If the answers to questions posed to them at last night's school board candidates' forum are any indication, 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 superintendent interview panel that ultimately chose Superintendent Parvin Amadhi to head the district.
In addition, she said, "I have 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 our future."
Vowing not to make any "pie crust promises" -- a line from the movie "Mary Poppins" -- Laursen said," I can promise to be an advocate for our 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.
"I know the business of education," he said, adding, "I manage multi-million dollar companies."
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 the issue of attracting and retaining qualified teachers, Laursen noted that at job fairs the line for the Pleasanton school district's booth usually runs around the corner, adding, "This is a great district to work for" and "We have a number of other ways to attract employees."
Piderit said Pleasanton "has the benefit of a great teaching staff," to help retain teachers, and that parents "understand how much teachers do.
Bowser, who called the teaching staff "the stars of the district," said Pleasanton is "a place to be envied," and that the district "will continue, even in these tough economic times, to attract the best and the brightest."
In helping people from different cultures assimilate into the district, Piderit said "we need to understand what their expectations might be," especially people from cultures that sometimes discourage parents from approaching teachers with questions. She said there needs to be "less legalese" in the district.
Bowser said programs already exist to address that issue, but added, "I think outreach is the key.
Laursen said, "We need to change our understanding of the background they come from," and ask the question: "What are they passionate about?"
The three also have different ideas about the issue of homework.
Bowser said the current policy is good, but needs to be age-appropriate, adding that his own family has at times struggled with the amount assigned.
"Kids need to have a balance in their lives." He said.
Laursen, pointing to the film "Race to Nowhere," said different people in the community will have different opinions about how much is appropriate.
Piderit said homework can help build an "attitude of perseverance," but added that schools need to take into account all the other activities that are going on in peoples' lives, explaining that homework is one way to communicate progress to parents.
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 a 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, agreed with a broader approach, including observation and peer review, but added, "Can we 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 the hiring and firing a teacher."
On the issue of keeping the 60% of Pleasanton's population that's either childless or with grown children informed, Bowser recommended outreach, saying "We need to get out into the community, while Laursen pointed to a successful program that brings older residents into schools as volunteers. Piderit said, "It's a matter of consistency" in communications, adding that news headlines "can really take people up and down the roller coaster." She recommended using recent grads as role models, bringing teachers out into the community and bringing residents into the schools to "put a living face on history."
When asked about how they dealt with a collaborative team on a difficult decision, Laursen pointed to the narrowly failed Measure G parcel tax proposal, calling it a "contentious issue" and saying "people don't want to talk about it."
Piderit said she formed a team to deal with some college courses that were suffering from "benign neglect." She said she worked with small groups to build trust, and that each member of the team cross-trained the others to solve the problem. Bowser pointed to his work in negotiating contracts in business, and then described a discussion over whether to form a PTA at Hearst Elementary School, adding that "the key was bringing people together."
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."
A videotape of the candidates' forum will be shown on Community Television's Channel 28 on the following dates and times:
Friday, Sept. 17 - 11 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 18 - 6 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 19 - Noon
Monday, Sept. 20 - 11 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 21 - 2 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Videotape coverge of the Livermore school board election forum and the Dublin City Council candidates' forum also will be shown as various times on Chennel 28 starting Sept. 17. Check with TV30's Website for more information.