News

Cupertino Union School District race: Four candidates for two seats

Two seats are up for a vote Nov. 3 on the five-member Cupertino Union School District Board of Education. Wil Fluewelling and Sudha Kasamsetty are running against incumbents Sylvia Leong and Phyllis Vogel.

The board is likely to be tasked with addressing a number of challenges in the coming years.

CUSD has seen enrollment drop from a peak of 19,194 in 2013 to 16,720 in 2019. That decline has put a strain on the district’s finances. The budget the district passed in June called for nearly $5 million in cuts and more are expected in future years. The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating uncertainty around the budget.

In March, a parcel tax to support the district failed to get the required 2/3 vote needed to pass. The $125 tax per parcel of land would have raised roughly $4.3 million annually for five years. The board has been weighing when to put another bond or parcel tax before voters.

The district also has a new leader. Stacy McAfee-Yao is serving as interim superintendent. She replaces Craig Baker, who retired earlier this year in part to help ease the district’s budget crunch.

Students started school this month in distance-learning mode, and the district will stay fully remote until at least January.

Below are Q&A-style interviews with each candidate, conducted via Zoom or phone. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Wil Fluewelling

Wil Fluewelling is running for a seat on the CUSD board. He waged an unsuccessful campaign for the board in 2018 and is the parent of an elementary school student in the
district.

Wil Fluewelling
Fluewelling

Fluewelling is a member of the Measure H Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee and served as treasurer of Citizens for Great Cupertino Schools, a ballot measure committee that advocated for Measure O.

For more information on Fluewelling’s campaign, visit wil4schools.org.

Why are you running?

My father was a Vietnam veteran and I’ve always wanted to publicly serve. I’m a Cupertino Rotarian, and “Service Above Self” is our motto. It’s time for me to give back. Public service is how I think I can make up for my missing military service, and local is where it matters.

I looked at some city council races but decided I’m not too interested in that. Education is important to me and applicable where my son is now. That’s why I landed on school board.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?

I am an MBA. I have a long business background in accounting and as a financial analyst. I’ve worked very closely with Jeff Bowman, our district COO. I’ve looked at the budget; I’ve gone through the profit-and-loss statement; I’ve gone through the balance sheet.

I think I can possibly add some operational efficiencies, make sure we’re getting the best deals from utilities, from all of our vendors. I think they’re doing a good job, but I want to make sure. I can bring a business perspective to the board to balance out the educators and the engineers that are currently there.

What do you see as the three most pressing issues the district faces, and how would you address them?

Budget is No. 1. Teacher retention, second. If we fix the budget, we can keep our teachers and staff from jumping ship to other districts.

The third issue comes down to the size of our district. We’re too big. We’re the biggest elementary district in Northern California with 25 schools, and our population is declining. The next board is going to have to figure out what to do with some of these school sites. We have to close a couple.

As the district faces steep budget cuts, how will you prioritize which areas of the budget to reduce?

I do not want to pull levers like increasing class size. I think that will be to the detriment of our students. I already alluded to the willingness to close sites.

Teacher salaries, we can’t touch them. I’m very happy the executive cabinet put a freeze on their salaries. We really can’t cut personnel any more. The district staff is so small, they are running a tight ship.

Another lever I do not want to pull is sharing principals. We can’t have a principal operating two or three schools.

Most important is ballot measures. Measure O failing this spring hurt me to the core. I spent a lot of time on that effort, and I’m going to do it again. Ballot measures are probably the No. 1 thing we can do.

As for state funding, I’m not a California native, so I have no pride in Proposition 13. I’ll say it every day: We sacrificed our kids for our grandparents 40 years ago. Now, infrastructure is crumbling and our schools are falling apart. Proposition 15 is really important this year, getting that split role passed.

With the coronavirus pandemic at the top of many families’ minds, how will you weigh if, when and how to bring students and staff back to campus?

Safety first – that is my motto. My wife works at Fremont High School and I do not feel comfortable sending her back to school. We need a vaccine, but that’s going to take a long time. Of course, we have to go by the guidelines trickled down to us by the state and county.

One of the ideas that I’m thinking through, putting my entrepreneur hat on, is getting hospitals to come to the sites for tracing and testing. Also, with the hybrid model, get 12 students out on the field and have them separated far enough away.

The social isolation is really what’s scaring me right now. My kid just turned 7 and he’s missing interaction so much. It is very important to me to get kids back on campus as soon as we can, but it’s got to be safe.

Sudha Kasamsetty

Sudha Kasamsetty is running for a seat on the CUSD board. Kasamsetty is a Cupertino resident and CUSD parent who has volunteered with the district in various capacities.

Sudha Kasamsetty
Kasamsetty

She serves on CUSD’s Citizens Advisory Committee and the city of Cupertino’s Fine Arts Commission. Kasamsetty also has created a parent-run citizen focus group, as well as a leadership program for middle schoolers. Professionally, she works in engineering and also runs a dance studio.

For more information on Kasamsetty’s campaign, visit sudha4cusd.org.

Why are you running?

We should care about the CUSD election because our kids’ futures are at stake. We need to have robust distance learning in place and not compromise our quality of education.

CUSD in particular is plagued with big financial issues, and there is a need for increased parent engagement now more than ever. The current board thinks the status quo is acceptable but could not address the budget gap.

The net result is that today there’s a strong proposal to close multiple schools.

We need to outreach to parents through an increase in parent engagement, which is seriously lacking here. That’s one of the things I will bring to the board and one of the reasons I want to run for the board.

Yes, it is extremely hard to offer an enriching distance-learning experience, but when it comes to our kids’ future, I think we need to adopt the Silicon Valley model that nothing is impossible. We need to embrace out-of-the box ideas; learn from the community, from private schools; lose our rigidity; and implement best practices to improve effectiveness.

What strengths would you bring to the board, and why should voters choose you?

I want to use my experience with the grassroots programs that I founded. I can bring back trust amongst parents with transparent communication.

With that foundation, we can explore new ideas, one being the square-footage model that attempts to keep residential property taxes the same but derives more money from different sources, like apartment complexes.

Also, I have been a dance teacher in Cupertino for the last 15 years. I bring a unique combination of STEM and liberal arts, which is required for the mental health of kids today.

What do you see as the three most pressing issues the district faces, and how would you address them?

One is the budget gap, and then distance-learning effectiveness. Those are the two major issues that we have.

Increasing enrollment is not the solution; it’s not going to happen anytime in the next few years. So how are we going to address them? Again, with increased parent engagement and providing more resources and leadership programs.

For the budget, the board had opportunities that it couldn’t make use of – Measure O and CUSD 25, which asked for a voluntary contribution from families, failed. If I’m on the board, I’m going to bridge that gap by increasing that trust between parents and the board.

As the district faces steep budget cuts, how will you prioritize which areas of the budget to reduce?

We need to understand where things are being spent and we need to have transparency. Right now, the community is not even aware of the importance of contributions, I think because they do not know where the money’s going to go. We need to involve parents and our community, to make them aware of the problems that we have.

We need to explore new ideas for the budget, one being the square-footage model. Then we need to tap into other sources, like corporate funding.

With the coronavirus pandemic at the top of many families’ minds, how will you weigh if, when and how to bring students and staff back to campus?

Definitely, we are living in unusual times. There are two big stakeholders here: the parents and kids, and the teachers.

I’ve attended every single board meeting for the last seven to eight months. I’ve listened to parents wanting to bring their kids back, and some who are scared of bringing their kids back, and teachers who absolutely don’t want to come onto the campus, which I completely respect.

We need to take into consideration surveys, we need to take into consideration our state’s recommendations, and we need to have flexibility to reassess from time to time.

We should take a position in a collaborative manner, because at the end of the day, all of us are here in the interests of our kids.

Sylvia Leong

Sylvia Leong is running to retain her seat on the board. She was appointed to the board in January 2019 to fill the seat of Liang Chao, who resigned to join the Cupertino City Council.

Sylvia Leong
Leong

Before joining the board, Leong served in a variety of volunteer positions in the district, as well as working as a substitute teacher. Leong’s children have now graduated from CUSD and are in high school.

For more information on Leong’s campaign, visit sylvia4cusd.com.

Why are you running?

I joined the board because I wanted to make a difference. I had already spent over 12 years serving the district as a parent and as a leader. In the two years I’ve been on the board, I’ve made a lot of progress in helping the community build transparency and communication. I’ve made difficult decisions about our finances. I’ve worked really strongly to advocate for our students’ holistic education – that social-emotional piece is very important to me.

The reality is that my work is not done. Our district is facing a lot of additional challenges with the pandemic, on top of our ongoing budget challenges. Now is the time we need seasoned leaders, we need that stability to continue leading our district in the right way.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?

As the daughter of immigrants, I’ve seen the power of education to transform lives. I’ve spent 20 years working in education. I’ve worked at top-tier universities, like USC and Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley, doing college admissions. I’ve been an English as a Second Language teacher overseas. When CUSD was having a substitute teacher shortage, I went and earned my emergency teaching credential, and I started subbing.

Pretty much every volunteer position in the district you can think of, I’ve had. It’s given me a wide perspective of all the different things that parents are concerned with, because I’ve been in those parents’ shoes.

What do you see as the three most pressing issues the district faces, and how would you address them?

The No. 1 issue is our budget, hands down. We have declining enrollment, decreasing funding and increasing costs. For the last seven years, we’ve had to make cuts every year. Those cuts come at a cost, because the work is still there, we just have less money. We need to be creative in being able to do more with less.

For me, it’s important that we focus on holistic education. Our parent community is so engaged, and that’s one of our biggest strengths. But I think in any place an extreme is bad. If you focus too much on academics, you lose out on the balancing part, which is wellness, social and emotional learning, and teaching students not to be afraid of failure.

In that same sense of holistic wellness, we need to continue to keep our teachers safe and valued. Related to the budget, we need to make sure we can continue to pay our teachers, retain them and attract new staff.

As the district faces steep budget cuts, how will you prioritize which areas of the budget to reduce?

We really have to think about our people and our programs, and we have to prioritize that over our properties. When we look at our school district and we see that in five years we’re going to be down to about 14,000 students, we have to make decisions for the next generation, not just for what’s happening right now. Part of the role of a board member is to see where the inefficiencies are, and make changes that benefit students in the end.

With the coronavirus pandemic at the top of many families’ minds, how will you weigh if, when and how to bring students and staff back to campus?

We have to be guided by science. One of the things that I appreciate about our district is that we have been working regionally, with the 31 other districts in our county. Certainly, we’re still unique as a district, and we want to make decisions that are just for our students, but we also want to bear in mind that the decisions we’re making should be somewhat in sync with what’s happening in the region.

Phyllis Vogel

Phyllis Vogel has served on the CUSD board since 2007. She is the longest-tenured member of the current board. Vogel grew up in Los Altos and lives in Saratoga.

Phyllis Vogel
Vogel

Before serving on the board, Vogel worked in CUSD for more than 40 years. She joined the district in 1963, shortly after graduating from college, and worked as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent before retiring in 2005.

For more information on Vogel’s campaign, visit phyllisvogel.com.

Why are you running?

I’ve really enjoyed my 13 years on the board. I think I add value because of my experience and leadership skills in education. I’m passionate about serving the community and serving kids.

I always had the dream when I was working that I would be a board member one day and give back. That’s where I am now. I really enjoy it, and I’d like to do it for another four years.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?

I think one of my strengths is my experience. Having been a principal and an assistant superintendent in the district, I’m very familiar with the workings of the district, the way decisions are made and the way implementation occurs.

I also think my leadership skills are strong: I’m a good listener and I collaborate well. I think my colleagues would say that I’m reasonably easy to work with. The decisions that I make are not necessarily going to be popular with everyone, but I hope everyone believes that they’ve been heard in the course of me making decisions.

What do you see as the three most pressing issues the district is facing and how would you address them?

Right now, and in the immediate future, the pandemic certainly is the biggest issue facing us, and I think we’ve done a good job. We’re doing distance learning until January and then we’ll re-evaluate. My hope is that we can get kids back in classrooms, for in-person instruction, soon after that.

My other hope is that prior to that, we’ll be able to get students back for something outdoors – physical education, art, I don’t know. But I worry about the social-emotional impact of the COVID environment and distance learning.

The budget is also a huge issue for us. We’re one of the lowest-funded districts in the state, actually in the nation. A lot of the state funding and the federal funding doesn’t apply to us because of our demographics. I think making sure that we get our fair share is a really important thing.

The third big issue facing us is declining enrollment. We have the Citizens Advisory Committee that’s working on making recommendations about how to handle declining enrollment. A big priority is to make sure we manage our facilities in efficient ways, and that our schools are large enough to be run efficiently. I think we’ll make a decision this fall about what’s going to happen in terms of facilities.

As the district faces steep budget cuts, how will you prioritize which areas of the budget to reduce?

Certainly, keep it as far away from the classroom as we can. That gets harder and harder as the budget shrinks more. Protect our employees as much as we can. Again, that’s really hard to do, but layoffs are tough. I don’t want to do that if we don’t have to.

With the coronavirus pandemic at the top of many families’ minds, how will you weigh if, when and how to bring students and staff back to campus?

We’re certainly going to listen to the community. There are some members of our community who would like to bring kids back now. I don’t think it’s safe.

I’m going to pay attention to where the county is on the state’s watchlist. I’m going to pay attention to spiking cases, not only in our area, but all over California. And I’m also going to pay attention to how often we go on and off the watchlist. I don’t want to put us in the position of opening so early that we end up having to close again because there’s been another spike.

 

Schools »

Schools
Read More

Sports »

sports
Read More

People »

people
Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

photoshelter
Browse and buy photos