Alum Rock Union School District candidates face off in new forum
(Top left to right) Alum Rock Union School District Board of Trustees candidates Joe Corona, Brenda Pinal Zendejas and incumbent Corina Herrera-Loera spoke at Tuesday's forum with District 5 United. (Bottom) Incumbent Dolores Marquez and candidate Scott Hung Pham did not attend.

East San Jose parents on Tuesday heard from three candidates vying for two seats on the Alum Rock Union School District.

The half-hour long virtual forum, hosted by neighborhood group District 5 United, came three days after another Alum Rock candidate forum hosted by SOMOS Mayfair was canceled because only one candidate — Corina Herrera-Loera — agreed to attend.

Herrera-Loera on Tuesday joined candidates Joe Corona and Brenda Pinal Zendejas to share their thoughts on topics such as cost-cutting measures and the role of charter schools in the east side district.

Moderator Juan Estrada said candidate Scott Hung Pham did not respond to an invitation and incumbent Trustee Dolores Marquez had a prior engagement. Marquez and Herrera-Loera, who are seeking re-election, are being challenged by Corona, Zendejas and Pham.

Corona is underground construction manager; Zendejas is an educator in the district’s special education department and Pham is a retired teacher.

When asked about the digital divide that leaves many East San Jose students without internet access in the dark, Zendejas said internet learning accessories should accompany programs like laptop and hotspot distribution.

“All students should have earphones. I think earphones are a must but I don’t think we sent any of them with our children,” Zendejas said. “It should have been a requirement to send out with our laptop, (mice) and even track pads.”

Zendejas said the district needs a more transparent process to track all expenses and payments made by the Board of Trustees. She also proposed a plan for expanded mental health services. “For social and emotional wellbeing, with everything going on with COVID-19, I think we need specialized counselors for mental health to support our children,” she said. “We’re going through a lot, especially our middle school children and our little ones.”

The candidates were asked about the relationship trustees should have with parents, the superintendent and residents in the community.

Herrera-Loera said that she’s learned that trusting staff is important when it comes to staying connected with the community.

“I’ll always look for ways to be accessible to my community, staff and superintendent and ensure the community’s voice is always considered and part of the decision-making process,” she said.

Corona said his children attended Alum Rock schools and said the Board of Trustees should review charter school renewals and applications on a case-by-case basis. Alum Rock Union School District has three authorized charter schools to date, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

Estrada asked the candidates to list their top three priorities for the district and how they would ensure continued student growth.

Corona said his first priority would be to ensure students are supported through the pandemic, as well as making sure educators have the necessary tools and materials to teach. “For example, training and supplies from the district,” he said. “… and understanding what the parents need for the children to succeed academically. Those are my top priorities.”

Herrera-Loera said her top three priorities are bridging achievement gaps, creating the “kinder-to-career pipeline” and ensuring accountability while governing with integrity.

“Some of the ways (to do this) are increasing social and emotional support for students and parents, providing innovative professional development opportunities for educators, championing ethnic studies and creating more free high-quality early learning,” she said.

Zendejas said her priorities include the budget accountability, social and emotional wellbeing and school safety.

“Our focus as board members should be bringing funds and partnerships into our schools,” she said. “We need to work together as a board alongside the superintendent implementing innovative ways in which we can track all expenses as a district.”

The candidates discussed how they would hold the district accountable and bolster trust among parents.

The Alum Rock school board has been embroiled in controversy stemming from a 2017-2018 county grand jury report calling for the resignations of three trustees — including Marquez — over a deal with construction company Del Terra Real Estate Services.

Trustees were found to be neglectful in overseeing million-dollar construction projects across the district because of favoritism toward Del Terra, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.

“On the board, we must have ethical leaders who not only stand up, but show up for all of our students, parents, teachers and the rest of the Alum Rock community with no excuses,” Herrera-Loera said. “We must understand the needs of our community.”

Zendejas said that the Board of Trustees should always be listening to the experts – the parents.

“We need to make sure we hold ourselves and the superintendent accountable to the community,” she said. “Transparency and constant open communication is a two-way street here.”

Corona agreed.

“We need to make sure we hold ourselves accountable for our responsibilities,” he said. “We’re here for the children of the Alum Rock school district.”

The three candidates also disputed claims that they chose to skip the previous forum hosted Saturday by SOMOS Mayfair, the League of Women Voters and the Si Se Puede Collective. Corona said he had a death in the family and was in Mexico, while Zendejas said she had a prior engagement and asked for the forum to be rescheduled.

Herrera-Loera said she was told by organizers not to attend the forum because the other candidates were not participating.

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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