Hesperia Unified School District school board candidates Bruce Henson, Frank Rich and Eric Swanson met for the first time, and members of the public, Wednesday at a candidates' forum sponsored by a school employees union.


Approximately 100 people were in attendance at the forum, sponsored by California School Employees Association #684, held in the annex building behind HUSD headquarters on Main Street.


"All of the candidates were invited tonight," CSEA president Ruth Ter Kurst told the audience. "Three of them have decided to participate."


Absent were candidates Chris Bentley, Chris Lindsay and Anthony Riley. Bentley has accused the CSEA and HUSD of illegally using public resources in the promotion of the CSEA's endorsed candidates, Rich and Swanson, and has filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.


Former school board member Linda Bowers, who served on the board from 1997 to 2001, moderated the forum, choosing from questions given to candidates several days before the forum.


Even in their absence, the three in attendance weren't able to get through all of the questions before the forum's stated one-hour duration was up.


Although Henson, Rich and Swanson attempted to make the differences between them clear, much of the focus was on how the three board members not up for reelection this year -- Hardy Black, Robert Kirk and Lee Rogers -- had steered the district wrong over the last two years.


"We've seen this district transition from a place of excellence to, I hate to say it, mediocrity," Henson said.


"I did not want the district to change" when he successfully ran for the school board back in 2001, Swanson said. "Today, my reason for running is change."


"Everyone who is employed in the district or has kids going here should be viewed as one team," said Rich, himself a member of CSEA, "With one goal: student achievement."


"The school district and the board is not accountable to the unions," Swanson said, "They're accountable to the community."


"I don't think the union personnel at any level wants to stand at that podium and face the board," Henson said, referring to the podium nearby used by speakers during the public comment portion of school board meetings. "I think they're scared."


"The role of the board is oversight," Swanson said. "It's not up to a board member to run the district. ... If you left [control of the district] to the board members, every two years, you'd have a new direction."


The board is "responsible for the direct hire of one individual of the district," Rich said, "And that's the superintendent."


"The superintendent's role is the day to day operation of the district," Henson said. He would like to see "leadership teams" that would help develop policies and procedures for the board to consider, making it "board policy that starts from the ground up."


Swanson, who served on the school board from 2001 to 2006, criticized the current board's reaction to the current budget crisis.


"We're only in the first year of probably two more years of budget cuts," he said. "If we're having a hard time with it this year, think about where we're going to be in two more years."


His board faced a $4 million budget shortfall in 2002 and 2003. The current board faces at $5.5 million shortfall.


"We found the places to cut without compromising programs," Swanson said. He also attacked the current board's policy of making cuts away from the classroom. "All of these people are involved in teaching students. There's not just one place."


Swanson said he would also put the brakes on building schools while the district is in a period of declining enrollment.


"We should be waiting. We should buy property, maybe, but we should be waiting."


Henson agreed with Swanson on delaying construction of new schools, and wants the board to plan for future downturns.


"We should establish rainy day reserves that will carry the district for two years," he said.


"Anything that is not absolutely critical can be delayed," Rich said.


But some areas are off-limits for cutting, according to the candidates: "If necessary, we cut programs somewhere, but we don't cut safety," Henson said.


"There are certain areas [within the school district's walking distance to schools] we need to bus because there are areas of this community that are not set up for walking," Swanson said.


But the candidates did not promise the two newly elected board members could do much once elected, when they would be outnumbered from the start by existing board members.


"It's not really a five-member board," Swanson said. "We have three members with a slate and that's what the public voted in. ... I don't think it's going to change much."


"A change needs to occur in this district," Rich said. "The current board members, three of them will be here for two more years. ... It's important that we start laying the groundwork for setting this district back on track."


"We need to be one team, one business," Henson said. "And we need to enhance our business' product."


"You must have leadership, leadership, leadership first," Swanson said. "That trickles down and benefits students."


This will not be the last forum for the school board candidates: The candidates will also be speaking at the Hesperia Chamber of Commerce's Friday morning Coffee Club on October 10 and the Parent Coordinating Council will hold a forum on October 15.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.