The last seven months have completely disrupted the way schools operate, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down campuses all throughout the state and abruptly forcing millions of students to learn from home.
But as the spread of the virus slowly declines, public health restrictions on schools have since been lifted. Now the decision on when, and how, to reopen schools for in-person instruction largely falls on local school districts. Individual school boards are now responsible for key decisions on reopening schools and returning to a sense of normalcy.
The unusual backdrop of COVID-19 raises the stakes for the Mountain View Whisman School District school board race this year, in which two of the three incumbents have chosen not to run. Board president Tamara Wilson is stepping down at the end of her term this year, and board member Jose Gutierrez is seeking a seat on the Mountain View City Council. Trustee Laura Blakely is seeking her second term on the board this November.
The turnover guarantees that fresh faces will be tasked with handling the school district's COVID-19 response. Vying for a seat on the school board are Chris Chiang, a former school board member; Laura Ramirez Berman, a former principal and Mistral parent; Patrick Neschleba, a Crittenden parent who previously served on district committees; and Manny Velasco, a former school employee.
All five candidates in the race have differing views on how to reopen schools, but generally agree that a phased approach is the correct course of action -- first allowing the students to return to campus who are least likely to thrive in a remote learning environment. They all acknowledge the district's rollout of virtual learning in the spring could have been better, but the critiques range from stinging (Chiang) to positive (Blakely).
While much of the focus has been on pandemic response, the district still has plenty of looming challenges unrelated to COVID-19. Winners of the election face a stubborn achievement gap, more than a quarter-billion dollar bond program and plans to build an affordable housing complex for teachers.
The district also has to contend with Mountain View's rapid housing growth, with zoning changes and pending projects slated to add 20,000 new households to the city in the coming decades. Local school districts have neither the land nor the money to pay for the influx of new students generated by the development, which is projected to cost as much as $1.2 billion. School officials say it will take relentless advocacy and negotiations with both the city and private developers, notably Google, to ensure schools are not forgotten in the rush to build more housing.
Faced with a mix of short and longterm challenges, trustees elected this November will have a rare opportunity to have a profound impact on parents and students today as well as into the future, turning Election Day this year into a pivotal moment for local schools.
Read about the candidates and their positions on key issues, in ballot order.
Laura Ramirez Berman
Occupation: School administrator, mother
Education: U.C. Los Angeles, B.A.
Years in the district: 13
For two decades, Laura Ramirez Berman has spent her career in education supporting some of the neediest schools in the Bay Area. Working at the charter school network Aspire, she taught -- and later led -- at schools where the vast majority of the students are low-income and minority, many of whom lacked stable housing.
By the end of her third year as principal of East Palo Alto Charter School, the school had been recognized as one of the top charter schools in the entire state. Turning now to her local community here in Mountain View, Berman said she is ready to bring that successful track record to the school board.
"I know I can contribute to the work of our board and our school district, especially as we focus on closing the achievement gap," Berman said. "I see this as an opportunity to put my experience to work while making a positive impact on my community."
Berman describes herself as a bilingual first-generation Latina with two daughters attending the district's Dual Immersion program at Mistral Elementary. She said she believes it's a priority to support diversity and ensure all voices in the community are heard. To that end, Berman said she would push to raise academic expectations in the school district, boosting rigor and student engagement in order to foster a love of learning. It also means more professional development for teachers, she said, and better inclusion of parents who are disconnected from public schools.
Some of those historically underserved demographics in Mountain View -- low-income, minority and English language learners -- have performed better in recent years on academic tests, but the pandemic threatens to reverse that progress, Berman said. Along with higher expectations, Berman said she would advocate for robust early childhood education beginning in preschool, which is where the resource and opportunity gaps for children begin.
Berman acknowledged the "enormous lift" on the part of teachers and district staff to shift to remote learning earlier this year, though she has some concerns about the limitations of virtual instruction. She worries that differentiation and small group instruction has been replaced with a one-size-fits-all approach, which may not fit the individual needs of students. She also worries that students are dealing with dislocation and isolation, and that teachers could use training and resources to boost academic and social interaction.
But with any changes, the district must be better at communicating with parents. Things have changed fast in Mountain View Whisman, and it's been confusing and frustrating for parents to keep up while also juggling a full-time job.
"We need timely, clear information to be easily accessible to all segments of the community, with consistent messaging across all levels of the system," she said.
In bringing kids back to school, she said her preference is a tiered approach in which kids with special needs and those struggling with housing insecurity are given the first chance to return, along with the youngest elementary school students. All families should be given maximum flexibility to return when they are comfortable, she said.
In planning for future housing growth, Berman said she believes strong schools are the anchor to any vibrant community, and that it must be included as a "foundational" element of the city's infrastructure for new and growing neighborhoods
As a school administrator in East Palo Alto, Berman said she is all too familiar with the problem of teacher turnover, including its direct impact on student performance and school culture, and that the school district can take steps to better retain its staff. The district could explore a stronger talent "pipeline" to the school district, including partnerships with local teacher preparation programs at Stanford and San Jose State University. There's also a "grow your own" approach, in which instructional aides in the district can be given a pathway to becoming full-time teachers. The same approach could be used in picking principals in-house, which could improve the rate of administrative turnover, she said.
"There is a sense of continuity and growth that comes with internal candidates growing within the school community," Berman said.
Though tangentially related to academics, Berman said she would also support initiatives to support student wellness, including counseling services provided through the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC). In the event that CHAC is oversubscribed, she said the district should lean on other health care agencies for help, including El Camino Health and Santa Clara County's Behavioral Health Services Department. Local nonprofits like Community Services Agency (CSA) and Reach Potential will also be a cornerstone for family nutrition.
"Everyone benefits when all students succeed, and we need to work as a community to support our neediest families,' she said.
Education: Yale University, B.A.; U.C. Berkeley, J.D.
Years in the district: 29
Laura Blakely, the only Mountain View Whisman School District trustee seeking reelection this year, said she believes local schools need experienced and contiguous leadership through some of the district's greatest challenges, from reopening schools to building new ones.
Blakely, elected in 2016, was among the newcomers that ushered in a wave of change in the school district. During her tenure, economic prosperity meant the district could afford greater teacher salaries, and student test scores saw modest but steady improvements -- though the achievement gap still remains. School board meetings, once contentious and downright awkward to sit through, have since become cordial.
Now looking to serve another term, Blakely has since campaigned with the message that the district is on the right track, touting its accomplishments and defending its recent response to the coronavirus pandemic and school closures. It hasn't been flawless, she said, but it was pretty good given the uncertainty of an ever-shifting regulatory landscape.
"I do believe that virtual learning has been rolled out effectively in the school district for the current school year, especially given the roller coaster of changing federal, state and Santa Clara County regulatory requirements and guidelines," she said.
Blakely has been deeply involved in the district long before her first term on the board, serving for nearly a decade on the district's foundation and pushing hard to pass district bond and parcel tax measures. She and a group of other parents also created "Share Shoreline," a group that pushed the city of Mountain View to share property tax revenue from North Bayshore -- a special tax district that diverts funding to the city that would otherwise go to schools and other public agencies.
Though more reserved and less likely to give a grandiose speech at board meetings, she has been a vocal advocate at multiple City Council meetings lobbying city officials to find a way to fund the creation of new schools, something she believes is essential if the city wants to grow its population at a rapid pace.
Though the community's reaction to the district's COVID-19 response has been mixed, Blakely said the district has made strides to distribute Chromebooks and WiFi access to all families who need them, and has hired a team of tech coaches to help teachers and parents navigate the challenges that come with remote learning. In retrospect, she said the district and the board should have required more student accountability with regards to attendance and grades, which caused some families to simply disconnect from academics.
"When we opted not to, many students simply checked out and refused to participate, and some suffered serious mental health consequences," Blakely said. "We've corrected course for this school year and require both attendance and grades."
In reopening, Blakely has long supported a phased approach, allowing the youngest students and those with special needs to return for in-person learning soon. Everyone, including the staff, would be serving on an "opt-in" basis to avoid pressuring anyone to return early.
"I've been advocating all summer to do this with at least a small number of these families and teachers who voluntarily choose to return to a socially distanced classroom with a reduced number of students and other safety protocols," Blakely said. "I think the in-person environment would be so beneficial for these kids."
When asked about learning loss and students who have fallen behind since March, Blakely said there is some fear-mongering going on, and that the district can bounce back. On top of daily virtual instruction, the district is still providing intervention to students who are struggling as well as those who want more challenging work. The district's budget is also still fairly robust, which should stave off any staffing cuts through the pandemic.
"Our kids are resilient and will rise above this," she said.
The recent churn in principals hasn't been all that bad either, Blakely said, calling the claim of high administrative turnover a "bit of an urban myth." Five of the principals hired during her tenure have been very successful, she said, and three left their posts to take promotions to the district office. The board also voted in 2018 to remove or reassign four principals, which was highly controversial at the time.
On the teacher retention front, Blakely said the pay raises have definitely moved the needle, claiming that the rate of teachers staying in the district has increased by 20%. She also pointed to the district's deal to get a 144-unit teacher housing project built in the city, which would be among the largest teacher housing developments in the Bay Area.
Blakely said one of the biggest challenges facing the school district is how to respond to a huge increase in housing in Mountain View, which is expected to generate thousands of students in the coming decades. Right now there is no feasible plan to build schools for those future families, and it's been difficult negotiating with the city and private developers to ensure schools are not forgotten.
Though the estimates vary greatly, Blakely said she believes the development pipeline is projected to generate 2,500 new students, about a 50% increase in the district's total enrollment and a completely untenable number of kids to house on existing campuses.
"We need to take concrete steps now to plan for this tsunami," she said.
Finding suitable land for a new school site is the first step, Blakely said, followed by a clear plan to pay for site acquisition and construction of new schools. She believes voluntary contributions from developers, property tax money from North Bayshore and other clever financing schemes might be the best way to offset the high cost of building schools.
Blakely has been perhaps the most vocal trustee against the idea of asking voters to pay for it through a school bond, which is the typical tool for paying for new school facilities.
"I have never been in favor of, and would not personally vote for, asking residents who live here now to tax ourselves for bonds to pay for schools to serve kids who do not yet live here, and I don't believe this is a viable option," she said.
On the ever-present problem of narrowing the achievement gap, Blakely touts that the district has already made strong improvements, particularly at the district's neediest schools, Castro and Theuerkauf elementary. Looking forward, she said the district should make a push to get more students proficient in English by middle school, and that there should be a holistic approach to helping lower-achieving students ranging from mental health support to better access to subsidized meals.
"There is no magic bullet for student improvement, and it does not happen overnight, but we will continue to implement and refine successful programs," she said.
Education: Stanford University, B.S., M.S.
Years in the district: 17
When the Mountain View Whisman School District passed a $198 million Measure G school bond in 2012, it had promised upgrades to all of its aging campuses without a plan for how to apportion the money. What ensued was three straight years of arguments and battles between communities trying to get their fair share, all while construction costs were soaring.
Wading into the emotional debate was Patrick Neschleba, then a Monta Loma parent, who took a leadership role on the District Facilities Committee, tasked with tackling the thorny issue. After months of long and occasionally testy board meetings -- including some harsh realities about opening a new school -- the district finally approved a cohesive spending plan.
A Crittenden parent today, Neschleba is running for a seat on the school board as someone with leadership experience in the school district, and believes his track record shows he can build consensus even during quarrelsome times.
"I seek to build relationships, find common ground, and identify areas of consensus –- something I showed very strongly leading efforts to align on Measure G facilities priorities in 2015 –- which is a stark contrast from the confrontational, dysfunctional behavior of the 2012-2015 board of trustees," Neschleba said.
While Neschleba said he wants to continue to focus on school facilities, particularly with Measure T passing in March, he is also in support of a more well-rounded education for students. The district should balance its focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with robust arts programs, he said, and should work to ensure students leaving eighth grade have the writing skills needed to thrive in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District.
And while the achievement gap is the perennial challenge for most schools in the Bay Area, Neschleba said the district is blessed with the budget and tax base to meet the challenge. He believes a renewed focus on academic rigor and greater investment in intervention programs can help all students thrive, including low-income and minority students who have traditionally underperformed on standardized tests.
Neschleba describes the district's switch to virtual learning in the spring as "disappointing," and that in retrospect much more could have been done in March to prepare for the pandemic and rapidly train teachers on the technology used for distance learning. Remote learning has been more of a "mixed bag" for the start of the 2020-21 school year, but he believes teachers have done a good job given the circumstances.
"Teachers and staff should be commended for creating virtual schools and instructional methods that didn't exist before –- in education, no one trains for teaching during a pandemic," Neschleba said. "For mainstream students in the older grades, I think it's been a success so far."
Moving forward, Neschleba said the district needs to take seriously the learning losses that occurred in the spring. That means academic assessments to figure out the extent of the problem, he said, followed by a rigorous catch-up plan to ensure students get the support they need to close the gap.
On safely reopening schools, Neschleba said he would advocate for a plan that is metered by the willingness to return. If there are a critical mass of families willing to send their kids back to school for in-person instruction, and there are enough teachers willing to return to campus, then it's time to proceed with a reopening plan.
"While this likely means a later return to in-person instruction compared to some private schools or districts who have accepted more risk, I believe we are better off trying to educate healthy kids with healthy parents," he said.
To best respond to Mountain View's plans for rapid housing growth, Neschleba said the district needs to take a measured approach. Enrollment projections need to be revised, particularly with local companies reassessing the use of telecommuting amid the pandemic, and existing schools still have plenty of room for a near-term influx of students. While some candidates have floated the idea of creating a magnet school or choice program in the district's high-growth areas, Neschleba said the neighborhood school model is a better approach for these new communities.
"I believe neighborhood schools define Mountain View, and as we grow we need to stay committed to that vision," he said.
In addressing the rotating cast of principals in the district, Neschleba said he believes the district needs to both improve its hiring process and better support school administrators who join the district. Some of that work has already been done, he said, and he believes a good target is to increase the average principal tenure by at least one year. Improving teacher pay would also be a top priority, he said, along with better benefits like access to affordable housing.
Though the district could have trouble paying for pay raises in lean times, Neschleba said it can be done through cost savings elsewhere.
"With a focus on fiscal discipline in MVWSD's operations, focusing on reducing ongoing costs for maintenance and utilities, and eliminating unnecessary consulting expenses and bad-idea pilots, I think we can free up more of our budget to support this vision," Neschleba said.
Occupation: Middle school teacher
Education: U.C. Irvine, B.A.; Stanford University, M.A.
Years in the district: 14
Chris Chiang, a teacher with an affinity for progressive new teaching ideas, is seeking to return to the Mountain View Whisman school board this year after a tumultuous first term.
Chiang, 39, joined the school district with ambitious goals in mind, focused on 21st century learning skills, project-based learning and an aversion to rote memorization, over-testing and drill-and-kill tactics to raise test scores.
And for the most part, none of that has changed. In his run for the school board this November, Chiang said he still largely wants to build on many of those same goals. The fundamentals are important, he said, but they must be married to a districtwide curriculum that emphasizes things like social-emotional learning -- a concept that he believes has been championed unevenly from one campus to another.
Adding to that holistic look, Chiang said he would take a skeptical approach to test scores, particularly standardized testing data that he believes are "notoriously flawed and cheaply constructed." It's easier to point to the numbers and tout success, but it could easily drive teachers to directing instruction only to the lowest scorers.
"This approach leaves some students under-challenged, and all students without a real sense of the joy and relevancy of their subject content," Chiang said.
Chiang served on the school board from 2012 to 2015, during arguably one of the most challenging times for the Mountain View Whisman School District. Labor negotiations with the teachers' union had soured, the Measure G facilities bond had been precariously planned, the superintendent resigned and the district's achievement gap, data later revealed, was among the largest in the country.
School board meetings were also notoriously contentious, with frequent arguments, drama, raised voices and even the occasional walk-out. Chiang quit while serving as board president in 2015, more than a year before his first term ended, but maintains that he was always a cooler head on the board of trustees.
"On a contentious board, I was one of the few that never lost my composure. I am proud that I completed my three years with respect for everyone who came to the board," Chiang said.
Over the last 16 years, Chiang has taught at a mix of public and private schools mostly in the Bay Area, including the experimental Khan Lab School in Mountain View. His latest job has him working on remote teaching and piloting a hybrid in-person instruction model, which he said is particularly relevant as the Mountain View Whisman School District considers returning kids to campus early next year.
Chiang said he would be an advocate for a phased approach to reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic, starting with the youngest and neediest students returning to campus. Only after the limited reopening is proven to work and does not constitute a health hazard, Chiang said he would be willing to accept older students coming back to school. He was reluctant to reopen middle schools at any point during the pandemic.
"I do not believe middle school should reopen during this crisis, and we should provide clarity by focusing middle schools on solely preparing distance learning for the year," Chiang said. "Their multi-subject courses and their age puts them at much higher risk."
In helping students who are behind on core subjects due to school closures, Chiang said the first step is to bridge the digital divide and ensure all students have the devices and internet connections they need to learn from home. It will also mean more summer school and after-school enrichment opportunities for kids who need to catch up, he said, with year-round instruction until the gaps are narrowed.
Though Mountain View's housing growth is expected to generate more students than schools can handle, Chiang said the school district must temper its expectations. Land costs are sky-high in the North Bayshore area of the city and there isn't much space available, he said, meaning the school district needs to consider an urban-style "micro" school -- a departure from the sprawling suburban campuses that currently serve the city. He said asking Google and the city for a billion-dollar school or threatening to use eminent domain is counter-productive.
"There needs to be a balance of getting what MVWSD is owed without derailing other partnerships we have with these stakeholders," Chiang said.
Teacher retention, a huge issue in recent years for the school district, has improved due to significant raises approved by the board over the last five years, Chiang said. But keeping principals has erupted as a brand new challenge, including resignations and a decision by the board to remove or reassign four principals in 2018. District officials defend the decision by saying those principals did not meet specific goals, Chiang said, which he believes is troubling.
"Data-driven firing is dangerous," Chiang said. "Effective public schools need to view teachers and children as capable of growing, and when a principal is fired rather than coached, it does not convey a learning culture to promote growth."
When asked about the achievement gap in the school district, Chiang said his approach would be to invest in early childhood education as well as summer and after-school programs to help underserved students receive what affluent parents already provide their children. He also emphasized that test scores are not everything, and the district would be mindful to support life-long skills in English, math and computer science.
"The moral crisis is not revealed in our test scores, but revealed in the number of local students unprepared to access the rewarding local jobs in their own city," Chiang said.
Occupation: Small business owner
Education: "Some" college
Years in the district: 36
For the last 15 years, Manny Velasco has played many different roles in the Mountain View Whisman School District, from working directly with high-needs special education students to representing the district's classified employees as a union president.
Though no longer a district employee, Velasco said he had worked on nearly every school site with every grade level during his tenure, and believes he has a strong connection with the community and in-tune knowledge for what families need from the school district. Now he hopes to bring that broad experience to the school board as a trustee.
"I have had the unique experience of seeing the education system through the eyes of the students, staff and family perspective," Velasco said.
Velasco began his career as a special education instructional assistant, perhaps one of the most challenging jobs in the district. High burnout, low pay, and a ton of work supporting students with moderate to severe disabilities, which required "micro-analyzing" every aspect of the classroom environment. The job required him to know the curriculum, teaching styles, learning environment and capabilities of each student, he said, and he looks back on the job fondly.
Velasco more recently served as the district's School Linked Services Coordinator, a county-funded job aimed at getting more parents and families engaged in local schools and linking underserved students to community services. It was through that job, and later as a School and Community Engagement Facilitator for the district, that he was able to meet a broad cross-section of the district community, from the highest-achieving students to the most vulnerable.
Velasco resigned from Mountain View Whisman through a settlement agreement earlier this year that prevents him from volunteering at local schools or entering district campuses, raising questions about his decision to run for the school board. Velasco has declined to explain the specifics behind the agreement, which has cast a cloud on his candidacy.
In running for the school board, Velasco said the district desperately needs a plan of reaction for reopening schools, which must take into account the recommendations of teachers, staff and state and local public health officials. Special education students and other at-risk groups need to be given an opportunity to come back as soon as in-person instruction is a viable option.
Velasco said the district has in recent years seen a "steep decline" in mental health services for students with special needs, which is particularly concerning during COVID-19 and distance learning. For the general population of students, Velasco said he would base his decision to reopen on whether the school district had done its due diligence to ensure classes are safe and follow all the public health requirements.
Though nobody was prepared to suddenly shift to remote learning earlier this year, Velasco said the district has, on balance, been "ahead of the curve" in rolling out an effective virtual learning experience. Lingering problems that still need to be addressed include truancy and internet access for students who may have a limited connection during the school day.
Given the bumpy end to the 2019-20 school year, Velasco said any shortfalls and learning gaps should be addressed through staff training and robust communication between teachers.
"Now more than ever, the district should embrace a strong sense of community internally and share strategies amongst each other," Velasco said. "They need to create best practices and ensure that all staff feels supported during these times."
When asked how to handle the large projected enrollment growth, Velasco said the district should stand firm on providing neighborhood schools to all residents. That means studying enrollment trends, hiring enough teachers and ensuring that classrooms don't become overcrowded, he said.
Teacher retention, while a big challenge for the Mountain View Whisman School District, has gotten better over time, Velasco said. He believes the planned 144-unit teacher housing project will be a shot in the arm for attracting and keeping teachers in the coming years, and that district administrators should strike a fair balance in working with employee unions. Velasco had previously served as president of the local Classified School Employees Association union.
"I would also like to see fair and proper outcomes from the bargaining teams involved in negotiating with the district employee units," Velasco said.
Though Velasco said he would vow to narrow the achievement gap until it is completely gone, he said his approach as a trustee would be balanced by a need to provide enrichment to high-performing students as well.