesn’t pass,” she said. “We are already triple-grading some classrooms (putting kids from three grades in the same class).”
She’d like to see all stipends for both teachers and parents cut, to save money.
“Everyone needs to help get through this,” she said.
John Peters has been the general manager of the Bridgeport Inn since 1999. He is the son of Bob Peters, who is in a runoff election against Tim Fesko for the Mono County Board of Supervisors District 4 seat. He has lived in Bridgeport since 1999 and has a background in business, finance, and film and has been active in school activities and volunteer opportunities. He has two children.
His vision for the future of ESUSD includes looking at an option no other candidate mentioned directly—increased collaboration with the Mono County Office of Education and Mammoth Unified School District, and perhaps, combining the areas for increased efficiency and cost sharing.
He sees “redundancies” in the current situation (where three superintendents share responsibility for a relatively small population of students —around 1,100 in MUSD and around 500 in ESUSD). His background in finance is a factor in seeing the possible inefficiencies and redundancies in such a system, and he believes combining resources should not be taken off the table, given the current budget constraints facing education.
“Times are different,” he said. “I’d like to see if there are more ways to share resources between ESUSD and surrounding districts.”
Communication and collaboration between all three superintendents has improved over the past two years ago, but there are still improvements that could be made, he said.
Beyond that, he said he believes his background will bring a valuable perspective to the board, where the nuances of school funding and finances can be confusing to even the most experienced board member.
“I would like to work toward better accountability and transparency,” he said.
He also joined the race because he believes a good education is the right of every student in the district. Offering a good education leads to better communities in the Eastern Sierra and—indirectly and directly—to a better local economy that is sustainable, he said.
“I’d like to see the kids here have as many opportunities as possible,” he said. “Strengthening our schools will strengthen the community and stabilize the tax base, too.”