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Endorsement: SCOE trustees face sea change in education

With the coronavirus throwing a pandemic-sized wrench into plans for this school year and possibly next, the support school districts depend upon from the Sonoma County Office of Education is more important than ever. On Nov. 3, Sonoma Valley voters will choose their Area One trustee on the Sonoma Board of Education – a person who will assist school districts in navigating the ever-choppy waters of the COVID and post-COVID worlds of Sonoma public school education.

No one knows what classroom learning will look like at the end of the trustee’s coming four-year term, but we know one thing: It won’t look like it did a mere eight months ago, before such important issues as social equity, facility upgrades and learner outcomes were joined by a sea-change health crisis.

That’s the county education scene that faces the winning Area One candidate, as incumbent Gina Cuclis is vying for a third term against challenger Dianna MacDonald, a former two-term member of the Cloverdale school board. Area One includes the Sonoma Valley Unified, Rincon Valley Union, Bennett Valley Union and Kenwood school districts.

Cuclis, a longtime Springs resident, describes the Office of Education’s role as a “hub” for school district support – a “collection of resources and information” at the disposal of students, faculty and administration. She cites “advocacy” among the primary benefits she brings to the table. Cuclis, 62, says she’s seeking a third term in order to continue the work begun in response to the unexpected series of disasters over the course of the past four years – from fires to power outages to pandemics. “There’s much work to do,” she says in understatement at ginacuclis.com.

Among her chief accomplishments, Cuclis cites her support in educating expelled and incarcerated youth, confronting the ongoing teacher shortage and ensuring professional development opportunities are available for educators and district officials. She also names student mental health, special education and career and technical education as primary areas of her focus.

“I’ve been doing this job for eight years,” Cuclis recently told the Index-Tribune. “I know the priorities – we’re all in this together.”

Dianna MacDonald lives in East Santa Rosa, but she cut her educational leadership teeth in Cloverdale, where she served two terms on the school board. In 2017 she was named president of the California State PTA, advocating on behalf of families and students for the Sacramento-based organization. Now she wants to bring her experience gained as both a district official and in student/parent advocacy to SCOE.

The pandemic “has literally changed the face of our education profile overnight,” MacDonald rightly observes on her campaign website diannaforeducation.com. And she wants to lead the response and be a support system to Area One school districts through the health crisis – especially for the students struggling the most.

“Some kids are doing well with distance learning – but they have the means,” MacDonald said in a recent interview with the Index-Tribune. “It’s not the families that I hear from (that need support), it’s the one’s that I don’t.”

MacDonald said she has four main priorities: Successful distance learning outcomes; the expansion of early childhood education; support for career and tech education; and increasing parent engagement.

MacDonald has three grown children, one of whom just became a public school teacher. She says it’s helped her gain perspective on the amount of stress educators are under during these challenging times.

She also thinks the Office of Education could provide support in bringing together district trustees to share strategies and brainstorm solutions. “The (district) superintendents are always getting together – but why not the trustees?” she wonders.

Both candidates seem to have a good grasp of the important issues facing county school districts – from remote learning and reopening classrooms to providing access to mental health support during crises and general advocacy for students, faculty and administrators. They’re not in lock step with everything, however, and a small point of contention in the campaign has been the role of SCOE with early childhood education. Cuclis says she firmly believes in the importance of early childhood education, but stresses that ECE is outside the responsibilities of county trustees. MacDonald names it as a priority and says she’d work to raise awareness of the benefits of ECE and try to increase opportunities for preschoolers.

Sonoma Valley is fortunate to have two clearly capable candidates to advocate for our educational needs at the county level.

MacDonald’s experience with the State PTA, combined with eight years on the Cloverdale school board, give her a broad perspective that would no doubt make her a versatile and effective Area One trustee.

However, she concedes that she’s far less familiar with the Sonoma Valley Unified School District than the Santa Rosa school districts in Area One, which should be a concern for Valley voters – especially now that the pandemic exacerbates the problems of equity and learning proficiency SVUSD has struggled with for years.

Cuclis, after two terms representing Area One, knows all the school districts well, and Sonoma’s best of all. Her now-adult twin daughters were educated through SVUSD and she’s worked as a reading tutor in district elementary schools. Beyond that, she’s a veteran of the Sonoma Planning Commission, the board of the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation and multiple other community groups.

We think both MacDonald and Cuclis can be successful advocates for Area One school districts. But at a time of major change and uncertainty in local education brought on by the pandemic, a deep and first-hand knowledge of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District is what should tip the scales for Sonoma Valley voters.

We recommend Gina Cuclis for Sonoma County Office of Education Area One Trustee.

– Jason Walsh, editor & associate publisher

– Emily Charrier, publisher

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