Candidates for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education squared off during an online election forum Wednesday evening, taking time to debate over the policies and practices they believe will best serve district students.
The Nov. 3 ballot will feature current Board President Greg Marvel, local business owner Shelley Clark and SRVUSD parent Priscilla Graft competing for the seat in Trustee Area 2, and community volunteer Laura Bratt, business owner Kumar Nallusamy and San Ramon Valley Education Foundation board member Scott Roberts competing for Trustee Area 3.
The six candidates debated a range of issues during the two-hour Zoom forum, including managing the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, teacher retention and social justice reform, among other key topics the district will face for the upcoming four-year term.
Presented by the DanvilleSanRamon.com (the Weekly's sister publication) in partnership with the San Ramon Valley Council of PTAs, the forum was broadcast live online (with a video recording available afterward) and moderated by DanvilleSanRamon.com publisher Gina Channell and editor Jeremy Walsh.
This marks the district's first election using by-trustee-area voting for board members, instead of at-large. While voters will only be able to decide the candidate who lives in their geographic area, Wednesday's forum featured both sets of candidates together in a symbolic demonstration that whoever is elected will be a representative of the entire district, not just their trustee area.
Trustee Area 2 primarily encompasses central and eastern Danville, while Trustee Area 3 covers the Dougherty Valley area in San Ramon. Board Member Mark Jewett, whose seat was effectively assigned to Area 3 during the districting process, opted not to seek re-election this fall, meaning the school board is guaranteed to have at least one new member.
Starting off with perhaps the most pressing issue facing school districts throughout the country, when it came to management of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all candidates were in agreement that they would like students to return to the classroom -- as soon as it deemed safe to do so.
"I've seen over the past few months that while distance learning works for some, it does not work for all. There are a lot of issues and not only academic, but social and emotional concerns that our students, our families and teachers are facing," newcomer Graft said, starting off Wednesday's question session.
Encouraging schools to reopen when possible while using all safety measures possible such as social distancing and sanitization measures, Graft further was in support of allowing any student to continue with remote learning should their family elect to do so.
Agreeing that remote learning is not an ideal environment compared to the physical classroom, first-time candidate Roberts advocated for the district's more vulnerable students, emphasizing that certain groups are going to be more significantly impacted than others.
"I support safely returning students to school," Roberts said. "Every day out of the classroom is a day that students fall further behind, especially for our special needs students and little ones who depend on the social emotional learning so vital to their mental wellness."
Touching on another hot-button issue facing the entire country, candidates generally agreed that the promotion of diversity and inclusion should be top priorities for schools; however, when it came to social justice reform and the inclusion of school resource officers on campus, candidates were more split.
"The agreements that we have with the town of Danville and city of San Ramon allow resource officers in our schools. I am 100% supportive of continuing that program," five-term incumbent Marvel said, citing local police as a deterrent from "bad people" causing a potential tragedy on campus. "I've got to have resource officers there, not 10 minutes away. I need them there."
Further arguing that school resource officers are there to make students feel safe and not to police them, Marvel said, "we don't use them as Gestapo or stormtroopers; we use them as a resource to help our kids feel safe."
"Unfortunately, police don't make every student feel safe," countered newcomer Bratt. "Some students see police officers and that makes them more afraid, and I think we need to understand and be more inclusive for all of our students."
Using the opportunity to advocate for mental health care among students, Bratt said that the district needs more counselors to help students with emotional learning and wellness.
"Police officers are not counselors, are not social workers. We need to make sure that we are investing our money in counselors, not just in academic advisors, but social and emotional wellness counselors," she added.
Candidates were also in agreement that when it came to promoting inclusion and anti-racism in schools, the best place to start begins in the classroom.
"This topic is talking about us really holistically educating our children. Educating them as a whole, not just academically," challenger Clark said. "That means more education in the areas of ethnic studies in the area of curriculum, anti-racism programs like 'No Place for Hate' and 'Teaching Tolerance.'"
Clark also advocated for social and emotional learning among students in small groups, promoting a program "Breaking Down the Walls" which seeks to have students share their lives and experiences with one another.
"When you hear someone else's story and you learn about where they came from and who they are, it breaks down those walls that we have up," she said.
"Every single student in our district should feel that they have a safe space to learn and grow and achieve. I think that social and emotional education is so important these days … We really need to lean in to educating students and making sure that they are culturally proficient and kind," Graft added, saying that benefits and dangers of social media use should also be taught in schools.
When it came to teacher retention, some candidates found that the district had not done enough to meet the needs of teachers who were seen as the lifeblood of the SRVUSD.
"I always say our students are our future leaders and our teachers are our heroes," first-time candidate Nallusamy said. He added that teacher retention is "very important I think… one thing I have seen is that negotiation is the key."
Nallusamy advocated for increased transparency and communication between district staff as a way to improve teacher retention, saying that he would "ask (teachers) what are the top five things that we can implement right now. You need to really work with and build a relationship (with teachers) … They are on the frontlines. We really need their support. We need to help them whatever the possible way to do that."
Highlighting the feelings of some teachers throughout the district, Bratt argued that not enough has been done by the board to support teachers, particularly when it came to negotiate with the teachers union.
"We have to respect and value (our teachers). I moved here because of these teachers. I chose this district because of these teachers. Over the last few years seeing this narrative ... as a parent, I felt that I saw our teachers being pitted against our students and we as parents in between having to make a choice," Bratt said.
"As I learned more about it, I felt that a lot of that narrative came from the negotiation and bargaining (team) and set by our board members. And I know from the teachers that some of them really felt like they were villainized in the bargaining. I believe that we need to value and support our teachers," she added.
For his part, Marvel cited himself as a passionate advocate for SRVUSD teachers and said he has worked hard to ensure they receive compensation for their hard work.
"I'm a strong supporter of teachers; I have been for 20 years. We were in the top third in salaries in the Bay Area when I got elected to the board; we are now No. 1, when you look at total compensation. Many districts around here don't pay health and welfare benefits," he said.
"I want people to know that even though we are the second-lowest funded school district (in California), we have the highest paid teachers (in the Bay Area). We didn't get there by not prioritizing our teachers; our teachers are what make us a great district," he added.
Touching on the issues of budget, the SRVUSD is in fact the second-lowest funded school district in California per pupil and with a large budget deficit looming from declining enrollment on top of the financial crisis resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, candidates spoke strongly in favor of seeking other sources of revenue for the district.
"We are the second-lowest funded (school district in the state); we should fight them to get the funds for our kids, whatever it takes to get our fund I will go out and get that funds," Nallusamy said.
Candidates were generally opposed to the introduction of a new facilities bond measure as a way to improve the SRVUSD's financial situation, with Roberts saying the economic downturn would make it tough to lay an extra tax burden on residents.
"With our very tight budget, I think we do a pretty good job with our spending. It would be really tough at this time to support a facilities bond measure," Roberts said. "We would want to have more feedback from the community, so I can't really commit to that right now. But in a general sense, I don't think I could support it."
"As vice chair of the Facilities Oversight Committee, I saw the impact that the bond money has had on this school district ... I know the importance of keeping our facilities up and being able to keep building as we need," Clark added. "I would propose that we first look for alternatives to another bond measure, but keeping in mind that the bond measure is large amounts of money and it's not going to be easy to find other sources."
The candidates also touched on a range of other topics, including addressing racist graffiti, the addition of new Superintendent John Malloy and how to better engage students at the district level. To view the entire forum, check out the video on YouTube.