Assembly District 15 candidates Joan Buchanan and Abram Wilson met face to face Wednesday night to give their views on issues ranging from education to universal healthcare, at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon. The forum was sponsored by the League of Woman Voters of Diablo Valley and the San Ramon Valley Council of PTAs to ask questions on issues affecting children.
Wilson, the Republican candidate, 62, introduced himself as a 30-year banker, a U.S. veteran and the first elected mayor of San Ramon. He came to the helm in 2002 when the city was in financial straits and council members were at odds, he said, but he was able to turn those things around. "And those are qualities I plan to take to Sacramento," he said.
Buchanan, 55, an Alamo resident and the Democratic candidate, has been on the school board since 1990, after a career with Delta Dental, where she was director of operations.
"I have negotiated with unions, cities and contractors," she said. "When I started, the district was near bankruptcy and the teachers were on strike."
Buchanan said her priorities include more training for teachers and an increase in science and technology.
"I would begin in Sacramento by honoring Prop 98," she said. Proposition 98 sets a minimum dollar-per-student amount for California public schools, calculated based on a percentage of the state's per capita income.
"It's not enough but it's a start," said Buchanan, adding that the state needs to address how to increase funding for education.
She said there have been five rounds of such budget cuts during her tenure. "We cut reading specialists in 1991 and have never restored them," she said.
"It's not just funds, it's commitment," Wilson said. He also said vocational training must be improved because although the district's students are prepared academically, some need the skills to support themselves.
Wilson emphasized the importance of the schools partnering with businesses. He noted that the schools benefit from programs done by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"We need to realize that science in the fourth 'R,'" Buchanan said. "That takes an investment of money to buy texts and to train teachers."
She also said we need universal preschool since it's been shown that school children perform much better if they begin their education earlier.
"We need to go to the business community," Wilson reiterated.
"I honor our commitment to our children," he said. "Our future depends on our children."
"We have to stop looking at education as a tax expense," noted Buchanan, "and look at it as an investment in our future."
One question asked the candidates to address special education.
"It's imperative to support teachers and para-educators," Wilson said. The district needs to listen to the parents of special education parents because it has spent too much in legal fees, he said.
Buchanan noted that when she joined the school board 18 years ago, the district had 10 autistic students; it now has 200.
"It's one of the biggest challenges we face. We have to start lobbying the federal government. We have to find a different formula at the state level," she said.
"We've had growing pains but now we have parents with special needs who choose to live here because they want to live in our district," she added.
Another question was whether California should stop requiring a two-thirds majority to pass its budget.
"It sounds good to lower it but New York has done it and it hasn't worked," said Wilson. "We have a crisis now because we spend what we don't have."
"I absolutely support lowering it to 55 percent," said Buchanan. "It would force more people to the table. Now people put themselves in the corner (according to party). People are taking pledges (not to raise taxes) - including Abram - and sitting in the corner."
Wilson said California does not really need a Constitutional Convention. "Let's concentrate on things to make a difference," he said.
Buchanan disagreed. "We have a $103 billion general fund budget," she stated. "Out of that, 93 percent of the budget is controlled by initiatives, which means we have roughly $8 billion in discretionary funds that we can spend, and we have a $15 billion deficit. It's hard to balance a $15 billion deficit without borrowing when you only have $8 billion in discretionary money."
She quoted Assembly Speaker Karen Bass as saying, "We have taxation system that goes back to 1930s and it doesn't work any more."
They both said they would fight to improve education.
Wilson said schools need the opportunity to choose their own destiny. "We need to make sure schools are in control of their own funding," he said. He noted that schools spend money at the end of the school year rather than lose it.
Buchanan disagreed. "We do have tremendous control over funds, and we can save money we have at the end of the year," she said. "The key is getting everyone on the same page."
Wilson noted that, as a councilman elected in 1999 and then mayor of San Ramon he has had to focus on many things that go into city government - such as safety, water, transportation, emergency planning - and does not have "the luxury of concentrating" on one thing.
Buchanan responded that in her 18 years on the school board, she has dealt with officials at all levels of government and business people and devlopers, and has written California Environmental Quality Act and Environmental Impact Reports. To compare their qualifications she gave the following statistics: The city of San Ramon has 266 employees while the school district has 1,702 full time and a total of 2,713; the general fund budget for San Ramon is $57 million, while the district budget is $212 million.
They were also asked about universal health care.
"It sounds great unless you are in Canada or England - then they come here," said Wilson. "It sounds great but it just doesn't work." He also said universal health care does not allow people to choose their own doctors.
"I support universal health care," said Buchanan, noting there are 6.8 million people in California without any health care. She said universal health care needs to focus on prevention plus must to set up administration and funding outside of the legislature so money cannot be taken from it.
"You can select your own physician," she said, adding that although the United States is the top nation in spending money on health care, it is 42nd in its level of service.
Wilson said schools need to be run like businesses, with ongoing education for teachers. "The most important thing is community involvement," he said. "San Ramon does an after-school program and a preschool program."
"I get ruffled when I hear schools should be run like businesses," said Buchanan. "We have to find a way to educate every child - we are not producing goods."
They also addressed taxes.
"Once businesses come here we tax them to death," said Wilson. "What we do here in this valley does not work in Sacramento. By raising taxes arbitrarily, and that's what we do, we solve no problem at all."
Buchanan said the $90 parcel tax passed in 2004 did indeed help the San Ramon Valley.
"It pays for all the class size reduction in kindergarten through third grade; it's the reason we have counselors at the middle schools and high schools; it's the reason we have librarians at the middle schools and high schools; it's the reason we have class-size reduction in ninth grade English and math; and reason we have instrumental music in fifth and six grade," she said. "So no one can tell me that money doesn't make a difference."
This statement was met by applause. Wilson also had supporters in the audience who applauded some of his statements.
Wilson said the parcel tax was appropriate but taxes are raised "randomly." He would keep the two-thirds needed to pass a parcel tax.
"This community has the facilities because of the partnerships, not just with the residents but the cities themselves, the parcel tax, also because of the developers," Wilson said. "Residents know how important education is in the San Ramon Valley. And I support the two-thirds vote because residents will vote when they understand what it needs to pass and how imp it is."
Buchanan said her Yes vote should have counted as much as the No votes in June.
"We got 63 percent for the parcel tax in June," she said, which was not enough to pass. "If one of us wins by 63 percent you're going to read 'landslide' in the headline of the paper.
The 15th Assembly District spreads from Alamo and Danville to the Delta region, Stockton, Galt, Livermore and part of Pleasanton, plus includes San Ramon, Brentwood and Oakley.
The candidates are also scheduled to appear in the following forums:
Elk Grove - Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs - at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, October 4, at the Sacramento Asian Sports Foundation, 9040 High Tech Court, Elk Grove
Livermore - Livermore Chamber of Commerce - at 7:30 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 8
Alamo - Contra Costa Council - at 11:30 a.m., Friday, Oct. 10, at Round Hill Country Club