The Pleasanton Unified School District Board of Trustees will be seeing two new faces after this election cycle is over -- one of whom is already guaranteed the position.
This will also be the first election for PUSD in a district-based format that the board approved in March.
The two incumbents whose terms were ending this year, Joan Laursen and Mark Miller, each declined to run for reelection. Miller, who is currently serving as the board president, is finishing up his second term after first joining in 2014. Laursen is coming off her third term and is leaving the board after 12 years.
Justin Brown, a former planning commissioner for the city of Pleasanton, is the only candidate for Area 5, which includes Vintage Hills and Hearst elementary schools and Pleasanton Middle School, as well as part of Foothill High's attendance area.
That seat will not be on the ballot and Brown will automatically be appointed come November.
The other open spot on the board is the Area 2 seat, which is the district representing the areas surrounding Hart Middle and Fairlands Elementary schools.
The two active candidates in the Area 2 race are parent Urvi Shah and Laurie Walker, an administrative secretary for Amador Valley High School. Christine Lutz, a human resources recruiter, qualified for the ballot early in the election cycle but has bowed out of the campaign.
In light of last week's candidate forum being canceled, the Weekly interviewed Shah, Walker and Brown in recent days to provide readers with a better understanding of their positions on key issues ahead of the election and four-year term ahead.
Urvi Shah, Area 2
Shah is a longtime Pleasanton resident and mother of two who used to run a licensed daycare in town for five years but is now transitioning to real estate.
As a former local business owner, she said her main goals if elected would be decreasing the budget deficit and making sure that the district is properly using any funds. If PUSD's $395 million facilities bond Measure I passes in November, she said she would work to keep a close eye on how the board moves forward with spending that money.
She added that while she's not opposed to bonds, she does think it is a bit too soon to ask for another bond after voters passed the 2016 $270 million Measure I1 bond. She said that apart from having to pay more taxes, she would have liked to see other projects getting completed such as the tenth elementary school that was promised in Measure I1.
"If I am elected as a trustee and the bond measure passes, I will prioritize items on the bond that will directly benefit our students," Shah said. "I believe in teamwork, maintaining students' interests first."
She said that with all the housing growth happening and the overflow of students in certain schools, there should be another elementary school built to ensure teachers don't get overworked and students get the attention and help they need.
"All of the new expansion that has been planned around Stoneridge Mall will bring more overcrowding to neighboring schools and when the kid-to-teacher ratio goes up, it's exhausting for teachers to focus on quality learning," Shah said.
She said that focusing on keeping classrooms small will also help the learning drop that has occurred over the last couple of years.
"We need more support from the district to bring a new and better model for learning, like more hands-on learning ... and more in person lab exposure, which makes students feel more supported," Shah said.
In doing that, she said it would also help address the low school ratings that some Pleasanton schools have been seeing on GreatSchools, a nonprofit website that scores schools based on data and analysis.
"It shows that something needs more attention because it's clearly not working and we really need to be focusing on improving falling school scores as it affects kids' education as well as the economic health of the city," Shah said.
On the topic of retaining teachers, she said that the district needs to issue more teacher input surveys, invest in high-quality induction programs and provide better benefits.
"Teachers are the most important aspect of any school district therefore teachers should be supported by tools which they require for quality education," Shah said. "I believe the district should serve educators as its highest assets."
Laurie Walker, Area 2
Walker is an administrative secretary for the district and a daughter of two career educators. Before working at Amador, she worked the same position at Harvest Park Middle School from 2016 to 2019.
Because she has worked at both Amador and Harvest Park, she told the Weekly that she has seen first-hand the district's outdated facilities and the need to pass the upcoming $395 million Measure I.
"I've seen first-hand how outdated our facilities are as well as the deterioration of plumbing, roofs, wiring, etc," Walker said. "The outstanding quality of teaching and learning at Amador Valley High School doesn't match the quality of our facilities."
She said that the new science building at Amador is a perfect example of the direct relationship between quality school facilities and student achievement.
"The students and teachers who have classes in this state-of-the-art building are thriving," Walker said.
Apart from maintaining the district's facilities, she said the other issue she wants to address if she is elected to the board is retaining staff for more than three years.
She said that while facility improvements do help with giving teachers the proper tools and equipment so they can thrive at their job, which in turn makes them want to stay, there still needs to be more done in terms of professional development.
"Providing ongoing professional development opportunities for new teachers is key -- training for leading-edge technologies is a must," Walker said. "Having support (New Teacher Committee meetings) for new teachers so that they feel connected to their school is something that I think is missing right now."
She said that as far as recruiting new teachers, she would like to see the district reaching out to local colleges and also specifically seeking applicants who grew in the area for "connection purposes."
With the pandemic having affected student learning over the past couple of years, Walker said that while there has been a huge learning loss, there is too much focus on those who are underperforming or overperforming and not on those stuck in the middle of that learning curve.
"With that being said, COST (Coordination of Services Team) that is being implemented at Amador seems very promising and I hope will make a marked improvement to mitigate learning declines," Walker said.
COST is made up of service providers, vice principals, counselors and teachers who offer intervention help for struggling students.
She also said that her last focus, if elected, will be on keeping a close eye on the school budget as enrollment continues to decrease, meaning less government funding from the state, and inflation continues to rise.
"I think Superintendent (David) Haglund and his administration have done an average job, but I think more work and transparency needs to be done particularly with the budget," Walker said. "Generating new revenue streams is a must."
Justin Brown, Area 5
Brown is a former planning commissioner for the city and a father of three kids who are all attending PUSD schools. His term on the commission ended on Sept. 30.
He was also the chairperson of the commission in 2021 where he has been serving for the past six years. Before that, he sat for three years on the city's Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Committee.
Because he was the only Area 5 candidate, Brown is set to take the seat and said that he has already met with district staff to start reviewing things like the budget.
"I have already spent time with the district staff reviewing the certificated, classified and administrative salary schedules as well as associated benefit packages," Brown said. "There is always room for improvement but I do believe the administration is moving towards an appropriate balance of competing costs, career planning and regional comparison needs through a total compensation lens."
He said as trustee, he will be looking to keep those compensation packages as competitive as possible while also continuing to look for other benefits to retain and recruit teachers.
"The district needs to ensure we retain our high-quality teachers in all stages of their careers and so benefit entitlements such as the recently negotiated change to improve the starting salary step for experienced teachers when transferring into the district are appropriate and positive," Brown said.
Much like Walker, Brown also said that he believes upgrading and funding facilities through the Measure I bond will also help retain teachers because they will have the quality workspace in order to do their jobs.
"Passing bond funds by properly informing the public of the real needs in advance and following through by delivering them newer and refurbished facilities in a financially responsible way all contribute to a quality teacher experience and improved retention," Brown said.
While he does support the board's decision to place the bond on the Nov. 8 ballot, he does understand that asking for residents to pay more in taxes is a lot. However, he said that Pleasanton's bond rates are the lowest in the entire county and funding the schools is an investment that will only benefit the community through increasing property value.
As trustee, he said that he will make sure those bond dollars, along with the general budget, is spent appropriately but residents must first realize the need to pass the bond.
"Asking for a new bond at a time of increasing inflation and other pressures on household budgets is certainly a big challenge and the board moving forward will need to take a much more proactive role alongside the superintendent in continuing to articulate the legitimate needs for facility re-investment," Brown said.
He said some other challenges he is set to face include the declining enrollment and finding ways to address the learning drop.
"A focused strategy to mitigate learning declines is to identify student groups that are lowest performing and offer reading and math interventions, academic counseling, and mental health support," Brown said. "We need to ensure that our district funding reflects these elevated needs at our school sites."