The Mountain View Whisman School District is looking to fill a seat left vacant by former school board president Chris Chiang, and there are plenty of people to choose from. Community volunteers, parents and even a former City Council member have all submitted applications.
Eleven people applied for the seat as of the Aug. 3 deadline, many of them citing a need for civil discussion and a conciliatory fifth member of the school board. The board is facing big issues, including whether to open a new school in the northeast quadrant of the city -- which has hundreds of school-age children and no neighborhood school -- and a myriad of new strategies to narrow the achievement gap.
The district office also has some new faces this school year, with three new principals, a new chief business officer and new superintendent.
Chiang resigned from the board in July, citing hostility between board member Steve Nelson and his fellow trustees. Nelson had been censured by the board in 2013 for his actions, and was blamed for the mid-year resignation of Superintendent Craig Goldman. The board has continued to have trouble with heated exchanges between Nelson and district staff.
Chiang's term expires at the end of 2016.
Profiles of applicants Peter Darrah, a district parent who served on multiple facilities committees and ran for the board in 2012, and Jill Rakestraw, an active parent and former PTA member, ran in previous editions of the Voice. The applications for all candidates were released Aug. 4 and can be viewed online at the school district's website.
The current trustees of the Mountain View Whisman School District have lost sight of their priorities, says Sanjay Dave, who has lived in the area for 17 years. He points to recent meetings that have devolved into shouting matches as well as a tendency of some school trustees to micro-manage district staff.
"Of late, I don't feel the board has been doing a good job pointing the district in the right direction," Dave said. "A lot of personal issues have been going on, and the district has been taking a step backwards."
A senior manager at Synopsys, Dave said that he brings long experience serving on corporate boards and making difficult decisions. He has also taken a leadership role in local community groups, including the Mountain View Rotary, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School Foundation and the Los Altos Community Foundation.
If appointed to the school board, he said his top goal would be to make Mountain View a model for education in California. To that end, he has worked as a tutor at Mountain View High School since 2006 and coached sports for eight years through the Junior Giants baseball league. He ran unsuccessfully last year for a board seat on the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.
Dave has nothing but kind words to say about the district's teachers, and he credits them for providing an excellent education for his daughter, now a Mountain View High School sophomore. Yet, he says the district needs to focus on closing the achievement gap and matching the academic standards of neighboring school districts.
Dave said he is cautiously supportive of proposals to open a new school campus in the district, and he believes the idea should be studied further. A new school shouldn't draw resources from other campuses, he said.
District resident Alain Fastre calls the city of Mountain View a "completely international world," and said it's time to for the local school district to embrace it.
Fastre is a retired business executive who worked with Hewlett Packard, Nokia and Smart Technologies for 35 years, and has lived in several countries. He moved to Mountain View in 2003, and said it's high time the district support more cultural diversity and global awareness at its schools. He advocated for a greater emphasis on technology as well as multi-lingual programs.
"Learning languages other than your own exposes you to different cultures, a different way of thinking, a different way of looking at different possible solutions (to problems)," Fastre said.
While living in Europe, Fastre served on the board for St. John's International School in Waterloo, Belgium for 15 years, including 10 years as chairman. He said he doesn't come from a teaching background, but that he would set high standards for all the schools in the Mountain View Whisman School District, and put policies in place that will "help children to be come successful in the ever-changing world right now."
Although the board has been mired in difficult issues this year and often struggles through contentious agenda items, Fastre said that's been no reason for him to shy away from applying for the vacant seat.
"I see it as an extra challenge," he said. "I'm a partnership and compromise person. To me, a compromise is not 'all parties lose,' a compromise is 'all parties win.' Keep(ing) in mind the future and the goodness of the children is something I can bring to the table."
Fastre acknowledged that he's not intimately involved in all of the issues facing the district, but that his outside perspective could end up being a positive thing for the board. He said he is neutral and uninfluenced, and that his only strategy is to do what's best for the students in the district.
Part of supporting the students, he said, is providing high quality education to students from all walks of life, regardless of how affluent their families are.
Longtime Mountain View resident and community activist Lisa Roquero Garcia said she applied for the vacant seat because there's a need for the board to represent the needs of all students in the district.
Garcia has two children, one entering college and one who will be a senior at Mountain View High School. While her kids attended private school for most of their elementary years, she said her son went to the PACT program when it was at Castro Elementary for one year, and attended Graham Middle school.
She said she became particularly involved in the district in 2005, when Castro Elementary was considered for closure. Garcia didn't have kids in the district at the time, but said there was a serious problem with how it was handled. Minority families had little access to information when they were told their school might close down, no communication with the district office and no easy method for translation between Spanish and English, she said.
"We definitely had a population that didn't have a voice," Garcia said.
In an effort to get more Spanish-speaking and minority families up to speed with what was going on at the district level, Garcia founded Mesa de la Comunidad, a nonprofit group that provided translation services to Latino families during the debates over closing down a school in the district.
The increased advocacy on the part of the Latino community played a part in the eventual decision not to close Castro, she said.
Garcia also spent time on the Graham Parent Teacher Association board, was on the Santa Clara County Commission on the Status of Women, and is a director-at-large for the Mountain View Historical Association.
It's not always obvious that there's an under-served population in Mountain View, Garcia said. When Garcia started working for Mountain View-based Intuit as a business systems analyst, she said the company would encourage employees to help out in the local community, and often times that meant helping out in East Palo Alto rather than right in the company's backyard.
Despite a history of advocacy for Latino and non-English speaking families, Garcia said her goal as a member of the school board would be to advocate for all students, which she said has been a stumbling block in addressing issues going back 10 years. Part of the problem, she said, is that there's a tendency for board members to push their own agendas.
"It's important for all kids to have an equal opportunity," she said.
Jose Gutierrez has two students in the district's Dual Immersion program. He couldn't be reached for comment by the Voice's Wednesday press deadline. According to his application, he applied to the school board to "bring different ideas to the table" and help the new superintendent find new ways to handle issues facing students, faculty and staff, according to his application statement.
Gutierrez wrote that he wouldn't be coming into the position completely cold. He previously served as a student trustee for the West Valley-Mission Community College District, at a time when students faced rising costs for education amid budget cuts. During the difficult time, he said he brought a lot of different ideas to the table and did a lot of team building. He has a vision for how to improve the Mountain View Whisman School District, he said on his application.
During the time his children attended the Dual Immersion program, Gutierrez wrote that he found that the contributions by the community have been "incredible," and that his wife has been helping out as as a substitute teacher and community volunteer. He said the district has also done a good job supporting students regardless of what school they go to, and that he would continue to support that positive environment on the school board.
Former Mountain View City Council member Tom Means said he's not anxious to get back into local politics after serving eight years on the council, but that he's got the right temperament to overcome the dysfunctional nature of the board until the open seat's term ends in 2016.
Means is a professor of economics at San Jose State University, and said he's had his fair share of collective decision-making and dealt with tough faculty at the university over the years. His experience, both at the university and on council, will help him handle the controversial issues facing the board, he said.
"I've learned a lot from my colleagues in the department on how to work with others and get things done," Means said.
While serving on the city's Parks and Recreation Committee as well as on the council, Means said he worked with people who brought "political baggage to meetings and were difficult to communicate with," and still managed to "accomplish great things" for the city, according to his application statement.
Means said he plans to fill the vacant seat on the board until 2016, and that his pragmatic approach in crafting motions everyone can agree on makes him an effective leader. Often times, he said, he ends up as chair of most of the committees he serves on because of his reputation.
While he is best known for his libertarian ideals while serving as a mayor and council member, Means said he's stayed in touch with the school board and kept up-to-date on the issues facing the Mountain View Whisman School District over the years. He worked closely with the youth advisory committee, coached youth sports, and said he was instrumental in getting four council members to approve the new teen center, The View.
Coming onto the school board, Means said he is aware of the issues facing the district but has been careful not to take specific positions. He said he did the same when running for City Council, and that it can be a mistake to promise one thing while campaigning and appear to go back on it once more information is provided.
"People ask, 'what's your political agenda,'" Means said. "I don't come with one."
As a new resident of Mountain View's Whisman neighborhood with a 2-year-old son, Christina Oran said she was quick to get involved in the local school district, and has been a vocal proponent of re-opening a school in the Whisman and Slater neighborhood area over the last few months.
Oran is a math teacher currently teaching part time at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. She said it would be great to have a teacher's perspective on the board, particularly after the board lost Chiang, a teacher at Sacred Heart Preparatory.
Some of the big initiatives the district needs to take on, Oran said, includes better marketing of Mountain View's public schools to attract more families. She said families in the area attend private schools at three times the rate of the national average, which she said isn't a recipe for a healthy school system and segregates kids out of public schools.
"Our schools are quite good, but we don't do a good job showcasing the things we already do very well," she said. "Private schools in our area do a lot of marketing, and it's hard to compete with that."
As an active member in the Wagon Wheel neighborhood -- a portion of the Whisman area encompassing about 1,000 homes -- Oran said she's interested in finding a way to open a new school in the northeast quadrant of the city, and tailoring the school to "bring families back out of private schools." As a member of the "Reopen Slater" group that pushed the board to open a new school earlier this year, she supported the idea of a school focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and the integration of a STEM program into the district.
"If you look at the demographic of Mountain View, it's shocking that there's no STEM program in the heart of Silicon Valley. A program like that would really do us a lot of favors," she said.
Julian Pardo de Zela
Julian Pardo de Zela has some very personal reasons for why he wants to join the Mountain View Whisman School Board. As a father of four children, the oldest of whom just completed his first year at Theuerkauf Elementary, Pardo de Zela said he knows the school district will play a huge role for his family for years to come.
"I have another 18 years of having kids in the school district," he said. "I have a very vested interest in what happens in public schools."
Pardo de Zela, puts himself forward as the right candidate at the right time for a school board characterized by infighting. As a practicing attorney with the San Jose firm Ropers, Majeski, Kohn and Bentley, Pardo de Zela describes himself as someone with a professional mindset, even temperament and a long history of resolving conflicts. He also volunteers with the city's mediation program.
He didn't have any immediate recommendation for how to cool tempers on the school board, but said he was confident there was some way to broker a working relationship.
"I can only say there should never be that kind of acrimony when you're all on the same team," he said. "In my experience, most disagreements can be resolved in a way that satisfies everyone."
Pardo de Zela admits he still has a lot to learn about the intricacies of the school government, and he says he doesn't have an ideological agenda. He is receptive to proposals to expand the district with a new school campus, but only if the district can prove its budget can handle the expense. A particular issue of concern for him is the achievement gap between the schools in the district.
"That seems like the most egregious thing in the district," he said. "You have an affluent city in Silicon Valley and you have key schools and demographics that are under-performing -- something's got to be done about that."
Steve Sherman is a 23-year district parent who describes himself as a long-time observer, campaigner, taxpayer and voter. Sherman said he vows that if he is appointed to the board he would help his colleagues "see through their own chicanery" and get to the heart of issues facing the Mountain View Whisman School District.
Sherman and his wife made a conscious decision to leave Palo Alto and the city's prestigious schools and have their kids attend Theuerkauf Elementary. The appeal for them, at the time, was that kids at Theuerkauf spoke 27 different languages and had economic and cultural diversity that was absent in Palo Alto.
"We said, 'hey, that's what the world is going to look like in the 21st century,'" Sherman said.
As a board member, Sherman said he would do his best to keep things in perspective and represent the voice of all the stakeholder groups that rely on good governance, particularly the district's students.
He called the recent drama between school board members a "huge distraction" from the primary function of the school board to provide a quality education, and that the last regular school board meeting in June showed how refusing to budge on principle can cause problems. At the June 24 meeting, several votes appeared to be an impasse with a split 2-2 vote before one board member eventually compromised.
"In my view, sticking to your own principles, at the expense of any of those impacted (stakeholder) groups may turn out to be short-sighted," Sherman said.
As a civil engineer, Sherman said his background in building construction could help the board understand the realities of the construction industry, and avoid some of the confusion that leads to delays and contentious debates over how to spend Measure G bond money.
It would be nice, he said, to have a set dollar amount allocated to each school with equivalent facilities. But costs are going to vary from school to school, and to blow five or six months on the comprehensive plan instead of getting started right away would cost the district close to $6 million in "opportunity" cost, he said.
"The construction industry does not care about social justice in school districts," Sherman said. "You cannot work at all schools all at once with identical plans."
Recent estimates from the district found that $220,000 is lost for every week a construction project is delayed, and Sherman said it might not be clear to board members how much is being lost with each delay.
A long-time district resident and parent volunteer, Catherine Vonnegut has been working with the district's committees and parent-teacher associations since the 1980s, and founded the district's annual Choral Fest event in 2001.
Rather than wait to get involved with her local school district when her son hit kindergarten, Vonnegut said she volunteered with district committees before her son was even born. She served on a committee in 1986 that made a difficult decision on whether to open Huff Elementary. Now the board is considering opening a new school in the Whisman and Slater neighborhood, and Vonnegut said she feels like she has a helpful perspective to bring to the board.
"We need to resolve the neighborhood school issue with as little contention as possible," Vonnegut said.
Throughout the years, Vonnegut said she also served on finance and architectural committees for the district, and eventually took a leadership role as PTA council president for all three school districts serving Mountain View.
While Vonnegut's background is in software engineering and volunteering as an emergency medical technician, she said both her grandmother and her son are teachers, giving her a helpful perspective.
When the Mountain View and Whisman school districts merged together in 2000, Vonnegut said there was a lot of community angst. She said there was a clear need for a community event that could bring the community together, and after some brainstorming, came up with the Choral Fest. The event brings together hundreds of choir students from all over the district to sing at the Shoreline Amphitheatre each year in a partnership with the Community School of Music and Arts (CSMA).
Vonnegut said she has a good track record as a meeting manager and has been able to conduct cordial, round-table discussion,s and that she will do her best to foster positive discussions on the board.
"I hope that people can move towards being more civil than they have in the past," Vonnegut said.