Columbia Elementary board race draws three candidates

Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat /

Two seats on the Columbia Union School District Board of Trustees will be determined in the November election - the first election since the school was rocked by scandal involving a former after-school aid who had sex with an eighth-grade girl on campus.

Current trustees Clark Segerstrom and Jeff Tolhurst are not seeking re-election, leaving two of five board seats to be decided Nov. 6. Three candidates are competing for the spots.

Candidates Jenny David, 50, and Danese Pimentel, 46, both have children who attend the school. A third candidate, Jo Rodefer, 62, has no family there and is the wife of Tuolumne County District 5 supervisorial candidate Karl Rodefer.

David is a special education teacher employed by the Tuolumne County Office of Education. Pimentel is a fire captain at the Sierra Conservation Center's firefighter training program, and Rodefer is a sales manager for an online retailer.

For more than a year, public comment periods at meetings of Columbia Elementary's Board of Trustees have been dominated by discussion of Superintendent John Pendley and the hiring of his son for an after-school aide job on campus.

During the spring of 2010, Pendley's son Brennan, now 25, exchanged a series of sexually graphic text messages with a 14-year-old girl in an after-school class he oversaw.

He pleaded guilty in June 2011 to having sex with her in one of the portable classrooms used for the program.

All three candidates identified the incident and its consequences as a major challenge to the district.

David referred to her background as a teacher as a qualification for helping the school adapt to new state curricular standards and standardized tests in coming years.

"Those are some huge changes for all schools in California," David said. "I want to make sure that decisions are moving the school forward … It's going to be some really hard choices with money."

Pimentel said she'd like to maintain the school's "great programs," including its music and art classes.

"I want the school to be reflected in a really positive light," she said. "My children will be fifth-generation to graduate there ... I think there's a lot of parents that are really happy with the school. "

Rodefer said she entered the school board race near the filing deadline after realizing the two seats would be uncontested without additional candidates.

Having publicly criticized Pendley's leadership and called for his resignation, she said concern for students would be a bridge between her and the other board members.

"We're all there for the same reason, and it's about the students," she said. "That's a place of common ground where we can start to work out our differences."

However, she emphasized that better policies were needed to protect children on campus and prevent crimes like those that occurred in 2010.

"At the very least, there has to be something done to ensure the outraged citizenry that something like this will never happen again," Rodefer said. "Imagine how much better (the school) could be doing if it could get rid of this distraction."

Pimentel said she didn't have enough information to comment on whether she would have done things differently if she were on the board during the scandal, though student safety is her first priority.

"Getting to the bottom" of what happened on campus in 2010, and learning more about the district's handling of the situation, would be another of her top priorities if elected, she added.

"For my own family's sake, I want to know the real answer," she said. "I'm not afraid to find out, either."

David also said she didn't have enough information to talk about whether she would have handled the aftermath of the crimes differently or pursued Pendley's removal as superintendent.

"I don't think that's something that anyone can answer unless you were on the board at the time," she said.

She also noted in responses to a written questionnaire that she wouldn't be able to comment about policy changes to the public until current litigation against the district has been resolved.

An election forum hosted by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce will include the Columbia Union School District board candidates. It is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in Angelo's Hall in Columbia State Historic Park.

11882075
The Union Democrat
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