June 21 2016

Steve Gomes is an educator. He’s also the Merced County Superintendent of Schools. One would think he knows a thing or two about homework, but his opinion in “Collaboration far stronger than confrontation” (June 9, Page 9A) clearly shows he did not study.

In part, Gomes raises questions about what The California Endowment has funded over the last several years through its Building Healthy Communities initiative and what he labels “counterproductive tactics” being used.

It doesn’t take an “A” student to research the answers to Gomes’ questions. In fact, the Merced County Office of Education is one of the organizations receiving funding to do the innovative systems and policy change work BHC is advancing. That’s right. The very organization Gomes leads is doing the work he is so “disappointed” with.

Had he simply called other school district superintendents, he would know that many have and continue to partner with BHC to improve both community and student wellness (including Weaver School District, which Dr. Gomes mistakenly identifies as an example of success occurring independent of BHC work).

BHC Merced has long-standing, productive relationships with multiple schools, government agencies, health organizations and private/non-profit community organizations throughout the Merced area, including the one I run, We’Ced Youth Media.

Most importantly, this initiative has empowered hundreds of community leaders.

As county superintendent, Gomes must know this. Why is he feigning ignorance or omitting information on the many collaborative partnerships BHC has developed? And why is Gomes labeling this work as counterproductive and confrontational?

His efforts are aimed at one thing: Creating a diversion from the important progress being made in which local youth and residents are finding their voices and increasingly participating in democracy so their communities are healthier and more equitable.

Merced’s status quo is under threat, and some of those in power don’t like it. Our leaders need to accept responsibility and help all Merced communities rise instead of offering misinformed opinions intended to call into question the purpose and approaches of our work. Let’s be clear: they disagree with the tactics because they are afraid of the outcomes.

Gomes called a public awareness campaign on the Local Control Funding Formula “confrontational” when it merely affirms the facts: School boards are the responsible entities for approving school districts’ budgets and spending plans. Shouldn’t they be held accountable when spending tens of millions of dollars?

Of course they should. And that’s all the campaign is about: accountability.

He is correct in saying one of BHC’s aims is to increase parent involvement in the LCFF process. In fact, schools are mandated to engage parents.

Work has been going on with the Merced Union High School District through organizations like the Merced Organizing Project, which has worked to build a superintendent’s advisory council and is now working to support parents to share their priorities and voices. Other partners are working collaboratively with other districts in similar fashion.

As an afterthought, Gomes uses the example of residents advocating for a Youth Council as somehow being confrontational. Community members have been reaching out to city leadership since February through written correspondence, emails, telephone calls and even dropping by City Hall to try to work with city officials.

When these invitations were ignored, advocates took responsibility. Side by side with representatives from multiple youth leadership organizations, local advocates convened a fantastic learning session on running successful Youth Councils. City manager Steve Carrigan and mayoral candidate Mike Murphy attended for about an hour, but didn’t seem to do much with any knowledge they learned. Now the Youth Council remains underfunded and undervalued.

If the voices of literally hundreds of residents, youth and other stakeholders are ignored at town halls, council meetings and rallies, what are residents to do? The better question is, what should the city be doing and why aren’t they supporting the Youth Council they created?

Branding BHC’s efforts confrontational or counterproductive is a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issue of the need for sweeping changes in our communities.

Merced is achieving a healthier functioning democracy in which all are getting the opportunity to participate. The inequities that persist are lessening, and a clear path is being created for health and justice for all.

This commentary first appeared in the Merced Sun-Star. Click here to read it there.
Click here to learn more about Merced Building Healthy Communities.

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