Candidates in the running for the Dublin Unified School District (DUSD) Board of Trustees participated in an online forum last week to share their views about issues impacting Dublin schools.
Trustee Area 1 candidate Kristin Pelham and incumbent Trustee Gabi Blackman and challenger Michael Utsumi of Area 4 took part in the hourlong Zoom debate, tackling a total of eight questions from Pleasanton Weekly publisher Gina Channell and editor Jeremy Walsh, who moderated the discussion. Area 1 candidate Dawn Nwamuo, a local parent and physician, was unable to participate due to a scheduling conflict.
The livestream forum on Sept. 17 was presented by the Weekly in partnership with the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and Dublin/San Ramon Women's Club.
The three candidates debated together during the forum, although Blackman and Utsumi will be one election race and Pelham will be in a separate contest with Nwamuo under DUSD's by-trustee-area election format.
To start, each candidate was asked to address what ideas they have for supporting distance learning amid the coronavirus crisis as well as what steps they would recommend toward safely reopening schools during or after the pandemic.
"Schools reopening needs to be a careful, thoughtful process in coordination with the county, the health department, the state and the district," said Pelham, a Dublin resident who works as a teacher in the San Ramon Valley. "I think we need to focus on getting our youngest students and special education students back first because those are the students that need to be on campus the most."
For remote learning, Pelham emphasized the importance of supporting teachers, parents and students with how to navigate the technology and digital tools being used throughout the district as well as making sure that all students have access to the devices they need and reliable internet.
Utsumi, a parent and longtime volunteer for Dublin schools and at the district level, echoed Pelham's sentiments, adding that the "guiding principle" for him on this issue is that "we have got to rely on science and trust the data," regarding the virus and health and safety guidelines.
Blackman, who is seeking a full four-year term after winning a special election for Area 4 in June 2019, touched on some of the steps the district has already taken in the process of shifting to distance learning like allocating more time at the start of school year to help train staff and teachers to become more familiar with the new technology as well as equipping students and families with access to tech support experts.
Later, each candidate cited the completion and subsequent opening of Emerald High School -- DUSD's second comprehensive high school -- as a top priority to keep on track in terms of budget and construction.
"This is probably the most highly anticipated project that's come through the district in a long time," Utsumi said of the new high school, adding that if he is elected, he would "insist" on seeing more frequent reports from the facilities department shared with the board and the public as the project moves forward.
"Because we've got the community's support to pass these bonds, we owe it to them to be hyper communicative," Utsumi said.
Blackman highlighted how far the project has come despite running into some obstacles like the widely opposed proposal to build the school at the Zeiss light industrial site near Santa Rita Jail, which the board voted against in 2017. Since then, a new site located at an empty parcel of land between Central Parkway to the north and Dublin Boulevard to the south, where Grafton Street and Finnian Way intersect has been chosen as the home of the new school and construction is now underway.
"We have allocated in Measure J -- something that nobody thought we could do, but I fought for vehemently -- that we would actually put the language to complete the second high school in the bond language, which guarantees beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are going to finish that school," Blackman said.
While Pelham agreed that the construction alone has sparked excitement in Dublin, she said that the planning for programming and hiring staff should be happening simultaneously with it.
"I think it's important that we have not just the building ready to go but that we have the infrastructure of staffing and programs ready to go for the opening in 2022," she said.
Blackman praised Interim Superintendent Daniel Moirao for bringing some cohesion within the district, which has seen high turnover in its leadership following back-to-back abrupt departures of superintendents Leslie Boozer (March 2019) and Dave Marken (this June).
Utsumi and Pelham both emphasized the importance of finding someone with experience to fill the post long-term and engaging the community in the process.
"In terms of how this board functions and operates, I'm hoping that we can foster an environment of collaboration and consensus and come to the table with honesty," Utsumi said.
When asked about the city's east-west social divide, Pelham said, "I think it's important to understand that even though we are elected for a specific area, we represent all of Dublin."
She continued, "We can agree to disagree on some things, but if we keep all the kids in the district at the heart of our decisions, I think we'll be able to move forward and help bridge that divide and become a more unified Dublin."
On the heels of recent discussions around social justice and police reform, the candidates were asked how they feel about resource officers in and around Dublin campuses.
Pelham said that she thinks it's important to collect feedback from students, administrators and the community and then assess what is and what isn't working to determine the best solution. "In the past there's been a strong, positive relationship between the Dublin police department and Dublin schools and a good partnership," she said. "I think we need to not throw everything out."
Utsumi said that "great things can happen when you bring stakeholders and community members to the table," adding that he would welcome "diversity of thought" on the topic, although he said he personally does not see an issue with resource officers at schools.
Blackman emphasized the importance of prioritizing campus safety while acknowledging the sensitivity of the topic. "We want (students) to learn in an environment where they feel safe, where they know they are protected, but at the same time we do not want students to feel like they are being cared for in a way that does not respect their rights," she said.
Other topics discussed during the forum included budget priorities, the current relationship between the district and the Dublin Teachers Association and ongoing redevelopment projects at local schools.
A complete video of the forum is accessible on YouTube.
The Nov. 3 ballot for DUSD will feature Blackman and Utsumi for Blackman's Trustee Area 4 seat (parts of southeast Dublin), and Pelham and Nwamuo for the southwest Trustee Area 1 position -- at-large Trustee Amy Miller, whose seat was effectively assigned to Area 1 after DUSD's election format switch, opted not to seek re-election this fall.
The Area 3 seat on the school board is also due up for election this year, but incumbent Trustee Catherine Kuo is unopposed -- one year after earning her seat in a special election in November 2019.