Two candidates for one seat | #Education

Melissa Baten Caswell is challenging incumbent Grace Mah for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education.



The board is the governing body overseeing the Santa Clara County Office of Education. The county provides education programs, including operating its own schools, for a variety of student groups, including incarcerated youth, those who have been expelled, students with disabilities and migrant students. The county also oversees the programs and finances of the charter schools it approves, which includes Bullis Charter School in Los Altos.

The county office of education has been working with the county public health department to develop guidelines around reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused disruptions to the school year.

The board of education is made up of seven members, each serving a different region of the county. Terms are four years. Mah currently serves as the board member for Area 1, which covers all or portions of the Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View Los Altos Union High, Palo Alto Unified, Sunnyvale and Fremont Union High school districts.

Melissa Baten Caswell

Caswell


Melissa Baten Caswell is challenging incumbent Grace Mah for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Baten Caswell, a Palo Alto resident for 30 years, has been on the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education since 2008. She recently served as president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Association, a group representing board members throughout the county.

For more information on Baten Caswell’s campaign, visit  melissabatencaswell.com.

Why are you running?
As president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Association, when we moved into shelter-in-place, I changed the monthly meetings to weekly meetings. It became very clear we had similar challenges across the county and everyone was really struggling.

I had talked to folks in other counties where the county is really looked at as a support source. We don’t have that in Santa Clara County. When I started to have these conversations weekly, it became very clear board members wanted some leadership, to share best practices and to work together.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?
I’ve been a board member for a district with a pretty wide range of economics and opinions for over 12 years. I come out of tech, with senior management and strategic planning experience. One reason I joined the school board was to make strategic planning something we used regularly. I have on-the-ground experience, budgetary experience and the ability to look at things in a broad way. I also am a collaborator.

What do you see as the three most pressing issues the county board faces, and how would you address them?
First, the pandemic. We’ve never been in any situation like this, and trying to make sure we’re serving all students is huge.

Second, there are people actually being successful with distance learning. We can have each district try to figure it out themselves, or we could have the county office be a repository for best practices.

We’re in probably the worst financial situation we’re going to see in our lifetime, but there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty. This is a huge challenge, because it means not just the county office of education, but every local board member, is going to need to be flexible.

Given that the county board has approved Bullis Charter School’s charter application in the past and is responsible for overseeing the school, what are your thoughts on the future of BCS?
Charter schools are a program like any other. There are over 1,000 kids at BCS. A charter school or any program serving children well is good.

But when there are problems in the community or as a result of any program, if the county office has responsibility and oversight, they need to make sure issues are resolved or worked through.

There’s been a lot of animosity over time. It divides the community; that’s just not good. We want programs that serve children well, and make the entire community’s education system better.

There needs to be oversight, and agreements need to be held to. Whatever outcomes you’re expecting need to be held to, whether they’re academic outcomes, diversity outcomes, whatever they are.

With the recent discussions about racism in the education system, what steps do you think the county board should take to address inequities and discrimination?
This is a huge problem. It’s just going to get bigger with the pandemic.

Racism is not just one thing. It’s everything. If you’re a Black or Brown child in our education system, and there are not very many Black or Brown children, and your teacher’s not Black or Brown, you’re going to have biases in every single thing you do. That’s not OK.

The county should be providing examples of where we’re making a difference with Black and Brown kids. That’s professional development, parent education, administrator education, a repository of best practices, potentially mentor programs. If you never see somebody that looks like you in a more advanced position, whether it’s a teacher or another student, then you’re never going to think you can be that person.

What steps do you believe the county board should take to oversee and support districts grappling with the pandemic, both with remote learning and eventual reopening?
Teaching online needs to be different than teaching live. I was hoping the county office could take a greater lead with professional development, information sessions, things like that.

It would have been helpful, and maybe it was an impossible task, if the steps to reopening had been done more collaboratively across the county. I feel like we’re all back in our silos. The county office could have provided a fulcrum around this.

Grace Mah

Grace Mah

Mah

Grace Mah was first appointed to the Santa Clara County Board of Education in 2007 and then elected the following year. She has been a Palo Alto resident since 1984 and is board president of Stevenson House, a low-income senior housing program in the city.

For more information on Mah’s campaign, visit gracemah2020.com.

Why are you running?
We serve the most vulnerable kids. That includes special education, incarcerated youth, homeless, foster youth, migrant education and alternative education students who have been expelled. We take care of all of them through the county. We have our own schools, teachers and classrooms, serving about 7,000 kids.

I enjoy taking care of those kids and serving those kids, because I think they’re really important. In Palo Alto, we have a sheltered view of the cross-section of life in the county. I really appreciate the ability to serve the broader community.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?
My main strength is experience. I have been doing this for a long time and I’ve worked really hard building up networks to get things done across the county. Most recently has been my work on early learning and preschool. My ultimate goal is universal preschool for the county.

I was the founder for the Strong Start coalition, a group dedicated to increasing early-learning opportunities for kids throughout the county. One of the key issues for closing the achievement gap is to get those kids preschool and high-quality child care. Giving them that strong start at kindergarten will help them the rest of their lives.

What do you see as the three most pressing issues the county board faces, and how would you address them?
Right now, we’re all dealing with the pandemic, and we’re trying to reach all the kids who don’t have access to the technology, facilities and ability to do distance learning. The county office has been a real leader, working with the Board of Supervisors and the Digital Equity Coalition to get technology in kids’ hands. The county office also put together guidelines to try to make reopening as smooth and safe as possible.

Another priority for me is equity in education for all students. The best way to do that in one big chunk is early learning.

And besides early learning, it’s also supporting innovative programs and schools that are working and helping to meet the needs for kids. Some of that is through parent choice programs, and so I support those, which include charter schools.

Given that the county board has approved Bullis Charter School’s charter application in the past and is responsible for overseeing the school, what are your thoughts on the future of BCS?
BCS has been going on for 17 years, and they have been doing very well academically. Their enrollment has been growing, now at 1,100 students, so their future looks strong.

The difficulty BCS has had with the Los Altos School District is unfortunately a failure to recognize that BCS is really like a magnet program in LASD. It has about 23% of the population of kids, so almost a quarter of the kids from the school district are going to BCS. That, to me, looks like it qualifies as a legitimate magnet program that needs to be legitimately recognized and acknowledged and treated as a strong district program.

With the recent discussions about racism in the education system, what steps do you think the county board should take to address inequities and discrimination?
With respect to racial discrimination and inequity, we are having training within the county office for all our staff and teachers to try to address the systemic racism which is pervasive. We are also working on curriculum, with respect to the ethnic-studies work being pushed by the state board of education. We’ll also be developing more professional development work for school districts.

What steps do you believe the county board should take to oversee and support districts grappling with the pandemic, both with remote learning and eventual reopening?
The county office has been doing a lot of the guidelines, oversight and conveying of information. Because the county board and the office of education don’t have direct authority, we don’t tell anyone what to do.

They work pretty independently and have come up with different versions and methods of reopening, some with different dates, safety measures and policies with respect to quarantines for people who are sick. Even the contracts with the teachers’ unions are all pretty individualized. We facilitate conversations, and our superintendent is in touch with all of the superintendents.








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