The candidates vying for the Pleasanton Unified School District Board of Trustees detailed their plans for leading local schools through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, managing district finances and addressing other relevant issues during an online candidate forum on Monday night.
Presented by the Pleasanton Weekly in partnership with the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce and the Pleasanton Partnerships in Education Foundation, the 90-minute livestream event featured all five candidates on the Nov. 3 general election ballot. The forum was moderated by Weekly publisher Gina Channell and editor Jeremy Walsh.
The candidates, who are competing for three at-large seats on the Board of Trustees, opened by sharing their thoughts on reopening local schools for in-person learning amid the pandemic, and what policies and procedures they would recommend to support both in-person and remote learning models.
With Alameda County announcing its new red tier designation on the state's COVID-19 tracking blueprint, current Board President Steve Maher -- an incumbent who is seeking a second four-year term -- said "we'll be able to move forward with the possibility of reopening," but there's much to consider.
"Once we move to in-person learning, then we'll look at our TK to 2, and we'll do a hybrid," Maher said. "By that, I mean it could be a.m./p.m. for kindergarten with a time slot in the middle for cleaning our different classrooms, or it could be alternating days -- Monday/Tuesday, possibly Thursday/Friday with Wednesday being a cleaning day."
Kelly Mokashi, an education specialist and adult member of the city's Youth Commission who is running for trustee for the first time, served on the district's steering committee in the summer and said she supports a hybrid model.
"It's really important that we support our teachers, our students, our parents, to keep our children engaged with the learning process, to support them remotely in the time being," Mokashi said. "That is paramount, because the No. 1 priority is having our children learn in the best, safest way possible."
Chong Wang, an IT consultant and PUSD Bond Oversight Committee member also running for the first time, said of the remote learning experience, "As a parent, I think that the situation is better than we used to be last semester."
"I will take the highest standard to protect the students and the teachers," Wang said. "I also support a hybrid model as well ... but we do need to give the students and the teachers options" for pursuing distance learning.
Wang added he was "also trying to organize parents from the community to collect feedback for PUSD on remote learning quality."
Incumbent Trustee Jamie Yee, who is seeking a fourth term, said "there needs to be a little bit more support around supporting our students that have some mental health issues."
In regard to supporting remote learning, Yee said, "It's better than it was in the spring, but we really learned a lot and there definitely is some area for improvement."
"I do want to say that we never really had a help desk before, and now we've got one," Yee added. "The district quickly implemented that, and I think it's been very helpful. But we need to do a little bit more, and we want to make sure that all of our teachers have the most up to date, good technology to be able to provide the instruction that they need to provide."
Recently retired Alisal Elementary School teacher Mary Jo Carreon, also a first-time candidate, said the board's job is to ensure policies are in place to support learning in any environment.
"For example, as a classroom teacher, I had the policy last year to make sure our doors were always locked and always kept closed because of intruders," Carreon said. "Does that need to change? Well, they said we need to have proper ventilation due to COVID, so we need to make sure that our ventilation systems are up to par. And if not, is there a policy in place for keeping doors open, and can we teach outside of the classroom? "
The district's budget during a period of uncertainty surrounding state finances, as well as how they would determine budget priorities and what areas of spending they would conserve, also drew different responses.
Mokashi said PUSD is "unique compared to some other districts" in parts of the U.S. where they might have more Title I and Title II federal funding.
"Our district does not have that benefit," Mokashi said, adding "one singular category that stands out for me -- how to increase revenue."
"Currently the district is only slated $310,000 in that category -- I'd like to pose some questions on what else we can do differently to increase that revenue," Mokashi added. "Perhaps it's something we haven't tried before -- partnerships with new businesses or perhaps a district fundraiser -- something special that has very targeted use for those funds. "
Mokashi also suggested realigning staff with enrollment and potentially an audit of the district's curriculum programs. "This is the best time to renegotiate education services, not cut them. Renegotiate," she added.
Wang said the district "has $174 million in revenue and we're spending $180 million."
"Our situation is 97% of the revenue is from the state budget allocation," Wang said, adding that the state's fiscal future will "create a financial challenge to our school district."
"We don't know what's going to be the situation in the next year, but the next year could be even worse so we need to prepare for that," he said.
Yee said she would avoid cuts in school health services: "I really think that we need all of our people that are medically trained. We shouldn't cut any of our counselors or any of our support services that we provide for students."
"That's the most important thing, because if our students are well-supported, it actually makes the teaching, learning a lot easier or more effective for our teachers," Yee added.
Carreon said she would "always advocate for the cuts being farthest away from the classroom."
"We have to make cuts, so I feel like we need to expand our budget advisory committee and expand it to more people in our community," Carreon said. "We have a great community and people are smart, and we could work together to solve this problem. In 2008, when we had the budget crisis ... we all worked together and we made cuts. They were painful but we worked together, and I believe that our community can work together to make these cuts."
The district needs a balanced and sustainable budget, Carreon said, but "I also agree that we do need to secure additional funding, so we do need to look at parcel taxes in the future or other ideas, and that's why I think the community support is really important."
Maher replied that among other categories, he'd also "stay as far away from students and athletics as possible."
"Especially now, when we come back to school, athletics, camaraderie and togetherness for students is going to be very critical because of social interaction that (students) have lost," Maher said.
Maher said he would consider offering early retirement to some teachers, increasing facility fees, and "possibly leasing or even selling" some district property.
"I know people say we're saving that for a rainy day -- well, today might be the rainy day," he said.
He also proposed forming a committee "to really look at what can be shaved off the budget."
The candidates later went into further detail about their plans concerning the district's finances when asked how they would secure funding for deferred facilities projects while simultaneously avoiding recurrent underfunding, and whether they voted for or against the Measure M bond initiative that failed in the March primary election.
A staunch advocate of the proposed measure, Carreon said the district should "find out how our surrounding school districts were able to get their bond measures passed."
"We need to work collaboratively with other districts to find out what was successful, and we need to have really good, open, honest discussions with our community to find out why it didn't pass," Carreon said. "I'm sure that if we have more open and transparent communication and more buy-in from the community, that'd we'd be able to get it passed."
Mokashi said newer residents in higher tax brackets might have been resistant to the measure and that "transparency and clear communication on how those funds will be allocated."
Wang said he spoke to residents who were opposed to Measure M and declared the issue was it being "too much, too soon."
"When I talked to those people who are against it, some said if it is specific and more programs than Measure I1, they will support it. In the future, we need to carefully lay out the plan," Wang said.
Maher agreed there needed to be more public education about Measure M, which he supported, and said in the future, "We also need to be better prepared, to be clear about what it means to people when the bond is passed."
Yee also campaigned for Measure M and called it "such a sad thing that it didn't pass."
"One of the things that we really need to work on is better communication and education of how a bond works and how the finances work," Yee said. "People were saying it's too much, too soon -- what does that really mean? In a public education institution like ours, it takes three years to even get the approvals to make anything happen. So if that bond were to have passed in March, we still wouldn't have seen anything being built for two or three years from now."
A question about having law enforcement officers assigned to local schools as school resources officers (SROs) prompted a number of responses from the candidates about managing the convergence of mental health of students and policing practices.
The quintet also discussed their perspectives on Superintendent David Haglund's job performance, the 4th/5th grades campus proposed for the Donlon Elementary site (the "E-10" school), the district's relationship with the teachers' union and how they would look to engage students as a trustee.
Watch the full forum video here via YouTube.
All five candidate will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot, battling for three at-large board positions. At least one seat is guaranteed to change hands, as current Trustee Valerie Arkin opted to run for City Council instead of re-election to the school board.