Pleasanton Weekly

Opinion - September 24, 2010

School board candidates: Where they stand

If the answers to questions posed to them at a recent school board candidates' forum are any indication, Pleasanton voters will have a tough choice deciding which two of the three they should vote for. All three candidates, Sandy Piderit, Joan Laursen and Jeff Bowser, emphasized their unique experience that they say qualifies them, in particular, to be elected, but there was general agreement from the three on many of the issues. All three have volunteer experience at Pleasanton schools, and all three think the school board needs to do a better job of communicating with the public. All agree the district is, in general, doing a good job, but needs to continue to attract and retain qualified teachers, and that having students do well on tests is not the best way to measure a teacher's ability.

Piderit, a visiting associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, said that she was sought out to chair the interview panel that ultimately chose Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi to head the district. In addition, she says she has a unique perspective of what happens when students go off to college and that she has helped students make the jump from elementary to middle school.

Laursen focused on her 15 years as a volunteer at schools, and hopes to rebuild a shared vision for the future. Vowing not to make any "pie crust promises" - a line from the movie "Mary Poppins" - Laursen said that she can promise to be an advocate for children.

Bowser, an executive at Qwest Communications who holds a master's degree in Educational Leadership, promised to bring a business approach to the board. As a manager at companies with multi-million-dollar revenues, he knows the business side of education.

The differences among each candidate became more apparent as they answered questions submitted by some of those attending the forum, which included supporters of each of the candidates. While each of the three steered clear on whether they support a parcel tax, they had different views about other revenue enhancements. Bowser, for example, supported the work being done by groups such as Core (Community OutReach for Education), PTAs and site councils at the schools. Laursen, who helped with the CORE campaign, as well as fighting for Measure G, a prior parcel tax measure, noted the state of California is funding schools below the national average and said the state needs to realign priorities. Piderit proposed drawing on existing relationships with parents and businesses to help support the district.

On motivating students, Laursen recommended a partnership between teachers and parents. Piderit said teachers need to "find that spark" that can draw a student's attention and create motivation. Bowser pointed to Village High School, saying that the school's graduation ceremony in particular is a success story for some students who might be called unmotivated. All three agreed that how well a teacher's students do on standardized tests is only part of the way to evaluate performance, with Piderit suggesting a "multiple measures approach" that includes tests but adds observation by a teacher's peers and the administration, patterns of teaching, and the role of the teacher in the school. Bowser pointed out that test scores in a district can even affect the real estate market. He agreed with a broader approach, including observation and peer review, but asked if the district can measure the success of a student by an SAT score. Laursen said test scores are just one piece of the puzzle and should not be part of a high stakes decision about hiring and firing a teacher.

Asked why they are seeking school board positions, Piderit said she has a lifelong passion for education and that she wanted to "play it forward." Bowser joked that his parents taught him to "leave a place nicer than you found it," while Laursen said she was educated in the public school system, herself, and that "public education is really important to me." On the topic of what the role of a school board is, Bowser said the chief role is to listen to the community, and that while people may not agree with a decision the board makes, at least they can be sure their opinion was heard. Laursen outlined three areas of importance: hiring of a superintendent and staff, balancing the budget and setting the direction and vision of the schools' future. Piderit said one key role is accountability; she said, "Schools guide students to the path of responsible citizenship."

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