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Candidates for SSUSD Board of Education respond to questions at Thursday Sept. 29 evening forum

By Patricia Farris News Review PublisherCandidates for the Sierra Sands Unified School Board District (SSUSD) Board of Education participated in the SSUSD Candidates Forum on Thursday, September 29 at City Council Chambers.

The Forum was sponsored by the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce, the Indian Wells Valley Economic Development Corporation (IWVEDC), and the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors. Moderating the Forum was Chris Hill, Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce and Scott O’Neill, Executive Director of the IWVEDC. James Mower, representing the Realtors, welcomed the candidates and the attendees.

Running for office are incumbents Kurt Rockwell, Dr. Chad Houck, and Tim Johnson. Also running are Karen Taggert, Mary Campbell, Robert Campbell, Nicole Harper, and

Darrell Eddins who was unable to attend.

Candidate Darrel Eddings

   Each candidate was given five minutes to present a statement about why they are running.

Candidates’ Background

Incumbent Dr. Houck

Incumbent Dr. Houck shared some of his background as an educator. After teaching in other communities early in his career, his family moved to Ridgecrest and he taught at Burroughs High School. He said he had worked with many of the current staff and attended every School Board Meeting and learned how they operated. He then moved to Lake Tahoe and served as Principal at the high school, interacting again closely with the School Board. During his career he observed 13 different school districts in operation and was able to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a result of this experience, he says, “I am really able to appreciate what we have here.” When Houck moved back to Ridgecrest he began to work at Cerro Coso in administration. A seat on the SSUSD School Board opened up and he has served in that position for two years. “As I have 15 more years, I want to help out as best I can.”

Incumbent Kurt Rockwell

Incumbent Kurt Rockwell has served on the Board for the last 16 years. His family has lived in the valley since 1943. His mother taught in the district and his father, Bob Rockwell, served on the Board from 1978-1982. His educational background includes a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from UC Davis and a Masters in Business Administration from UCLA. Rockwell said he has done a lot of work across the country in private industry and in the industrial sector. The last 20 years he has worked on the Base doing project and program management – business operations. He is in charge of making sure that all of the Information Technology gets properly integrated in the 3.5 billion dollar earthquake financial appropriation. He said he is proud of what he has been able to bring to the Board for the last 16 years. “When we go to the California School Board Association (CSBA) Conference, we are commended by many people as a Board for what we do for our kids here.”

Incumbent Tim Johnson

Incumbent Tim Johnson attended online via Zoom. Johnson shared that he has spent his life in service and advocacy which has driven him to be involved with the District for more than 30 years. He has provided leadership for the Parent Teacher Organization. He was one of the leaders for the 2006 Measure A Campaign. This brought in 2.5 million dollars for the modernization of our schools. He was Chair of the Oversight Committee to ensure that the money was spent for its intended purpose. In 2008 he was elected to the School Board and served until 2012. In 2012 the Board removed one of the seats and returned to a five member Board.  He was reelected in 2014 and has served on the Board since that time. He has served as President and Vice President of the Board, currently Vice President, and has been elected as a delegate to the CSBA. He served in the active and reserve Navy and retired after 40 years. He began as an enlisted sailor and rose to rank of Captain. “The past three years have been a testament of what it took to make hard decisions during some of the most challenging times for our nation as we navigated through a global pandemic. As a Board we followed our Guiding Principles so we could stay focussed as a district to ensure consistency and safety without violating our oath as a Board member. Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we will be more resilient and have a new perspective about what is really important in our lives. They are family, friends, giving respect and kindness to all, and to provide quality education to our students.”

Candidate Nicole Harper

   Candidate Nicole Harper is 44 years old and a mother of two mixed race children; she taught them the importance of racial equality. She was a waitress and bartender for nearly 20 years. At forty she went back to college and earned an Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts, Social Behavior and Administration of Justice. She is a Rotarian, a Christian, and is endorsed by the Ridgecrest Vineyard Church. “I will never give up my right to vote which the Bible has taught me.” She is currently employed at Cerro Coso College. She says she is goal driven. One of her goals is to bring music back to the elementary schools and provide the James Monroe students and staff with a safe and modern facility in order to maximize learning. 

Candidate Robert Campbell

Candidate Robert Campbell moved to Ridgecrest in 1963. After graduating from Burroughs High School he earned a Bachelor’s Degree at Point Loma Nazarene College. In 1982 he came back to Ridgecrest and taught P.E., Health, coached basketball and soccer at James Monroe. He later became a teacher at Burroughs where he taught P.E., Health, coached mens and women’s basketball teams. He also coached golf, baseball, and football. He was a director for seven years for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He went from Burroughs to Mesquite High School where he became the Independent Study teacher. He finished his career in 2021. He believes the  Board will benefit from his 45 years in education.

Candidate Mary Campbell shared that her father came to Inyokern and bought 160 acres of land and raised alfalfa. Her entire family are Burroughs High School grads and she has taught in the District for 25 years. She has always been an advocate for teachers.

Candidate Karen Taggert

Candidate Karen Taggert said her husband works for the school district. For the last seven years she has served on the Kern County Animal Services Commission. She would use those skills to make things good for the kids and the teachers, “They have all been working so hard to bring the kids back up to par from where things were before COVID.”

Following the candidates’ statements, O’Neill asked each participant to answer the question, “What do you believe are the major issues facing Sierra Sands and how would you address them?”

Dr. Houck said, “We need people. We are short of staff. The classified staff is working more than they ever have historically. We also need bus drivers.” He stated, “The District is having trouble recruiting. That’s one of the biggest issues we face. We need to go back to Dr. Ostash (Superintendent of SSUSD) and his team and support what they do at the Human Resources level in supporting the staff that we do have. We need to go out and recruit at various events and locations and when the opportunity arises be able to negotiate.” In addition to teachers, he said we need specialists such as Speech Pathologists and other services that the District has contracted out. “It would be great if we could get those services with paid staff that actually live and work in our District and not provide those services over video.” 

Johnson said he agreed with Houck regarding recruiting teachers and staff. “About 85% of our budget goes to staff compensation. At the same time, we need to make sure that we have total compensation packages that bring in the best and brightest and that will keep them here.”

Taggert considers the major issues that we are facing as bringing the educational level up to par and giving the teachers some relief after closed business during COVID. She insisted on the need to keep parents involved. She said she thought COVID brought this to the limelight.

    Mary Campbell agreed that we are definitely short on staffing. She talked about the difference between elementary and middle school staffing and how they deal with staffing shortages. She noted that compensation is important and being aware of those teachers that always step up to the plate who take up the extra class and extra kids. She said her boots are on the ground and in the trenches. “Being in elementary school we were always collaborating, which is what we need to do. We need to listen, we need to ask questions, and we need to see what works and then move on from there.”

Robert Campbell said getting teachers to come to Ridgecrest has always been an issue. “I looked at the website today,” he said. “It shows we still need a P.E. teacher at Monroe, a Transition Kindergarten teacher, a School Psychologist, a Special Education Coordinator, a Speech Therapist, and certified staff. The District needs Paraprofessionals, a custodian, and a Licensed Vocational Nurse.” He stressed that these are big issues and our substitute list of teachers is kind of small. “We need to find a way to get people to come to Ridgecrest and stay here.” He also talked about facility maintenance as well as the cost of building a new school as it all relates to budget issues.

Rockwell says, “There are areas where I think we have big issues. The budget is huge. There is also a huge need to heal,” he said. “This community and all communities around the country have been beat up. There are people I have known for years that in public have bad mouthed me directly without talking to me. This kind of dynamic just doesn’t make sense to me. We need to come together as a community. We used to be a community that cared about each other. We wanted good things to happen for everybody and we worked together to make that happen. We need to start doing that again and come together making this community the place it ought to be.”

(Laura Austin Photos)