What looked like a quiet election may turn out to be a tight race for the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District School Board this November. As of Aug. 5, seven people have joined the race for the three open seats.
The group includes incumbents Joe Mitchner, Debbie Torok and Judy Hannemann, and all have either pulled or filed candidacy papers with the county. Candidates include Fiona Walter, a former Mountain View Whisman School District board member, and Dana Bunnett, director of a county-wide child advocacy organization.
Doug Moore, a parent of an incoming Mountain View High School student, and Kevin T. Kramer have also pulled candidacy papers. Moore and Kramer, along with Torok and Hannemann, could not be reached for an interview prior to the Voice's Wednesday press deadline.
Fiona Walter is a 20-year Mountain View resident with two children attending Mountain View High School. She was on the Mountain View Whisman Board of Trustees from 2004 to 2012, and now has her sights set on the high school district.
A Stanford graduate, Walter has a bachelor's in mechanical engineering and a master's in aeronautics and astronautics. Though the school districts have no plans to send students into space, Walter said her background has been surprisingly helpful as a board member. She said in some situations -- like working with PG&E on a district project -- it helps to have an analytical mindset.
"It helps to be a numbers person," Walter said.
Despite the science and math-heavy background, Walter said she's a proponent of a broad curriculum that goes well beyond the realm of STEM. She said she's a fan of STEAM -- an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and math -- which injects music and arts into an otherwise exclusive set of subjects.
As a member of the Mountain View Whisman board, she was involved in three parcel tax campaigns, Measure E, J and C, and was chair of the Measure G bond campaign. The $198 million bond measure passed in 2012 with over 67 percent of the vote, and will be used to fix, upgrade and expand the elementary school district's facilities.
In 2012, Walter told the Voice that the district needed funds through Measure G to overhaul 50 and 60-year old buildings with maintenance requirements that go beyond the annual budget. She also said the district needed new classrooms, new equipment, and would likely need to re-open the Whisman campus to keep up with increasing enrollment numbers
Two years later, Measure G construction is in full-swing at Graham and Crittenden Middle Schools, and the current board is looking at ways to open a school in the Whisman neighborhood.
Walter said she considered running for the Mountain View-Los Altos school board for about a month before filing for candidacy in late July. She said the district is doing "very well" overall, but has room to improve.
She said right now the board could use more parent representation, meaning more board members with kids still going to district schools. The idea is that if a board member has kids in the schools, they are affected first-hand by decisions they make.
"I want someone making decisions that lives with it," Walter said.
Walter said the school district also needs to engage parents more, and keep them up-to-date on what's going on at a school and district-wide level. For example, she said no parents knew about the "Bring Your Own Device" program at Los Altos High School -- where every student is required to bring a laptop to school -- prior to the story in the July 11 issue of the Voice. Similarly, she said Los Altos High School no longer offers regular physics, but that change wasn't reflected in the 2014-15 course catalog.
Beyond keeping parents informed, Walter said the district could do more to communicate a broader range of district news.
"They're great with press releases, but we'd like to see the bad news too, and works in progress," Walter said.
Appointed in 2007 and re-elected twice, incumbent Joe Mitchner said he's excited about the direction the school district is headed, and wants to continue to be a part of it.
Mitchner has two daughters going to Mountain View High School, and is currently the only board member with children attending a district school. He said having kids in the schools has absolutely had an influence on him as a board member. He said he feels close to what's happening on the campuses, and well aware of things that are happening in day-to-day school life.
Mitchner said his forte is in finance. He graduated from Stanford in 1983 and later received an MBA in accounting and finance from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1991. Since then he's worked for Bay Area companies like Hewlett Packard and Oracle. Because of his background in finance, Mitchner said he's able to read and understand the school district's annual budgets from start to finish.
"I read the whole budget very carefully every year," Mitchner said. "Over the years I have caught a few things other board members didn't."
Mitchner said he prefers a conservative budget with sustainable plans going into future years. He said he's proud that the school district was able to weather the financial recession with a minimal impact on the students.
As the economy improves, Mitchner said class sizes will go back down, but the district might not bring everything back.
"Sometimes you learn after cutting something that you can live without it," Mitchner said.
As a board member, Mitchner said he's made a concerted effort to expand curriculum, including more STEM courses at both the district high schools. He said the district probably added more classes in the last five to seven years than ever before, including computer programming classes, multivariable calculus, Mandarin and introductory journalism.
Though the three open seats could mean big changes for the school board roster, Mitchner said the current five members of the board work very well together, even during contentious issues. He said in most cases where board members disagree, both sides "give" a little bit and the solution ends up being a unanimous decision.
For example, at the May 12 board meeting, the five board members had anything but a consensus over whether or not to allow physical education class exemptions for ninth grade students. Mitchner said he thinks there's value in the P.E. program and that all ninth graders should be required to take it, but he said he was open to explore alternatives.
"Nobody came on the board with a specific agenda, and no one board member can make decisions for the district," Mitchner said.
After years of nonprofit work in the Bay Area, Dana Bunnett said she hopes to bring a new perspective to the Mountain View-Los Altos school board this November.
Since 2001, Bunnett has worked for Kids in Common, a nonprofit county-wide organization that advocates for child safety, health and success in learning. According to the website, Santa Clara County is one of the most affluent communities in the world, but the most vulnerable children still lack equal opportunities to learn and succeed in school.
Bunnett said working for Kids in Common has given her a good understanding of the needs of children in the county. She said there's a big achievement gap in standardized testing, and emphasized that it's important to remove learning barriers related to students' socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
"The teachers are fabulous," Bunnett said. "It's not for a lack of caring, but their test scores are still too low."
She said there district could also work to close what she calls the "opportunity gap," where schools provide resources to students to balance out the inequalities at home.
"I want to voice the concern for lower-income students," Bunnett said.
Before she joined Kids in Common, Bunnett worked for Red Cross at the Palo Alto office, and worked briefly at Stanford to help students with disabilities. She said prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act, someone in a wheelchair going to college seemed heroic to people because they beat the odds. But now, with more ease-of-access, she said they're seen as a normal person with a disability going to school. She said that's just one example of how providing resources to students can reduce barriers and bring under-performing kids up to speed.
Bunnett said the district has done a great job overall, but she was disappointed with the recent decision to cut the Young Parents Program, which provided child care and other services to a handful of student who were pregnant or had children. The program ended with the school year in June, and was cut because state funding for the program ran out.
"Cutting the program was a big loss," Bunnett said. "I mentor a teen mom, and it's really hard for her."
Bunnett is a Los Altos resident and the mother of an incoming senior at Los Altos High School. As of Aug. 6 she has pulled candidacy papers with the county and said she plans to file them before the Aug. 8 deadline. She said her plan right now is to drum up local support and run a grassroots campaign.