Beverly Hills Courier
Beverly Hills Courier
Beverly Hills Courier

City of Beverly Hills | Community News | Education

BHUSD Candidates Make Their Case

The Courier asked the seven candidates vying for one of three open seats to describe how each would address some of the biggest challenges the District faces.

BHUSD Candidates Make Their Case
BY Bianca Heyward October 16, 2020

In the upcoming Nov. 3 general election, Beverly Hills residents will vote into office three new board members to the Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) Board of Education. The Board of Education consists of five members whose terms are staggered so that half of the members are elected in each odd-numbered year. Candidates are elected to serve four-year terms.

Of the seven candidates running this year, Noah Margo is the sole incumbent, seeking his third term on the Board. In addition to Margo, the slate of candidates consists of actuary Frank Chechel; educator/safety advocate Benjamin Liker; retired educator Robin Rowe; school psychologist Dr. Amanda Stern; attorney Donna Tryfman and construction manager Mary Wells.

The Courier asked the seven candidates vying for one of three open seats to describe how each would address some of the biggest challenges the District faces. Their answers were limited to 150 words. Here is what they had to say:

Frank Chechel

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing the District? What do you suggest as a solution?

The District is facing a number of complex and challenging issues, including reconfiguration, massive construction projects and the pandemic, all while trying to deliver high quality education. As such, I believe the #1 issue is ensuring we have experienced, dynamic leaders with the right skill sets to provide appropriate guidance and oversight across these diverse issues.

With Mel Spitz’s departure, my deep business, financial and risk management skills will be critical to managing the District’s $80 million budget and for making optimal decisions for our students, parents, teachers and community members. Even more importantly, I have the temperament for the job. This has been earned through hard won experience, leading multi-million-dollar business negotiations and transformative multi-year project initiatives. The bottom line—I know what it takes to keep my cool and bring diverse teams together to get a complex job done.

The management of District funds and decreased enrollment are issues that have plagued the Board in recent years. Tell our readers why you think you are qualified to take on these issues?

As an actuary, I have 20-plus years of experience in managing multi-million-dollar budgets, ensuring that funds are invested efficiently to deliver organizational success. So, managing District funds would be second nature to me.  In addition, my business negotiation, project management, technology purchasing, and risk management skills can all be leveraged to help us avoid waste and spend our dollars appropriately.    

Regarding declining enrollment, much of this is driven by demographics.  Birthrates are on the decline and our residents are aging in place, so the supply of new students is naturally going down. However, we do have one clear opportunity—according to the demographic study from Feb. 2020, there are currently 1,123 students residing in BHUSD who do not attend BHUSD schools.  My goal would be to continue to improve the educational offerings and facilities of BHUSD to encourage some of those private school families to come back.

Benjamin Liker

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing the District? What do you suggest as a solution?

The management of District funds and decreased enrollment are issues that have plagued the Board in recent years. Tell our readers why you think you are qualified to take on these issues?

My platform goes much deeper than the multi-year COVID-19 return-to-school plan I have published on my website. The all-encompassing issue at stake in this election is the quality of education this school district provides. I have remained steady in my assertion that the issue of declining enrollment is a symptom of a greater issue: BHUSD facilitates a learning environment that is inadequate for preparing students to be the leaders of tomorrow. That has been true throughout the COVID crisis and has been true for the decade preceding it. None of the other candidates in this race even recognize that the system is failing Beverly Hills taxpayers: Beverly Hills has among the highest per-student spending in the County, yet due to financial mismanagement and irresponsible budget prioritizations, that spending doesn’t help students as much as it should.

When I asserted that the reason for declining enrollment in BHUSD is the declining quality of education, current board member Tristen Walker-Shuman commented that the true reason is declining birthrates in Beverly Hills. Such reasoning isn’t necessarily untrue- Beverly Hills no longer has the influx of young families that it did in years past.

My family moved to Beverly Hills over 50 years ago because the education was phenomenal and worth the price, but now, young families can’t justify the high costs of living in such an upscale part of Los Angeles for just good schools. Beverly Hills taxpayers deserve the best, and as the only candidate whose primary goal is giving them the best, I am the most qualified to be elected this November. None of the other candidates have spent as much time in and out of classrooms with BHUSD students as I have, so I don’t blame them for being focused on the wrong things. But Beverly Hills residents deserve someone who knows what’s wrong. Beverly Hills residents deserve the best. And that is me.

Noah Margo

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing the District? What do you suggest as a solution?

The immediate issue facing the District is the safe return of staff and students to the classroom. As is evident with the County’s rising case numbers, this may not occur until after the new Board is seated. Because of that, it will take a strong partnership with our teachers to get them back to work and allow students to return in whatever safe environment the County permits. Once students and staff are safely back to school, we must turn our attention to transforming education. By that I refer to “how” we teach, not just “what” we teach. We must foster a critical-thinking, problem-solving approach to education to truly move this District forward.

The management of District funds and decreased enrollment are issues that have plagued the Board in recent years. Tell our readers why you think you are qualified to take on these issues?

First of all, our budget has been balanced every year I’ve been on the board. We have never deficit spent and have kept a $20 million-dollar reserve for years. Concurrently we have funded new programs and given our teachers raises every year for the last eight years. So, I plan on continuing that level of financial management while seeking more opportunities for increased revenue, streamlining expenses and expanding our reserve. 

As far as declining enrollment, home prices are the highest they have ever been and when families can’t afford to live in Beverly Hills that in itself decreases enrollment. That doesn’t excuse us from providing the best educational experience that we can. And I think we have some work to do in that area. That is why I advocate for transforming education. When our construction is complete and our educational experience consistent across the district, we should begin to see an uptick in enrollment.

Robin Rowe

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing the District? What do you suggest as a solution?

Big issues I have plans to solve include COVID mitigation, School Board budget mismanagement and abandoned oil well abatement. What’s exciting though is my Future School plan, to make BHUSD the most advanced education system in the world, to make our schools great again. Both in advanced technology, such as AI and AR, and in advanced teaching techniques, such as outdoor learning and pairing. And, to show we respect our teachers by paying them a living wage so they can afford to live in our community.

The management of District funds and decreased enrollment are issues that have plagued the Board in recent years. Tell our readers why you think you are qualified to take on these issues?

Reading about our School Board being sued for diverting $16 million of our taxpayer funds from education then trying to hide it, that upset me. It motivated me to run. As an enterprise manager, I’ve overseen multiple divisions at a multi-billion-dollar defense company. I’ve designed accounting systems for Fortune 500s and major non-profits. Auditing a metropolitan hospital, I uncovered a million dollars in missing funds. As a CFO Alliance subcommittee chairman, I’ve written national policy for financial best practices.

It used to be that BHUSD schools were the best. Families moved here from all over the world to go to our schools. The incumbent took office a decade ago. It’s been a decade of decline. Today our schools don’t even rank in the top 50 of local schools. Students are fleeing BHUSD. Another 700 students gone in the last three years. Three-quarters of our children are going to school somewhere else. The incumbent has said decreasing enrollment is fine, it is fewer students to teach.

My plan to increase enrollment is by being the best in the world. To measure our Beverly Hills schools’ progress as increased enrollment and higher academic ranking. To make our schools great again.

Dr. Amanda Stern

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing the District? What do you suggest as a solution?

One of the biggest issues facing the district is the continued need for implementation and fidelity of the strategic plan. The plan addresses at least three crucial objectives which are the largest issues at this time. In order to meet plans for student success, for instance, we must monitor student achievement during remote learning. It is also critical to assess once school is physically back in session so that we can get a baseline of where the students are and where they need to go. The facilities rely upon careful balancing of the budget as we continue to expand and make buildings safe. Finally, community relations means fostering meaningful engagements within our community as well as the media.

The management of District funds and decreased enrollment are issues that have plagued the Board in recent years. Tell our readers why you think you are qualified to take on these issues?

District funds and balancing the budget are crucial needs that every Board member must consider seriously. Of major concern is the noted decline in enrollment at this time. Numbers suggest a downward trend of about 2 – 3 percent per year. As a professional who regularly works to understand how different members of the school community feel about the schooling of our students as well as the priorities they hold for learning and education, I am uniquely qualified to address, monitor and collaborate towards needed innovations and goals that are mutually agreed upon with all stakeholders. Furthermore, such innovations are also intricately related to how District funds are managed and overseen.

Donna Tryfman

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing the District? What do you suggest as a solution?

The major issue facing the BHUSD currently is that there is no in-person learning. Obviously, in-person learning cannot occur until the data permits and the guidelines from the L.A. County Department of Public Health are implemented. From my meetings with Dr. Bregy, I believe the BHUSD has begun preparing for the eventual return to in person learning by purchasing PPE, etc. and preparing the facilities physically with directional signage and plexiglass as necessary. I support continued efforts to work out a hybrid return.

Our District is plagued by litigation. I plan to lend my litigation skills as an attorney for nearly 25 years to help differentiate between litigation that can reach a negotiated disposition and litigation that must be pursued. The District needs closure on the myriad of lawsuits it is involved in. I am also a skilled negotiator and have common sense and reason as I handle the most complex felony litigation. Our District facilities must be completed. I believe the lack of attractive and modern facilities has led to an exodus of students and contributes to the declining enrollment. I’ve spoken extensively with the construction manager, Mr. Blake, and I plan to work collaboratively with him to find manners of expedited building possibilities. I plan to expand our curriculum options by instituting the Constitutional Rights Foundation Mock Trial Program. This program relates to constitutional issues, civic duties and will give the kids an opportunity to learn about issues of justice and due process.

The management of District funds and decreased enrollment are issues that have plagued the Board in recent years. Tell our readers why you think you are qualified to take on these issues?

I am qualified to take on all issues facing the BHUSD as I am an educated, considered, and reasonable professional. There are categories of funds in a school district budget, including but not limited to, assigned funds and committed funds. I will ensure the District administration utilizes committed funds for their purpose only, and that administration utilizes assigned funds after robust discussion and recommendations by the Board. I will also ensure that the District reserve is funded according to legal requirements. I have a common-sense approach to budgeting issues and can work collaboratively across cross-functional teams. As far as declining enrollment, I am a product of this District and remember this as a lighthouse District. I am personally invested because I grew up here and my daughter is a current District attendee.

Mary Wells

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing the District? What do you suggest as a solution?

Our primary mission is the support of academic excellence in our schools. No matter what our challenges may be, we must continue to improve on the quality and delivery of education for all students. COVID-19 is the latest challenge. Whether remotely or in-person, we must deliver the best educational experience and ensure that our students meet or exceed educational milestones. If we do this, along with strong fiscal management and a streamlined building completion program, our district will truly return to the lighthouse status it once had. As soon as the State and County health officials tell us it is safe to do so, we will return to in-person learning.

The District needs to prepare for the safe return to school while continuing to iterate innovative teaching techniques. We must think long-term and keep our focus on rebuilding our District and always improve how we educate our students.

The management of District funds and decreased enrollment are issues that have plagued the Board in recent years. Tell our readers why you think you are qualified to take on these issues?

My background in business, construction and project management uniquely qualify me to serve on the BHUSD School Board. I have served on the BHUSD Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee for four years. Our resident-supported Bond Measures E and BH for the modernization of the schools total $700 million dollars. We must make this a highly efficient process.

I have been a resident for over 13 years, and I have three adult children, including a BHUSD alumna. I hold a BS in Business Administration, finance and accounting from USC. I will bring professional expertise, business acumen and financial background to serve and represent students, parents, and taxpayers through responsible governance and commitment to excellence for BHUSD. By demonstrating that we can be fiscally responsible, completing the school modernization projects timely, and improving the quality of education for all students we can attract students to BHUSD. I am the person for this job.

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