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Mt. Diablo school district: Management and budget woes top debate in four-candidate race for two open seats

By Theresa Harrington
Contra Costa Times
October 12, 2008

CONCORD — A contentious school board election is brewing in the Mt. Diablo district, where a longtime trustee and the teacher's union are working to defeat another incumbent amid months of controversy over management.

The school board has cut $14 million from the district's budget in the past year and is likely to slash millions more in coming months. It is also facing an expired teacher's contract that could lead to a strike, if it goes unresolved much longer.

On top of that, the superintendent has come under fire for failing to bring legal contracts to the board for annual approval, presiding over a payroll department that may owe more than $833,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties and allegations of engaging in unfair labor practices. In the meantime, some schools are struggling to improve test scores and Walnut Creek parents are smarting after a failed attempt to secede from the district.

"Board leadership is a failure right now," said 13-year incumbent Gary Eberhart, who is seeking re-election and supporting candidate Sherry Whitmarsh, in a bid to unseat incumbent April Treece and topple the board majority, which has steadfastly stood behind Superintendent Gary McHenry.

"We do have some wonderful things going on in our schools. But then we have other schools, where 80 percent or more of the students are operating below proficiency."

Whitmarsh is running on a slate with Eberhart to improve district communications, settle employee contracts and develop a strategic plan to help guide decisionmaking.

"We have lost some very talented teachers," Whitmarsh said. "It hurts our kids."

Treece, who is board president, said competitive wages and benefits for district employees are her top priorities. But spending more money on employees will require spending less elsewhere, she said.

"Since 85 percent of our budget is spent on people," Treece said, "it really is about how to smartly reduce so we have a balanced approach and students and schools not only have high quality teachers in the classroom, but have an environment that encourages learning."

Adams said he entered the race in part because former trustee Bill Leal, before he died, in 2006, asked him to run. At that time, the board appointed Paul Strange to fill Leal's unexpired term and voters subsequently elected Strange, who is not up for re-election this year.

Citing experience in collective bargaining, Adams said he hopes to help negotiate a contract with teachers that will demonstrate the district is committed to keeping them. But he's on the fence about McHenry.

"It could very well be possible that he needs to go," Adams said. "I have talked to parents and teachers who do not like the services they're getting from the district and in my view, he's got to improve those services."

All of the candidates have garnered substantial campaign contributions and endorsements. The teacher and public employee unions together have spent more than $17,000 to support Eberhart and Whitmarsh. The pair has nabbed endorsements from state Sen. Tom Torlakson, Strange, civic leaders and about 100 school employees.

Treece has received more than $6,700 for her campaign since July 1, along with endorsements from state Rep. Loni Hancock, trustees Linda Mayo and Dick Allen, community leaders and educators. Adams has loaned himself $7,250 and received a little more than $5,069 in contributions from local residents and business owners, picking up endorsements from four local city council members.

Eberhart's campaigning includes a blog he operates with Strange. Frustrated parents and teachers have also turned to the Internet, launching blogs critical of the district.

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