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Candidates for County Superintendent of Schools face off at the Grange

Two women sitting at a table with another woman at a podium behind them and to their right.
Candidates for the County Superintendent of Schools, incumbent Michelle Hutchins (right), and Nicole Glentzer, at Sunday's forum at Little Lake Grange in Willits.

Incumbent Michelle Hutchins and challenger Nicole Glentzer presented their positions at a forum in Willits over the weekend.

May 17, 2022 — The candidates for County Superintendent of schools, incumbent Michelle Hutchins and challenger Nicole Glentzer, presented their positions at a forum at the Little Lake Grange in Willits on Sunday afternoon. Both candidates are former school superintendents, and each brings a wealth of endorsements to the race. Hutchins counts state leaders, two county supervisors, retired sheriff Tom Allman and the Mendocino College president among her supporters. Glentzer has the backing of the school labor unions, including the employees of the Mendocino County Office of Education, four school superintendents, and two other county supervisors.

In her opening statement, Hutchins spoke about building a new system at MCOE, saying, “Before my first term, the Office passed state money directly to districts, instead of providing the services prescribed by the California Department of Education. This resulted in outdated resources and low student achievement. I changed that. I created a new management team and built the capacity to serve all twelve districts and twelve charter schools effectively and efficiently.”

Glentzer said if elected, she would foster more local collaboration. “I would be much more targeted in reaching out to our district leaders and to our charter school leaders,” she said, recalling that when she first became the superintendent of the Potter Valley School District, she was introduced to key people and assigned a mentor. “They provided so much support. And that’s an area I would like to change,” she declared.

Hutchins identified stagnant educational scores as her most pressing concern, and spoke about how she is addressing the problem. She said that currently, if one sub-population of students falls behind, the state provides the County Office of Education what is called differentiated assistance, an approach she regards as reactive, rather than proactive. “That needs to switch to a more preventative approach,” she said; “where we’re not waiting for students to fail, and instead guiding districts with an improvement mindset from the beginning.” She said all 58 county superintendents of schools have asked the State Legislature to change the way differentiated assistance is funded. “And that successfully made it into the May revise,” she concluded.

Glentzer doesn’t believe any of the issues can be addressed without adequate staff. “So we need to work on recruitment,” she emphasized. “We need to work on the mental health of the people who are currently in our school districts. And we need to give them the support that they require…I’ve kind of defined the last several years of my career in supporting the adults in our educational system.” She added that schools provide students with things they don’t all get at home, asserting that, “One of the strongest indicators of student achievement is the family. Do they come from money? Do they speak English? Do they have a house? Those are not things that schools can control, though. But that has the biggest influence on student achievement. So that means that the role of the school is to be the great equalizer for students, to focus on equity.” She said Fort Bragg and Ukiah school districts provide students with “really cool tools…so that the cool things that wealthy kids get, poor kids get, too.”

When the candidates were asked if they had supported students returning to school in 2020-2021, Hutchins provided historical context for her advocacy. She reminded the public that MCOE had crafted a “road to reopening” workbook, that laid out how the schools should return to in-person learning. Then, the day before Ukiah Unified, the largest school district in the county, was scheduled to reopen, the Governor retroactively placed the county in the purple tier, which shut down all reopening plans. “We called the Governor, and we made a big stink,” she said. “So much so that it was recorded on EdSource, and you can see the interview…so it made state-level news. Unfortunately, the Governor held firm, and would not allow those school districts to open, despite the noise we made.”

Glentzer highlighted her work on implementing safety measures, including vaccine clinics. “I was definitely part of pushing hard to get students back into school,” she said. “We had work with our unions to do, and we had work with our parents and students to do. It was super challenging.” She said that, as a bilingual Spanish speaker, she helped families register for vaccinations, to bring staff and students back safely. “It was very apparent that through remote learning, students were really suffering,” she said. “And we needed to do everything we could to get them back into school.”