Redondo School Board candidates look past the pandemic
Reopening schools, communications, inclusiveness are priorities for eight vying for three seats
by Donald Morrison
Debate surrounding the reopening of Redondo Beach schools has fueled unprecedented interest among voters in the upcoming Redondo Beach Unified School District Board of Education election, on Tuesday, March 2. The RBUSD has three open seats being sought by eight candidates. Incumbents Brad Serkin, Michael Christensen and Brad Waller are not seeking reelection.
“I come at this as a dad of two kids. I come at this as the son of two educators,” Keith Arnold said. “But mostly I come at this as a guy who’s really upset, and as somebody who feels like this pandemic has really set us back.”
The former screenwriter moved to the South Bay from Minnesota in 2005. He lived 12 years in Manhattan Beach, before deciding to purchase a home in the Golden Hills section of Redondo three years ago. Arnold said a big reason why his family moved to Redondo was for the school district.
“We did our homework,” Arnold said. “It meant we weren’t part of the LA Unified School District. It meant we had a sliver of independence.”
Arnold said he’s frustrated with the infrastructure of the school district and that the pandemic has only exasperated the problem.
“We were set to wait in a lottery to see if our daughter would have care from 2:30 p.m. until 6 p.m.,” Arnold said. “And for anyone who commutes to Los Angeles for work, having those three hours of care is the difference between being able to live or not live in Redondo Beach. It’s unacceptable that the best solution they could come up with was a lottery.”
During the pandemic, Arnold notes, Redondo schools made decisions surrounding remote learning independently of Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. He champions Redondo’s ability to remain separate from the neighboring school districts — as well as LA County’s.
“The reason a lot of us live here is because the schools are great and our kids are getting the best education.”
Arnold said he never expected to be running for a seat on the Board of Education. He said he hasn’t taken any campaign donations and doesn’t plan on spending any of his money on the race.
“How can we take this jewel of our community, which I really do believe is run by great people, and make sure we have independence,” Arnold said. “How can we make sure we have infrastructure and how can we make sure we take care of kids, not just high schoolers who are trying to get into great colleges, but grade schoolers too?”
After the pandemic hit, Jerome Chang felt compelled to come off the sidelines and run for a seat on the Board of Education.
“I just got immediately interested in what it would look like to reopen the schools safely,” Chang said. “It spoke to me immediately.”
Chang was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States when he was five. He spent his childhood in New Jersey and attended undergraduate school at Cornell in New York, earning a degree in engineering. He later completed a masters degree at Harvard University in architecture.
Chang relocated to Los Angeles for work in 2003. He bought a home with his wife in Redondo Beach in 2010, partially because of the school district’s good reputation. The Chang family has a son in third grade and a daughter who plans to start kindergarten in fall.
“Almost all school board members in Redondo stay for more than one four year term. It’s usually two,” Chang said. “Having younger kids who will be around for the entire eight years I think is important to some voters.”
Having a background in engineering and architecture gives Chang special insight into how to minimize infection and ensure safety in school facilities, he said. Chang also said his perspective as a scientist will be valuable when assessing when it’s safe to reopen schools.
“It takes the right person with a good enough understanding of science to help people understand the risks before reopening.”
Chang said that reprioritizing what the city considers as essential work would be one way to get teachers vaccinated sooner so kids can get back to school.
Aside from a safe reopening, Chang is passionate about maximizing school funding and increasing diversity, both in the school and on the school board itself.
“No one can remember the last time a minority was on the Redondo Beach school board,” Chang said. “It’s a good thing when a board, teacher, or any authority figure, reflects the student body.”
A drive to increase access to resources for special needs students pushed Karen Cull to run for a seat on the board of Education in the Redondo Beach Unified School District.
“It’s a blessing to live here and my children get an excellent education,” Cull said. “But it doesn’t really reach all the children and certainly not the ones with cognitive disabilities.”
Cull is the Alta Vista Parent Teacher Association president. She was born and raised in England and moved to Redondo Beach in 2005. She studied political science in college and taught history and politics in the United Kingdom. She has three children in Redondo’s public schools, one with special needs.
As a founding member of the South Bay Down Syndrome Association, Cull has been on the front lines of raising awareness for people with disabilities. She currently serves as a legislative chair on the Parra Middle School PTA.
Cull was quick to praise the Redondo school district for the steps they’ve taken to be more inclusive for students with disabilities. However, she said she has plenty of ideas for improvement, including hiring an inclusion specialist.
“It’s a specialist that they don’t have in the Redondo School district, but they have them in other districts,” Cull said. “It helps the instructors because a general education teacher doesn’t have the training to teach a child with special needs.”
Cull believes it’s important for special needs students to be taught in the same classes as other kids and that the school can actually save money by having at least one teacher in a classroom who is trained to teach students with special needs.
“There is a lot of room for improvement,” Cull said. “I’ve studied how the finance of special education works and I understand what the barriers are to having better programs and better outcomes.”
Cull said the Redondo school district has done better than neighboring districts at pushing the envelope and trying to get the kids back to school as much as possible.
“I don’t see it as a big issue.”
With a long history of volunteering within the Redondo public school district, Dan Elder felt it was a logical step to run for a seat on the School Board during such uncertain times.
“During the pandemic there’s been so much learning loss and social, emotional loss,” Elder said. “There’s a lot of recovery that we need to focus on and I think it’s really important to have the right people helping out, so we can hit the ground running.”
Elder was born and raised in Manhattan Beach. He went to UC Santa Barbara before settling down in Redondo Beach. He works in computer security and has two kids in Redondo public schools, a third grader and a sixth grader.
The long time volunteer currently serves on the RBUSD Bond Oversight Committee. He also serves as the legislative chair and school mascot at Lincoln Elementary School, where he dresses up as the school’s trademark lion for various school events and fundraisers.
“There isn’t much for the mascot to do right now,” Elder said. “I’ve mostly just been Zoom bombing various classes when teachers request it.”
Elder said that the RBUSD was right to push back the reopening date amid a record surge of positive coronavirus cases in LA County. He lists teacher vaccinations and smaller classroom sizes as two possible solutions to getting kids back on campus.
“Losing teachers and losing family members, you can’t come back from that,” Elder said. “Following medical guidance is very helpful for us.”
Another thing Elder worries about in relation to the reopening of schools is making sure to minimize the loss of learning that resulted from remote learning. Elder said that education isn’t one size fits all and that it’s unrealistic to expect every kid to come back completely caught up in school.
“A lot of people feel like there’s a switch that flips and everything will be back to normal,” Elder said. “And it’s not like that. Some kids have become withdrawn and depressed.”
Increasing diversity in the Redondo Beach Unified School District is one of the most important issues to candidate Kimberlee Isaacs, who has one son at Redondo Union High.
“I’m a very active person in the community and social justice is a big thing for me,” Isaacs said.
Isaacs is an accountant from Durham, North Carolina. She moved to Westchester in 2002. Her family relocated to Redondo Beach to be in a better school district for the high school grades.
“It’s been amazing,” Isaacs said. “And my kid isn’t the only black kid at school. Manhattan Beach has almost no diversity.”
Isaacs created a Diversity Committee at City Charter Middle School dedicated to educating students about different ethnicities, as well as the LGBTQ community. She currently serves on the RBUSD Race and Equality Committee. She said it’s important for the administration to have a place where issues of race and gender can be discussed as they arise.
Expanding school curriculum to include more world history is one way to education students on the subject of diversity, Isaacs said.
“Every child, regardless of race, should learn about the histories of different people,” Isaacs said. Especially the culture of their peers. It’s important to understand different cultures, because this country is made up of people from different cultures. I think that’s important for all kids.”
Isaacs said the first and most pressing challenge facing the school board is getting the kids safely back to campus once the pandemic is over.
“The main focus is getting everybody back to school safely and developing protocols to make sure that happens,” Isaacs said. “I want to make sure everyone feels safe with the COVID environment.”
Rachel Silverman Nemeth
Rachel Silverman Nemeth had been planning to run for the Redondo Beach School Board long before the coronavirus pandemic began closing schools.
“I’ve been practicing law for over 25 years. I’m ready to do something else and this is a really great opportunity to volunteer and give back to the community,” Nemeth said.
Nemeth is a family law attorney with Voss, Silverman and Braybrooke. She attended UC Davis, where she majored in psychology and child development. Nemeth has two kids, a son who is a junior at Redondo Union and daughter who graduated from Redondo Union in 2020.
“Education issues are in line with my career interests, so I’ve always been interested in running,” Nemeth said. “My mom was a public educator and I grew up in the public school system.”
Reopening schools quickly and safely is one of the issues Nemeth is most passionate about. However, she agrees with the school district’s decision to delay reopening following the record surge of positive coronavirus cases in LA County last December.
“I think that we have to follow the laws and the Los Angeles County Public Health orders,” Nemeth said. “Whatever recommendations and suggestions they have. We’re not the experts and I think that this three week delay and starting back was reasonable and the right thing to do.”
Once schools reopen, Nemeth said it’s going to be important to pay attention to the needs of individual students, because not everyone will adjust to in person classes at the same rate and some students are bound to have fallen behind at some point during remote learning.
“Identifying the kids who need help and then finding the right kind of help will be huge,” Nemeth said. “Also, the social emotional issues, which I think are not just for the kids but also for some of the teachers, and just getting everybody back into a sense of security.”
Aside from reopening, Nemeth wants to place a larger emphasis on college readiness for juniors and seniors.
“We need to work on college readiness at the high school,” Nemeth said. “College counselors at the high school could use more support and we can do more to make sure our kids are meeting college requirements.”
Rolf Curtis Strutzenberg
Rolf Strutzenberg said he’s running for a seat on the Board of Education to focus on longstanding issues, as opposed to just wanting schools to reopen as quickly as possible.
“Those problems are temporary,” Strutzenberg said. “In talking to teachers, I’ve learned that there’s been a lot of improvements, but there’s still things they want done. I’m thinking long term.”
Originally from Iowa, Strutzenberg came to Southern California in 1996 to help design a new airplane for an aerospace company in Redondo Beach. He attended college at Arlington at The University of Texas and received a postgraduate degree in Belgium. Strutzenberg has two sons, one in third grade and another starting kindergarten next fall.
The top priorities for Strutzenberg are to make sure students are better supported during remote learning and to safely get the schools reopened in a timely manner.
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” Strutzenberg said. “We need to start by rebuilding the relationship between the administrators and the teachers. The administrators aren’t there with the kids all the time, so their opinions are going to be different.”
Strutzenberg said he places great value in listening to the wants and needs of the teachers. He believes the entire school district will run better, pandemic or not, if the teachers are better taken care of.
“They are the boots on the ground,” Strutzenberg said. “I love talking to teachers and hearing their take on things. They are the ones who are out here making it happen. They see it all, they understand it and that’s who I want to connect with.”
Strutzenberg has been retired since 2013. He ran for city council four years ago and has served on the Redondo Beach Recreation and Parks Commission, as well as the Redondo Beach Planning Commission since 2017.
Strutzenberg also hopes to address college readiness, school funding and updating curriculum to reflect today’s job market.
“I like doing the public service type stuff,” Strutzenberg said. “Because I’ve got the time and the abilities to do it.”
Making sure parents’ voices are heard is a top priority for Margo Trone.
“There needs to be more advocacy for parents and children, and a broader vision,” Trone said.
Trone grew up in Ventura before buying a home with her husband in Redondo Beach in 2005. She has three kids in the RBUSD. She worked for a decade in risk management at the Los Angeles County School District and serves as an Executive Board Member on the PTA.
“My background at the LAUSD will be critical in helping me make the complex decisions that are facing us at this time,” Trone said. “I have a deep understanding of budget constraints and the nuanced approach required to get things done in a school district.”
Trone said she felt compelled to run after the school district released their reopening plans last July.
“They only had two options and they weren’t equitable,” Trone said. ““I know families who are immune compromised who wouldn’t be able to return to in class learning. Each child learns differently and there needs to be more flexibility.”
One way for the school board to be more in tune with the needs of students, according to Trone, would be to place a bigger emphasis on building relationships with the parents.
“I feel the parents’ voice is not being heard,” Trone said. “I think parents should have an influential voice in education.”
In 2019, Trone founded the Dual Immersion Foundation, a non-profit that promotes bilingual and multicultural teachings at the elementary school level. One of the issues Trone is most passionate about is increasing diversity in the school district.
“It’s important to have representation on the school board as well,” Trone said. “As a Latina, I feel I would be representing the diverse community we have in Redondo.”
Trone said her priorities include safely returning students to in-class learning
“This has been a really interesting journey for me. I’m not a politician,” Trone said. “I’m a mom.”
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