HAYWARD — Eleven of the 16 candidates running for four Hayward school board seats participated in their first public forum last week.

Five of the forum participants — Willie Lee Anderson, James P. Farley, Conrad Hake, Kelly Rocchio and Sheila R. Sims — are among the six candidates running for a two-year seat. Candidate Lawrence Fitzpatrick did not attend the forum.

The two-year seat is being vacated by Sergio Saenz.

The remaining six forum participants — Rick Bartholomew, Jeff Cook, Sarah Gonzales, Chuck Horner, Diane McDermott and Araceli Orozco — are among the 10 candidates seeking one of three four-year seats. Candidates Simon Eduardar Flores, Maribel Heredia, Luis Reynoso and Loretta R. Robertson did not attend the forum.

Only Cook and Gonzales are incumbents. Grant Peterson is not seeking re-election.

Because of the crowded field, the candidates had little time to do much else than introduce themselves and state some of their main concerns at the Friday event, which was hosted by the Hayward Demos Democratic Club.

Two-year seat

During the discussion, Anderson empathized with "special students" who are easily left behind. He said he was such a student but had parental support to overcome difficulties, and stressed a need to get parents involved in their youngsters' education.

"I want to make sure those students have opportunities," he said.

He said there is a critical need for a morale boost in schools and wants to avoid "issues and drama that distract from the basics."

Farley acknowledged that he's "not an average politician" or an adept public speaker.

"I'm one of you," he said.

He said he has "innovative ideas" such as a bully hot line and ID cards for students aimed at reducing truancy, and that a lack of communication is the biggest issue schools face.

Hake compared solving the district's problems with helping emotionally disturbed students.

"If we can't figure out where they are at, we can't bring them back," he said.

He also said there is a crucial need to address communication between parents, students and teachers, and that supporting the latter is key to improving the district.

"We are failing the teachers," he said. "I never want to go to another Back to School Night and have teachers ask parents for paper and pencils."

Rocchio said she would "embrace the entire Hayward community" and highlight communication because "open dialogue with the community makes things change."

She said that such connections have been broken. Instability is also a main concern, she added, and a high turnover rate of principals is not helping.

Sims said there are too many special interests in schools, "doing something for this little group or that little group. I want to work for all students."

She said she believes in early intervention, working with very young students to give them an extra head start. Sims also emphasized prudent use of Measure I bonds, focusing on truancy and keeping classrooms clean and well-stocked.

Four-year seats

Bartholomew said he would be the "public's ears, eyes and voice on the board."

He said safety is a prime concern, and would work to set a zero-tolerance policy on bullying.

"It's important to recognize it when kids are young and stop it in its early stages," he said.

Cook said he was the first to stand up and call for the resignation of a superintendent who had been mismanaging the district. He pointed to the board's record, specifically the "passage of the first school bond in 50 years," closing the high school campuses and improvements in test scores.

He characterized himself as someone "with the courage to fight for students in the face of overwhelming pressure and no support."

Gonzales also pointed to her record of "experience, honesty and integrity." She said that despite a huge financial deficit when she was first elected, the district has since come out with a healthy reserve, which is key to surviving the state's economic slump.

She said closing campuses was an important move, and that "young people need structure — even the best kids make bad decisions when they don't have supervision."

Horner said his top priority is safety.

"You can't teach a child who is scared or won't show up because he is being bullied," he said.

Academics would be his second issue, and he also said communication needs to be improved.

"People have to be involved. They have to take back the schools," he said. "You can't just pay taxes and say, 'Take care of it for me.' "

McDermott said she is a grandparent raising a young child because her son, a substance abuser, cannot provide such care.

"My son fell into a black hole in school, and that hole gets bigger and bigger," she said. "Now it's called attention deficit disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and my grandchild is also hyperactive. I'm bound and determined that I'm not going to let the same thing happen."

Orozco said she's an active parent with kids in elementary and middle schools, and has "lots of experience dealing with student needs," both as a parent and a full-time student at Chabot College.

She said she was very active during last year's teacher strike, and "wants to make sure that parents are involved in their students' education."

Eric Kurhi covers Hayward. Reach him at ekurhi@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-293-2473.