With four seats to be filled and no incumbents, voters in four newly-created trustee areas of Tehachapi Unified School District will be asked to select school board members on Nov. 8.
The current school board approved a new method of selecting trustees during a redistricting process earlier this year and the new areas were approved by the Kern County Committee on School District Reorganization.
Previously, voters within the entire district elected trustees. However, in 2020 the county Elections Office made a mistake, allowing only voters in specific trustee areas to vote.
Officially, though, the upcoming election is Tehachapi’s first with by-trustee area voting.
What this means is that only candidates who live in specific districts can run for the vacant seats — and only registered voters who live in the same district can vote for them. There are no incumbents because the four incumbents whose terms are expiring do not live in any of the trustee areas with seats set to be filled this year.
The district has seven trustee areas and areas 2, 5, 6 and 7 are up for election. Areas with seats up for election can be roughly described as: Area 2 - Southern portion of Cummings Valley; Area 4 - Southern portion of Golden Hills; Area 5 - Southwestern portion of city of Tehachapi and southeastern Golden Hills; and Area 6 - Northeastern portion of city of Tehachapi and Sand Canyon.
Candidates are as follows: Area 2 - Ben Dewell, Cora Gutierrez and Cassandra Sweeney; Area 4 - Dana Christensen and Deborah Du-Sorenson. Erika Gunn filed for election and said her name will appear on the ballot because she didn’t withdraw before the deadline. However, she said she is not running for election; Area 5 - W. Wayne Cooper, Peter Franco, Nathanael Benton Harbison and Lisa Lopez; and Area 6 - Angie Cortes, Paul Kaminski and J. Jeff Schulstad.
Information about candidates in Areas 2 and 4 is presented this week. Candidates were asked the same questions but all did not provide as much response. Watch for information about candidates in Areas 5 and 6 in a future edition.
Area 2, Ben Dewell
An atmospheric scientist, Dewell currently serves as a director of Stallion Springs Community Services District and a member of the hearing board of the Eastern Kern Air Pollution Control District. He has a master’s degree from the University of California, Davis and has lived in the school district for five years.
“I am a product and believer of a strong public school system dedicated to the education and enrichment of all students,” Dewell said. “Properly funded and administered public school systems have given us, through the unbiased education of America’s children, medical advancements increasing quality of life as well as lifespans and technological achievements from the wonders wrought by digital computing and the first men on the moon to the first looks to the beginning of the universe and time itself. A strong public school system will continue to hold America as the world's leader in the betterment of man.
“While STEM is basic, the history and humanities of state and country are also vital to a fuller comprehension and appreciation of our increasingly multicultural society and readiness to become knowledgeable voters within a complex and unpredictable world,” he said.
“I support separation of church and state as wisely and presciently prescribed by religious men within the Constitution of the United States, to which I have personally sworn allegiance at least eight times within the last two years,” Dewell added.
“Voters may well consider me a strong, truly independent voice, capable of examining all sides of any argument towards the ultimate goal of a stronger, more inclusive school system. Perfect will never be the enemy of good in any of my decision making. I have a proven record of achieving workable solutions with others for difficult problems at the local, non-partisan level within my present incumbency with Stallion Springs Community Service District.”
Dewell did not provide his age.
Area 2, Cora Gutierrez
A homemaker and student, 43-year-old Gutierrez said she is proud to call Tehachapi home and has lived in the school district for the past 10 years.
“I've been married for almost 25 years to a recently retired (2021) Navy Master Chief,” she said. “During my time as an active duty military spouse, I served in the roles of Navy Command Ombudsman — as an advocate for financial support for service members and dependents — as well as a community relations volunteer teaching English in a foreign elementary school while overseas. I have credentials in HR Management and am currently in the accelerated Master of Legal Studies program at the University of Arizona with a concentration in Compliance and Legal Risk Management.”
Gutierrez said she has two children in the school district.
“While I certainly feel a personal responsibility to advocate and promote the highest standards for our children, I also strongly believe in the importance of community contribution and involvement,” she said. “We are incredibly fortunate to live in this wonderful community, with members who deeply care about the health of our children's education. I feel the weighted importance of careful listening in order to effectively support, as well as communicate, needs and ideas on the behalf of our community. I believe a collaborative approach between parents, teachers, staff and administrators is most productive in generating ideas and reaching solutions.”
A resident of Stallion Springs, she said it would be a privilege to represent the area as a school trustee.
“If given the opportunity, my focus would be on student-centered decision making while being procedurally and fiscally responsible,” she said. “I have an interest in dedicating time to improving the state of our aging athletic facilities. We are proud of our Mountain athletes and it would be an honor to support them! I also have an interest in exploring 'learn and earn,' or internship programs for our high school students. I am eager to dedicate myself to the needs of our district and would appreciate your support!”
Gutierrez did not provide a photo.
Area 2, Cassandra Sweeney
A parent and area manager for Amazon, Sweeney is 39 and a resident of the district for 19 years.
She has two bachelor’s degrees and is currently working on a master’s degree.
“My children attend Tehachapi Unified and I have had a variety of experiences, good and bad,” Sweeney said of her reason for running for office.
“I want to be a voice for our community and put our children first,” she noted. “I hope to be a positive influence and make valuable changes.”
Area 4, Dana Christensen
A Navy veteran, Christensen is 62 and retired. He has lived in the district eight years and said his education history includes some college.
He said he is running for school board to support students and families.
“I am not a politician and I will do my best to help prepare the children of our schools to succeed,” Christensen said.
Area 4, Deborah A. Du-Sorenson
A special education teacher with a master’s degree in social behaviors, Du-Sorenson is 61 and has lived in the district for about 14 years.
“I have always advocated for kids and parents,” she said. “I know here in Tehachapi there are many issues that need to be addressed.”
She also shared a comment about people labeled as “bad parents.”
“The parents who care … have lost their parents rights due to woke and other factors,” she said. Too many parents with special needs students are forced by the district to hire advocates/ lawyers to get what they need to support their kids' education.”
She said she believes parents should be able to speak up with a voice and tell the district what they feel their kid’s needs are.
“If the district had the correct classes in place — such as reading programs and reading intervention — they would save $70,000 to $200,000 by not having to pay another district or services agencies to service the students,” Du-Sorenson said.
“The issue is parents are uneducated to know what to expect from the district or what to ask for,” she said. “Teachers become burned out by not being supported and not having the correct programs to implement.
“If the board listened to parents and students' needs, they would save a bunch of money as well attorney fees,” she added.
“I feel that Tehachapi needs to implement more direct programs for special needs kiddos and put the wasted money out back into our district here in town,” she said. “There have been too many lawsuits that could have been rectified within the district and the board. I believe parents with students with IEPS should be educated on their educational rights by the SELPA team. Teachers are given workshops, why not parents?”
Du-Sorenson said she is self-motivated and doesn’t back down from the answer “no.”
“I am a hands-on doer kind of person and I am resilient to pressure,” she said.