The E’ville Eye sat down with School Board Trustee Cruz Vargas to check the pulse of our school district and provide some reliable information to the public. Vargas was elected in 2016 and is the only current school board member with a child in the district.
This year could represent a considerable shift in the district’s philosophy and future as three of the five seats are up for grabs currently held by Donn Lee Merriam, Brynnda Collins and Bailey Langner (the later two appointed to complete terms for John Affeldt and Christian Patz respectively). Interested candidates will need to submit their Candidate Intention Statement with the county by August 10th.
The EUSD has seen its share of turmoil over the years but seems to be on stable footing with its current leadership according to Vargas. Vargas weighs in on recent personal attacks, the idea of a student resource officer and his personal optimism of the district with the recent hiring of Superintendent Dr. Quiauna Scott.
Disclosure: The views expressed by Vargas are as an individual board member and may not reflect those of the board.
Q&A with School Board Member Cruz Vargas
EE: You grew up in Tijuana and immigrated to the U.S. when you were eighteen. How did growing up along the U.S. border shape your views on public education?
CV: I am a proud product of Mexico’s public education system – kindergarten through high school. Resources were limited so teachers were forced to improvise constantly. There were also a couple of years when we didn’t have a principal. In fifth grade I recall having five different teachers. This is the time my parents became involved in the Parent’s Association so I learned by example. They taught me that if you want to improve your child’s school, sooner or later, you have to get involved.
EE: Tell us how you ended up in Emeryville with your family.
CV: We moved to the Bay Area in 2010 to work for a startup that helps immigrants send their hard-earned money back home. As I was familiar with Emeryville since my college days at UC Berkeley, I knew its location was optimal. Schools back then were not that great but private schools were out of reach financially. We started volunteering.
EE: After briefly transferring your daughter to a charter school, you’ve opted to re-enroll her in the ECCL. What can you tell us about this?
CV: Our schools are on the rise – no doubt about it. We have three amazing principals and awesomely committed teachers and staff. Plenty of bright spots in academic improvements. Our urban debate team broke about 10 records and won a National Championship. Our basketball teams have recently brought home trophies. More students went on college campus tours this past year. We saw double-digit growth in graduation rates and I think it’s a 3x jump for our African-American students. Student art can be seen hanging proudly and the middle school play and elementary music recitals were jaw-dropping. Oh, and our kids are smiling more 🙂
I’ve been on the board for about eighteen months. It’s been great to see this positive change first hand – especially in the past year. A couple of years back, we had to transfer our daughter out because of unfortunate bullying incidents that district leadership at the time was too slow to address. We decided to get further involved and are happy we did. Our daughter was happy to be back last year and – to our surprise – can’t wait for the school year to begin.
“Our daughter was happy to be back last year and – to our surprise – can’t wait for the school year to begin.”
EE:. So you’re currently the only School Board Trustee who has a child enrolled in the district. While this is certainly not a criterion for being on the board or even being effective, does having some “skin in the game” change your approach? Is there a bigger sense of urgency when your child’s education and future is at stake?
CV: I am and I’d say it makes a big difference. You see things first hand and it prevents others from distorting the truth. It’s also motivation to push things forward today instead of tomorrow. If you think about it, any year that passes without progress is a generation lost. We have a great opportunity to drive positive change today and for every student.
EE: An opinion blog run by a gentleman who pulled his child from the district seems to have a vendetta against certain boardmembers including yourself and whomever the current superintendent is. He seems bent on smearing the district by only pursuing negative and salacious storylines. Do you think this is having a negative impact on the perception of our schools and ultimately discouraging involvement and enrollment?
CV: I am a parent, not a politician and my goal is simple: better schools now, not later. And I think some folks are just used to dealing with politicians. But yes, when only bad – and mostly unreliable – news are published about our district, they become the norm. It’s a microcosm of things happening at a national level – scary stuff.
“I am a parent, not a politician and my goal is simple: better schools now, not later.”
EE: Are there any misconceptions you want to clear up about enrollment, test scores. teacher morale, turmoil within the board, etc. that you feel may be misconstrued?
CV: Two things come to mind that are worth clearing up. The first is that our schools are better than they are portrayed. However, we’re a small district so we don’t have the funds to run political campaigns nor access to political strategists. So exposure to school activities and our progress is mainly through parents. And after months of advocating, we finally have an active presence in the usual social media networks.
I also don’t know if this is common knowledge but our school district is an independent body from City Management. Though we should work in harmony even if our objectives differ. This autonomy also means that in the economic sense, we’re in direct competition. So when resources are short for both entities, each entity tends to protect their own interests. It’s sombering that the system reduces people to a tax base and that our children have to compete for resources.
EE: The political group RULE (Residents United for a Livable Emeryville) of which fellow school board member Barbara Inch and her husband Councilmember/former school boardmember Christian Patz are connected with, seem to have you in their cross-hairs. What do you think the idealogical differences are in education that put you and them at odds?
CV: Honestly, I am not sure. Outside of the folks you mentioned I think I’ve only interacted with Brian Donahue, the blogger, and like most of us, I tried until it became unproductive. In the end, I must be doing something right if I am in the receiving end of character attacks. It validates the effort, really.
EE: You’ve been vocal about the idea of having a Student Resource Officer (SRO) at the ECCL. The idea was met with praise by some and ridicule by others. Tell us why you think this is a good idea and whom else supported it. Have you given up on this idea?
CV: Parents support it. Teachers support it. School leadership supports it. We also have officers with vast experience as SROs. Who doesn’t want our children to have early positive experiences with those who serve and protect? I mean, for such a progressive city, this resistance feels out of place.
EE: Dr. Rubio helped guide the district into a new facility and oversaw the hiring of some key staff members that you’re hopeful can guide the district to the next level. What are the next big challenges for the district?
CV: For me, it’s academics – no doubt. And even though the district has done great things with its limited resources, we also face growing economic pressures to retain our teachers and staff.
EE: The school board recently selected Dr. Quiauna Scott as the district’s new Superintendent. The role of a superintendent is stressful one and the typical duration is less than three years. Tell us about your personal optimism is and any advice you may have imparted to her.
CV: Exciting times! I feel the next step for us is to advance our district academically – especially now that we have a new campus and that the change in culture is well underway. Dr. Scott has the experience and knowledge to take us there. We have, for years, fallen short of bringing programs like AVID, Aim High, and the International Baccalaureate – I’m sure I’m forgetting a couple. With Dr. Scott at the realm, we are trying to help to bring the right programs for all our children.
EE: There’s an election this year with three seats at stake. RULE and the aforementioned blogger are rumored to be looking to seize control of our School Board by fronting a slate of candidates. What’s at stake? What do you think RULE’s endgame is?
CV: Everything is at stake. We’re a five-member board, so three seats shift the balance of power. But to me, the biggest risk is stagnation. Politicizing our kids leads to inaction; this would also happen if we turn our school board into a farm for future City Councilmembers. So I’d say that a passive, uninterested board – with no skin in the game – is the biggest risk to our children’s future.
“Politicizing our kids leads to inaction; this would also happen if we turn our school board into a farm for future City Councilmembers.”
EE: About half of the EUSD’s enrollment consists of out of district transfers. For a variety of reasons, local parents seem reluctant to enroll their kids in the ECCL. How do we convince local parents that the district is heading in the right direction and getting them to commit to the ECCL?
CV: Come take a tour! It’s probably the best way is to take a closer look at our brand new campus and to meet the wonderful people moving our school district forward. I recommend sending an email firstname.lastname@example.org or calling our school at (510) 601-4903. After the tour, please share your thoughts and let us know what would make you consider our school. My district email is email@example.com.
If you don’t mind, let me close with a plug to follow our schools on social media. Plenty of pictures to get us excited about our progress and thanks for giving us an opportunity to share the good … and bad.
Elementary and Middle School: facebook.com/annayatesschool
Our Parent Teacher Organization: facebook.com/annayatespto
Emery High School: facebook.com/EmeryHighSpartans | instagram.com/emeryhighschool
District Office: facebook.com/emeryunified
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Clearly our schools have some challenges but it’s good to read something positive about them on this site. I admire Cruz for standing by his principles and leading by example (unlike his detractors).
Thanks for running this interview! I found it to be very enlightening. As an E’ville resident with two young children, I’ve started to consider options for school. I will definitely be reaching out to take a tour as well as to volunteer in-classroom in order to get a good sense of what ECCL is all about.