Q&A with the School Board Candidates: Betsy Connolly

What experiences have you had to prepare you for the school board?

As a parent I was very involved in schools so I was part of the PTA district advisory council and marching band boosters. All that volunteering gave me a chance to see behind the scenes and to see things that actually happen on our campuses. I have two children who graduated from TOHS and then I started teaching at Pierce College and Moorpark College. A lot of my students in those programs are coming out of our local high schools so I can see some of the challenges they face and benefits that they get. Also, as an employee of the colleges, I have a feel for what it’s like to teach with an administration over me that makes a lot of rules and tells me what to do, so I think that gives me a fairly broad perspective.

Why are you rerunning for the school board?

I’m rerunning because there’s unfinished business and because I think some of the accomplishments of the past eight years could be undone depending on who is in leadership positions. I’d like to feel more comfortable that the next board is the right one to take the district into the future.

What are your main concerns for the school district?

I was elected in 2008 for the first time, so I’ve served two terms. 2008 was when the economy crashed and so the eight years that I’ve spent on the board have been years of cost cutting and belt tightening and trying to keep programs from disappearing from our schools. And so now funding is better than it was then. It’s still 46th or 47th in the nation so not that much to be happy about but that’s better than, “Oh by the way we’re not going to send you 20 percent of the money we told you we were going to send you at the beginning of the year.” Now that it’s a little better, I think this is the time to make sure that the programs that we have in place are strong and efficient and cost effective so that when the economy swings back down again, and it will, we are strong. We can survive the next downturn like we survived this one.

What are your ideas to reach that point?

One of our big challenges right now is that people in the eastern part of Ventura county are having fewer children. They’re getting married later, they’re deciding to have fewer children, and when they decide they want to have families and own a home, it’s a very hard thing for people to afford a house in Thousand Oaks because the property values are so high. So that declining birth rate makes our schools less efficient because whether you have fifteen hundred students or 1700 students you still have one principal. You can’t get a three quarters principals because the school is smaller. So one of our big challenges is to maintain the strongest enrollment in our schools that we can and that means having programs that are attractive to students and families. We see elementary age children sometimes their parents choice into private schools or they may choice into a small district like Oak Park, but as soon as we get to middle school we see this exact opposite happen that people who live in other communities and children who were going to private school come back to our schools for middle school and high school because we have so many programs so many choices and such high quality in these programs. I think that’s the best way to protect the district for everyone: for the teachers, for the classified employees and for the students is to make that we have robust program offerings so that we’re a place people choose to come to because there are a lot of choices.

What is your opinion on the recent vote by the school board to include information on same sex relationships in mandatory sexual health education?

I have two kinds of opinions on these things. One is that we don’t get to make laws and decide which ones to follow at the district or city or county level. Those are made at the state and the federal level. If we don’t like what’s happening at the state or the federal level, we can lobby or join an organization or advocate, but in the meantime we are required to follow the law. Every school board member, every city council member takes an oath to follow the law. And if we pass a policy that’s in conflict with the law, state law trumps our policy so I would be putting teachers and administrators in a very difficult position if I had a law, a policy that wasn’t consistent with the law. That’s number one. The other half of your questions is “would I like to go lobby against having sexual health part of the curriculum?” My answer is no, I would not like to lobby for that because I think that human biology, evolution, sexual health are all reasonable things for high school students to be learning at school. I don’t want anyone’s religion or politics to interfere with the materials students are exposed to and taught at school. The curriculum for sexual health is science based, its fact based and it acknowledges the existence of homosexuals and transgender people. It does not say that you should become one of these things, but it acknowledges that these things exist and that state and federal law protect people with these other orientations. I think that’s something everyone should know before they go into the workplace… or go to college. So I don’t want to send you off ignorant.

What is your opinion on transgender students using the bathroom of their gender of their preference?

I understand that attitudes and awareness of transgender people has changed very, very quickly. That is a challenge especially for people of my age who have seen so much change in a short period of time so I can understand why people say, “You’re kidding. Five years ago I didn’t know this existed and now you’re telling me this?” It’s a lot to digest because all of this used to be a secret that nobody talked about and it’s not a secret anymore. I understand why people are hesitant but I also know that if as you start to mature and become sexually sure, you realize that you are not like the average person in your family or in your class, you’re already on a tough journey. I don’t think schools should be making those journeys tougher for students. I don’t think schools should be making those journeys tougher for students, and if I had to pick out things to be afraid of in the girls’ bathroom, someone who felt that they were meant to be female would be number 895 on a list of things to worry about.  There is no social or crime evidence that transgender people are a threat so I’m going to go with the facts.

What is your view on the increased use of technology in classrooms and how would you provide technology to students who don’t have easy access to it?

When I first started teaching at Pierce College more than a decade ago I had a one of those projectors. Now at both colleges I have all kinds of technology available to me, but I still think that a good thoughtful conversation and from a teacher who cares about his or her subject material is a lot more important than those gadgets. However, there are times when technology helps to close gaps and equalize student learning so for me I have tried to remember in certain kinds of thing. I’m pretty smart but when it comes to certain kinds of digital things I kind of struggle. I need to do 20 times more repetitions to hold onto a formula than any of you would need that when technology can be a big plus, and I think there are situations when it can be a great enhancement of learning. What I love about spell check is it’s not critical: I could misspell the same words a thousand times and spell check doesn’t care if I do that to a teacher. After the first 40 times they get annoyed so I love that I can work past my challenges with technology as a partner because technology doesn’t get annoyed. Technology is no substitute for a creative and engaging and likable teacher.

How would you promote a healthier lifestyle both physically and mentally and emotionally for students in schools?

I think the first time is to admit that there is no one size fits all solution to learning and that’s one of the reasons why I am a big supporter of the Conejo Valley Learning Center and alternative educational opportunities; we used to have the attitude that unless you were a bad kid you could make your way happily and successfully in a traditional high school, but we pretty much know that’s not true. Having alternatives to the traditional path respects the differences between us and that’s number one, it’s just admitting that there is no one size fits all and it’s okay to be different and I think in addition to that we could add more support services. We used to wait until a student was just a complete puddle and failure and then say, “OK what should we do now, put them at Conejo Valley High School and get them a diploma before they quit”, but now we have breakthrough student assistance. We have other pathways and options we try to catch people while their falling rather than let them fall well I would like to take it one step further and I’d like to get students thinking about who they are and who they would like there to be and how their learning options could be accommodated right from the beginning why do you have to struggle first why not just chose and if you change your mind why not choose again we can be more flexible than we have been in the past.

Do you feel that students are aware of the options?

Not always and I think that that is a complicated subject isn’t it, we see, and I understand why, school pride in this community so principals and counselors and teachers at Thousand Oaks High School they want you to want to be here they dont want you to choose Newbury Park High School or Century. In truth, they want you to love where you are and so even though one size doesn’t fit all it’s hard to let go of that idea. So here is the fact, if 100 students leave to high school then a teacher has to leave because we can’t have a teacher with no students and we can’t have a to high school smaller than all the classes at NP high school so it’s a real workplace issue for teachers that they want to hold onto their students and if they lose enough students, let’s say NP became a very small school and westlake and TO were very big, well then what would happen to the drama program and the journalism program and the arts and everything if you didn’t have enough students? So there is some tension there and there are complicated issues. It requires a lot of trust so what we try to do with the school board and the district office level is keep it balanced we don’t let any school tip too far don’t let any one school have all the bling and the other school not because we know that once a certain mass of students start shifting that we are going to have a lot of trouble so we try to keep them all offering a variety of things that are good for students

What’s your opinion regarding the relocation of Conejo Valley High School ?

Well we are going to relocate Conejo Valley High School because we sold the land so that’s going to happen for sure. My real interest is in establishing a new idea, which is Conejo Valley Learning Center and what Conejo Valley Learning Center is is credit recovery, what we now call Conejo Valley High School, Century Academy, where we have hybrid online and teacher mentor learning and career tech ed certification programs. So for instance, you can go to the adult school and you can actually make a course of instruction that makes you an EMT an emergency medical technician or a phlebotomist or a medical technology imout operator and you get a certificate or an electrical and you can go get a job. High school students are allowed by law to take those classes so if we have our students who need to be at a campus all day kong they don’t need to be at home on their computers and we have our independent learners, our century learners who do great when they’re at home but they need to come in and interact and be tested. And then we have our career pathways, real stuff, where you actually get a certificate and you can go and get a job, and if we had all of those at one campus, and students could spend their time in a mix of independent learning, classroom learning, and certification, wouldn’t that be great? Well that’s what Conejo Valley Learning Center is supposed to be, and Conejo Valley High School is part of that plan. It’s been part of that plan for more than a decade, so I want that to happen. Century is already over there, squeezed into a tiny space, needs to get bigger, we added eighth grade this year. Some of our independent studies are already over there, our hands on adult learning programs, all the computer graphics, and all those things, they are already over there. Why don’t we have them all there? And let them all cross pollinate. You could graduate from high school, and have a certificate in a skill that allows you to immediately start working at a great job if you didn’t want to go to college. I like it. So, that’s what I would like to see happen. It’s not about relocating one high school, it’s about creating a new program that’s good for kids.

Do you think that the people who are worried about the relocation are aware of that?

Well, I think the answer is it depends. I think that there are always concerns when we develop a new program, because we’re already using all of Waverly Campus for something else, and so some of our English as a second language instruction, we have a lot of adults, who don’t speak ENglish, and they come to Waverley campus and they take English classes, which are great, so they’re worried that if we move some of their stuff down to horizon hills, down the street or whatever, it could weaken the adult education program. I get that, right, and then other programs are worried that, you know, teachers hate to give up their rooms, don’t they, so everyone worries what about my stuff, yeah? So we’re in the middle of having a conversation with adult ed and with Century, and with Conejo Valley High School, and with the Horizon Hills parenting program and everything. Everyone is going to have to compromise, even me, right, because I would like to build a brand new building for $22 million next to the district office, but I don’t have the money, so we’re all gonna have to compromise a little bit. I’ll know it’s working, when everyone is a little bit unhappy. And no one is super unhappy right? That’s when I’ll know we are on the right track. In the meantime, the neighborhood around Waverley, they had been unhappy for around 30 years, because adult Ed starts early and ends almost ten o’clock at night. And if you’ve driven through that neighborhood, you know there’s speed bumps and there’s a lot of problems there with traffic, not created by the Conejo Valley Learning Plan, we don’t even have it yet, but it is created by the use of our elementary school, old elementary school campus for adults, who all drive cars, because that’s what we do in Thousand Oaks. So, we’re taking advantage of this opportunity to bring the city and parks and rec, who own the property behind the school, into a conversation with the community, that neighborhood, about how maybe we could redo the access to the campus, so that it didn’t so much of an effect on the neighborhood. Not because Conejo Valley Learning Center is going to make that worse, it won’t, but because it’s a perfect opportunity to fix an old problem. So, people are worried about what change could mean. I think we could make everybody a winner. That’s what I would like to do.

Is there any specific changes that you would approve to the general education program?

Well, you know, we usually defer curriculum issues to the teachers, who form committees, based on their subject area, and they meet and decide what should and shouldn’t be covered. So they come to us with a list of the books that are going to be on the eleventh grade you know, this is how we want to do the math pathways. If a lot of unhappy people come to say we don’t want to do it that way, then we say okay go back, and talk about it some more, and come back with us. We would, the board, the current board, would not want to be making those decisions for the professional educators. We leave that to the to the professionals at the district office and the teachers. There are some board members who would like to take books off of the reading list, or adopt a different textbook from the one that the state of California has approved, maybe one from texas, but, I don’t think that’s right. I think we need to trust our teachers, and I also think we need to have a really robust and challenging curriculum that prepares students to be successful in college where most, at least half of our students, are going to end up. Half of the students who attend Thousand Oaks, or attend Conejo Valley schools are going to go on to college and graduate. That means our job for half of the students here is to make sure you’re ready to be successful all the way through college. If I’m keeping you from reading tough stuff, of learning tough subjects, I’m not doing you any favors when you go off to school.

What are your thoughts on current Ed code requirements that grant high school journalists the same rights as professional journalists and how do you think that affects the student body?

Well of course I was there, I like to call it the condom on the banana issue, here’s what I think, because first of all the law is the law. But, if I could change the law, I would not. I do think that it is very important for student journalists and real working journalists to understand that the reporting that they do has consequences, for them, and for the communities that they serve, and that it always needs to be responsible and ethical. I think it’s also important for people who don’t want to read certain material to know what their rights and responsibilities are. I think that’s all great. I think we should be transparent and open, but I am 100% against trying to restrict student journalists. Plus I know it’s not gonna be successful, we’d be sued in about two days. It’s not practical and I don’t want to do it.

Do you feel that all students receive equal opportunities and treatment in CVUSD regardless of race, sexuallity, financial status, learning disabilities?

You know, I think every one of us has unconscious biases, and I think that those biases sometimes affect the services and the treatment that certain students receive. I’m not sure that we can get rid of our unconscious biases, but I think we can become aware of them and kind of stop them from having a bad effect on others. That’s why, collecting data is so important, because you could feel like you were always fair, but if out of 100 students, who petitioned to be in a class, they were 10% below the cutoff, if out of those 100 students, every one of those is male or every one of the ones who make it through the process is white? Now I’m going to start wanting to ask the question, what’s happening here? You may not even be aware that you are doing it if you are the gatekeeper, but we need to know what our biases are doing, in order to start correcting them. I like to know, if I’m unintentionally doing something. I like to assume that other professionals like to know it as well. Do I think it happens? Yes. I think it is the responsibility of the district office and the school board to be watchful for that possibility, not so that we can catch a teacher or a counselor being bad, I’m not interested in that, so that we can all learn to be better at getting past our unconscious biases, and making sure that we are actually protecting the rights of students. And the numbers don’t lie. After a while, you’re just like yeah, there is something going on here. Sometimes we have to work extra hard, right now we’re piloting field hockey and beach volleyball and one other thing right at Westlake High School. The reason why we are doing that is because we have so many fewer girls participating in sports than boys, and if we don’t do something to try to address that, then we are in violation of Federal law, Title 9. Sometimes we just try something. We say well why aren’t there any Latinos in AP History, how could that be? So our counselors and our instructors go out there and just try to pitch it. Because often times, if we can just get one girl to do that, or or one Latino to do that, all of a sudden it’s like “oh, okay, there we are”. It requires management. You can’t just let it work it’s way out on it’s own, because it doesn’t work.

Is there anything else you wanted to say to students in general?

Well I guess I would like to say that school boards matter to the quality of the education that you receive, and that your younger brothers and sisters and community members receive. It is an issue worthy of your attention.

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