When Kern County voters cast their ballots this year, they’ll find three political newcomers and one incumbent vying for two seats on the Kern High School District board. The district, the largest high school district in the state, has faced scrutiny this year for everything from accusations administrators misused a police database to questions about whether its competitive bidding process is fair. The Californian has taken a look at each candidate in this pivotal election.
EAST BAKERSFIELD AREA 2 RACE
The incumbent: Jeff Flores, often a dissenting voice on the board, has vowed to challenge the status quo while bringing greater transparency to a district that has been accused of shrouding itself in secrecy.
Chief among Flores’ concerns is what he calls a “closed system” that gives special preference to administrators in the hiring of superintendents and assistant superintendents. He describes that system as “defensive, insular, guarded and very slow.”
“The private sector and good governments do searches and look for the best in the business and don’t hamstring themselves. Why not have a parallel track and look for the best superintendent from the best district?” Flores said, adding he commends the current superintendency for “trying to break the mold and culture” of the past.
There’s no prohibition on hiring outsiders for high-level administrative jobs but it has become common practice to hire from within, Flores said.
Flores also said he plans to push for greater transparency in the district’s board proceedings. He’s critical of his colleagues voting to live stream meetings but then immediately delete them.
“There’s no record,” Flores said, advocating for archiving videos of meetings.
He has also said he would vote against allowing staff to carry concealed weapons on campus, a topic that’s likely be voted on after the election.
Flores has so far received $21,249 for his re-election bid this year, according to campaign finance filings. He is the chief of staff for Third District Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard and was first elected to the KHSD board in 2014.
The administrator: Librado “Lee” Vasquez has, for 31 years, served as an employee of the Kern High School District, including his current post as a district administrator in charge of teacher recruitment.
Raised in a family of educators, Vasquez has served as a teacher, counselor, dean of students, football coach, vice principal and principal. His most recent principalship was at East Bakersfield High School.
Being an “insider,” Vasquez said, would be a good thing. Others are critical that adding an administrator to the board would further appearances of cronyism.
“I’ve never been accused of being a crony and I think it’s just because of my approach to administration. I like to be very forthright and decide things head-on,” Vasquez said.
If elected, Vasquez said he would work to reduce class sizes by aggressively scouting for teachers while upgrading and expanding facilities.
When asked about the controversies the district has weathered this year, including settling a $10.5 million negligence lawsuit and accusations administrators misused the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, Vasquez defended the district.
“When Kern High School District sees something we need to fix, we fix it. We own up to it and we fix it,” Vasquez said, later adding that KHSD employees are in large part “honest, hardworking individuals.”
“I don’t think they’d do anything to jeopardize their careers, much less break the law,” Vasquez said when asked about the CLETS scandal, which is being investigated by the Tulare County District Attorney’s office.
The district ought to thoroughly investigate the matter before disciplining any employees, Vasquez said, but there should be a price ceiling on the district-commissioned inquiry that is also underway. The district has contracted with a third-party firm with no set budget.
It’s unclear how much money Vasquez has raised for his campaign because he filed his Form 460s Monday afternoon, four days past the Sept. 29 state deadline. They were not available through the Kern County elections office before press time and Vasquez did not return calls seeking the documents.
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The “godless liberal”: Jennifer Bloomquist, a Democrat who has described herself as “your local friendly godless liberal,” was among the first to announce an intent to challenge Pastor Chad Vegas, who has been a trustee for 12 years.
Bloomquist’s decision to run came after she moved into Area 3 and began hearing some comments Vegas made about LGBT students.
“I wanted to unseat him,” Bloomquist said.
Vegas has since decided not to run for reelection because he said it would violate his religious conscience to enforce anti-discrimination policies regarding transgender individuals the district adopted this year.
Bloomquist has not given up her fight for the seat, however.
The former Bakersfield Democratic Club president said if elected, she would rail against the conservative ideologies she believes the board has perpetuated. Those include the decision to allow concealed carry weapon permit holders to bring firearms onto campus, and a pending proposal to allow staff members to carry concealed firearms into classrooms.
Asked how she’d bring greater transparency to the district — even trustees have complained about not being privy to some information held by administrators — Bloomquist said she’d use pleasantries.
“I’d gently remind them, maybe frequently, that this is part of what they signed up to do. They can’t run around and hide their things from the public. I’d do it by asking nicely and putting a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’ in there,” Bloomquist said.
Bloomquist is a welfare eligibility technician for the County of Kern. She describes herself as a political moderate and has no formal background in education. She raised $171.80 for her campaign this year, but was in debt $44 as of Sept. 24, according to campaign finance filings.
The political newcomer: Joey O’Connell, managing partner of a couple construction equipment rental companies, said the discussions he’s had with his wife, a lifelong educator, informed his decision to run for the board.
When asked what would be his goals or priorities if elected, O’Connell couldn’t name them but said he’d work on being a “member of the team” for the benefit of the district.
“I’d outwork everyone,” said O’Connell, who has Vegas’ backing.
He later said he’d like to help create an environment for students free of discrimination and harassment.
Despite that, O’Connell said he doesn’t have enough information to say whether he would have voted to allow transgender individuals to use the bathrooms of their choice, which the board did as recommended by the U.S. Department of Education.
He did say he would vote to hire a public relations firm to improve the district’s image, which the board considered but hasn’t done.
“I think we all should hire PR consultants. If I could afford a PR consultant, I’d have them following me everywhere. That’s wonderful,” O’Connell said.
He said a PR firm would be helpful in highlighting the district’s steps forward in career technical education, a topic the board received an hourlong presentation on Monday but which got less news attention than did a protest held outside the building focused on the district’s impending decision on allowing staff to carry guns on campus.
Aside from that, he said he doesn’t know how he would steer board conversations more toward education and away from political discussions, something that some teachers have been critical of this year.
When walking precincts, O’Connell said he gets “a sense of great frustration” from voters about the district, but he is quick to redirect the conversation back to students.“I try to redirect to what is truly important, which is ‘how are our kids doing?’”