Endorsement: Celeste Winders will bring experience, dedication to Sonoma Valley Unified School board

Winders is not a stranger to this district, the school board or Sonoma Valley administrators.|

Schools across the country, California and Sonoma County are facing unprecedented challenges.

Years of learning loss triggered by the pandemic, paired with an exodus of educators and the emotional trauma confronting students because of wildfires, have resulted in grave learning conditions. It’s a bleak situation that is hitting Sonoma Valley Unified School District especially hard.

Schools that were consistent high performers are turning in dismal test scores. Prestwood Elementary, for instance, dropped 16 points in English proficiency (56% in 2019 to 40% in 2022) and nine points in math (46.7% proficient to 37.4%).

In the Sonoma school district, constant turnover of district staff, combined with in-fighting among board members, has further distracted school officials from their primary responsibility: Making sure our schools have the tools needed to help our students thrive.

Those factors are what makes the school board race one of Sonoma County’s most important this election season.

Three candidates have stepped up to represent the Springs in Area 2: Jaquelyn Torres is a former student; Joseph Lemas is a parent with kids in the school district; and Celeste Winders is both a former student and a current district parent.

Each has campaigned hard for this spot and offer an array of skills worthy of consideration at such an important juncture in the school district’s history. We salute them and others who have embraced the challenges of running for elected office.

After much deliberation, the Index-Tribune is endorsing Winders. But our support comes with a call for her to build collaboration and cool the heated approach that too often is perceived as combative and, as we see it, unproductive to moving the district forward.

Winders is a mother of four local students who has missed about three school board meetings in the past eight years. She runs a business that advocates for youth with Independent Education Plans, a common tool for students with academic disabilities or behavioral struggles.

She speaks fluently about the California education code, public school financing, test scores and the significant issues that have curbed both the vision and effectiveness of the school board. Knowledge and experience will be critical for every board member in this challenged district, where test scores were plummeting long before the pandemic.

Winders is not a stranger to this district, the school board or Sonoma Valley administrators. She has built a reputation – in part for her fiery comments at school district meetings. Some, including seated board members, would call it antagonistic — others, most specifically parents — would argue she says what needs to be said, even if it’s uncomfortable. Either way, Winders’ passion in advocating for children can’t be denied.

In a district that has spent far too much time bickering over costly athletic fields or union labor agreements, Winders could serve as the board’s internal compass to guide it back to its core mission: Educating our children.

In that endeavor, Winders is encouraged to build bridges with key stakeholders in the district and with fellow board members to ensure the work gets done. There is no greater priority.

In conversations with our editorial board, Winders expressed determination to put aside politics and finger-pointing and focus on results for students, particularly our students of color and those with disabilities, many of whom have not been properly supported in this district. Because most students in both Area 2 and the school district are Latino, her voice will be most essential to moving the district forward.

There are many positives found in the two other challengers, especially Lemas.

Despite having relatively no experience in education and never holding public office, he has earned the endorsement of prominent leaders, including county schools Superintendent Steven Herrington, Sonoma County Office of Education representative Gina Cuclis and the Valley of the Moon Teacher’s Association, among others. That type of backing grabbed our attention, and his candidacy cannot be dismissed.

However, his limited knowledge of district issues, a lack of time spent working with our schools and a failure to convey a compelling vision for moving the district forward were concerns. His former banking experience could be advantageous for a district with extensive budget woes, but he would require more time to ramp up than Winders, when time is of the essence.

We encourage him to immerse himself even more in district issues and to get involved in the Springs community, as Winders has done as the former director of the Teen Center and co-founder of Food for All/Comida para Todos. Doing so will make him an even stronger contender in future races.

Torres, 20, who is finishing her master’s degree in Pennsylvania, is among the youngest candidate running in Sonoma County this year. She speaks thoughtfully about lifting the voices of teachers and students, and she’s learning the ropes from Trustee Anne Ching, a mentor who encouraged Torres to run. She’s also been quite active in the community despite her young age, an impressive feat for someone who is also balancing an advanced education. Like Lemas, there are great things in Torres’ future, with just a bit more seasoning.

While usually a bit of a sleeper, this year’s Sonoma Valley Unified School board race has never been more important. We encourage you to cast your ballots.

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