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Foothill-De Anza school board race: Four candidates for three seats

Four candidates – including incumbents and one challenger – are vying for three seats on the Foothill-De Anza Community College District’s Board of Trustees in the Nov. 3 election.

The district covers Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, Cupertino, Palo Alto, Stanford, Sunnyvale and parts of Saratoga and San Jose.

Govind Tatachari is running against incumbents Laura Casas, Peter Landsberger and Gilbert Wong.

In recent years, the district has faced declining enrollment and budget cuts. Hard financial times likely lie ahead as state funding is squeezed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The district also has been grappling with food and housing insecurity among students, as well as staff members.

In March, voters approved Measure G, an $898 million bond the district plans to use for a range of projects, including student and staff housing, environmental upgrades and renovating aging
buildings.

A parcel-tax measure also on the ballot in March, which would have raised $5.5 million annually for five years, failed to pass. The parcel tax required two-thirds approval, while the bond needed only a simple majority.

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

Laura Casas

Laura Casas, the FHDA board’s longest-serving current member, is running for re-election. Casas was first appointed to the board in 2005 and subsequently elected in 2007.

Laura Casas
Casas

During her tenure on the board, she has served on the California Community College Trustees Board, a position voted on by community college board members throughout the state. She was also that board’s representative to the Distance Education Technology and Educational Advisory Committee, which advises the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

For more information on Casas’ campaign, visit votelauracasas.com.

Why are you running?
I believe access to a low-cost higher education system is so critical to the future of our society. Community colleges are open access, and are the true equalizer in our democracy. I really believe in the institution and I’m very supportive and passionate about it.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?
I’m now a long-term member, so I have institutional knowledge. I know the workings of the district. I am the chair of the district’s Audit and Finance Committee.

My greatest strength is my passion for students and their success. And it’s not just success, it’s about them completing and transferring, or getting their certificates.

Another strength is that I come from a working-class background and I am Latina, so I bring a different view to the board.

What are the three most pressing issues facing the district? How would you address them?
We’re going to have very challenging budget times. If this pandemic continues, there’s going to be less money in the budget from the state. We are dependent on the state of California, and they’re not going to have the dollars to distribute to our educational institutions.

No. 2, among our international students, with this pandemic we may have a decline in enrollment. They pay full tuition, so we are dependent on their money to really have programs for our students in the district.

The third critical issue is the judicious management of our bond.

How do you plan to address the dual issues of food and housing insecurity in the FHDA community?
Part of our bond has to do with construction. When we were campaigning, we talked about student and employee housing. Right now, we’re accessing the input from the community and from our shared governance process to come up with some ideas.

Now the food insecurity, we have an entity in San Jose we partner with and we give our students at each campus bags of food if they need it.

With the pandemic, you can’t go to campus, you can’t do things. Since the pandemic, a lot of our students have had issues with their internet and with access to laptops. For students in need, we’ve distributed Chromebooks and we’ve given out Wi-Fi hotspots.

We have to deal with issues where our students are in small apartments and their home situation isn’t quiet and amenable to learning. Another issue that has come up, not just with our students, but with our staff, is that there’s a lot of mental health issues.

Given the budget cuts the district has made in recent years, and the potential of more as the pandemic causes economic uncertainty, how would you determine which areas of the budget to reduce?

We’re so lean right now, but we’re going to have to make those difficult choices. We’re tightening the budget and the numbers are dwindling, and so we may have to start laying off people.

Also, we would of course assess programming. The least attended classes and programs that don’t really help with transfer or workforce development, we might have to make some difficult choices.

In the past, we had to eliminate some French classes. Now, we might increase Mandarin and we might increase Spanish, but French isn’t really a necessary class. Also, in the past, we’ve eliminated some basic computer classes.

You want to eliminate the classes that aren’t critical, and we might have to start doing that. That’s going to be a discussion in partnership with the faculty. That’s going to be a very trying issue.

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

We can only do that when it’s safe. The governor has laid out certain parameters. We would just go with what the governor lays out and follow those directives.

Peter Landsberger

Peter Landsberger, first elected to the FHDA board in 2016, is running for re-election. Before retiring, Landsberger had a 30-year career working for community colleges, including in the Foothill-De Anza District.

Peter Landsberger
Landsberger

A Los Altos resident since 1978, Landsberger worked in the district from the late 1970s through early ’90s, including as an instructor, general counsel and vice chancellor.

For more information on Landsberger’s campaign, visit plandsberger.com.

Why are you running?
In part for the same reasons I ran in the first place – because I think these institutions are extremely important as engines for social justice and being able to influence things like ending income inequality in Silicon Valley.

Second, I believe I’ve done a good job as a trustee and know the people I’ve worked with perceive me as being an informed, responsible, knowledgeable trustee.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?
Again, knowledge, experience and commitment. Those are the three words that come to my mind. I think I’ve demonstrated the ability to provide leadership on the board of trustees and that I’ve earned the respect of the institution’s leadership.

What are the three most pressing issues facing the district? How would you address them?
In the fallout from the pandemic, remaining fiscally sound and academically strong are going to be crucially important. I think particularly my knowledge and experience as a community college executive give me qualifications that are hugely important.

Secondly, the colleges have to press for the success of all students. They’re open access institutions, but open access doesn’t mean every student has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Increasingly, students come to Foothill and De Anza who face all sorts of challenges that get in the way of their success. They’ve got limited financial ability, so paying for books, supplies, housing in Silicon Valley, food and transportation is more complicated. The colleges have to be equipped to respond in appropriate ways.

The third area is that we need to reform our systems so success and completion of educational goals are built into the system by design. There’s something called “guided pathways,” which is an initiative statewide. From the first contact with the institution through the receipt of a degree or certificate, students ought to have a clear and well-defined pathway.

How do you plan to address the dual issues of food and housing insecurity in the FHDA community?
It’s big and growing. In the area of food, we’ve got connections to the Second Harvest Food Bank, Whole Foods, social service organizations, nonprofits and philanthropic support. It’s not something we can do on our own; other people have expertise in this area that we don’t. We ought to partner with them.

In the area of housing, I am a strong proponent of the district avoiding any involvement in housing that results in the district becoming either a developer or landlord. That’s not our core business, it’s not our area of expertise. We need to reach out and find partners. That’s why, for example, we were the first educational institution in the area to sign on to the county’s faculty housing project in Palo Alto, sponsored by Supervisor Simitian.

Given the budget cuts the district has made in recent years, and the potential of more as the pandemic causes economic uncertainty, how would you determine which areas of the budget to reduce?

Historically, we have been focused quite specifically on access and enrollment, because our revenue is driven by enrollment. However, if the state continues to cut back, which is likely, we may get to a position where we’re entirely funded by property taxes.

As we move toward that, we need to rethink our spending priorities. While we can’t abandon trying to keep as many enrollment opportunities available as possible, every dollar we spend should have the biggest bang possible in terms of student success. There are some investments that don’t directly generate enrollment but that promote student success. For example, advising that’s embedded in the classes themselves.

With the coronavirus pandemic at the top of many peoples’ minds, how will you weigh if, when and how to bring students and staff back to campus?
We’re entirely guided by the advice from public health experts. We’ve got systems in place already for contact tracing. We’ve got supplies of personal protective equipment and protocols to ensure proper social distancing. For the time being at least, we’re going to remain essentially entirely virtual.

Govind Tatachari

Govind Tatachari is challenging the three incumbents for a seat on the FHDA board. He is a software engineer and Cupertino resident.

Govid Tatachari
Tatachari

Tatachari said he has been active on issues in Cupertino, including working to limit the impact of growth and development on residents’ quality of life. He also said he’s participated in Association of Bay Area Governments meetings.

Why are you running?
Education is a very key enabler for many individuals if they want to uplift themselves. I am running because I think our community colleges should remain excellent and they should be affordable. I’ll bring a fresh set of eyes, skills
and perspective.

I will try to see how I can help to shape the programs, as well as their delivery. COVID-19 has changed the ground state for a lot of things. There are a lot of people in every age bracket that will need to be retrained. I think that is where I can contribute.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?
Education is my passion. I believe educational delivery is going to change rapidly, because of the situation that we are in. Our traditional delivery methods may not apply anymore.

There’s this trend toward digitalization. Digitalization is hard for both staff and students. Since I have worked in the software industry, I’ll be able to provide a future-safe approach, so that things don’t become obsolete.

I have also been very actively engaged in the community for more than six years now. I’ve been engaged at the city level, as well as the regional level.

Foothill-De Anza needs to ensure that they honor and build community support. There’s been a little bit of tension, and I think that needs to be resolved. That’s one place where I think I might be able to make a contribution. I definitely believe in transparency.

What are the three most pressing issues facing the district? How would you address them?
One is the issue of enrollment. My perspective is that the enrollment issue will not be the big challenge. With COVID-19, a lot of people have gotten laid off. They have to reskill and retrain themselves. Community colleges have a very good chance of succeeding with higher enrollment.

The second point is the delivery of training and testing. The Measure G bond funds should be prioritized to quickly build these delivery capabilities and the educational material required for the new programs.

The other area is future-safe investment. If we are upgrading facilities, are we looking at things which are future safe?

Connection with the community, so that the community believes that the board and the institutions are doing the right thing, that’s also very important in my opinion.

How do you plan to address the dual issues of food and housing insecurity in the FHDA community?
I think affordability is a huge issue in the Bay Area. You can see it everywhere. Even people who can work from home are moving out of the Bay Area because of affordability concerns.

It’s not an easy question for the district to address by itself, but the district can seek help from the state. Homelessness among students is something which I think is very worrisome. I have heard that the percentages are as high as 20%. We need a more holistic approach to address it.

Food is something which is urgent. Everybody deserves a good quality of life.

Given the budget cuts the district has made in recent years, and the potential of more as the pandemic causes economic uncertainty, how would you determine which areas of the budget to reduce?

It’s a very difficult challenge. I cannot say that I really have a very good grip on it. I would like to understand, what are the options available? The quality of education, as well as the ability for students to succeed, should be the primary drivers that determine most of the cuts.

With the coronavirus pandemic at the top of many peoples’ minds, how will you weigh if, when and how to bring students and staff back to campus?
The state and the local authorities should allow it first. We operate in a statutory setting, so we can’t do something on our own.

There are some courses which I believe do require a little bit of practical training. I would start with them and learn from them. I don’t think we should do it en masse.

Gilbert Wong

Gilbert Wong is running to keep his spot on the FHDA board after first being elected in 2016. He previously served on the Cupertino City Council for nine years, before being termed-out.

Gilbert Wong
Wong

Wong serves on the Association of Community College Trustees board as a director-at-large, a position voted on by community college board members nationwide. He also serves as president of the group’s Asian Pacific Island and Native American Trustees Association.

For more information on Wong’s campaign, visit gilbertswong.com.

Why are you running?
I have a passion for public service. I was involved in the Organization of Chinese Americans, which is a civil rights advocacy group. I was on my daughter’s school site council at West Valley Elementary School in Sunnyvale. And then fast forward, I got appointed to the Cupertino Planning Commission and served on the Cupertino City Council for nine years.

When I left the city council, I wanted to go back to schools because as an Asian American, as a Chinese American, education is very important to me. I wanted to continue to serve the community.

I personally am a graduate of West Valley Community College in Saratoga, so it was natural for me to be a trustee for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District.

What strengths would you bring to the board? Why should voters choose you?
The strengths that I bring are my experience, my leadership and my commitment. It is very important as a trustee that you are a really good listener. Instead of talking so much, I’m really more behind the scenes, taking input from the students, the faculty association, the classified staff, the administrators, and most importantly, the voters.

It’s very important to listen to everyone, see what the chancellor’s cabinet’s recommendation is, decipher all of it and make those hard decisions.

What are the three most pressing issues facing the district? How would you address them?
Number one I would say is declining enrollment - both with our local students, as well as our international students.

Second would be our budget. Due to the new funding formula from the state of California, the economic recession and COVID-19, it has been really hard for the district.

Third is mental health. Due to the 2020 year of crisis - from COVID-19 to the recession, to the lightning fires, to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and police brutality - this is the time that students really need support and help from the district.

How do you plan to address the dual issues of food and housing insecurity in the FHDA community?
We have had a lot of students come to our public meetings and ask that. We have set up services within both Foothill College and De Anza College. We do have a food pantry that has supported members of the community in our district.

We need to do a better job advertising our food pantry. Our other challenge is that because of COVID-19, we’re not getting the deliveries to our food pantries. It shows that food and housing insecurity is even greater during COVID-19.

Given the budget cuts the district has made in recent years, and the potential of more as the pandemic causes economic uncertainty, how would you determine which areas of the budget to reduce?
It is very important to have a conversation with the faculty association, with the classified employees, with the other unions that make our district successful. It’s also very important to work with our chancellor and her cabinet.

Two years ago, we were very successful in offering an early retirement option. Now we would have to make harder decisions, which may include additional faculty, additional part-timers, and programs being cut.

If you’re asking me specifically, which division or courses, I think my role as a trustee is to let the experts and let the faculty decide. Overall, I would say, let’s go back down to basics.

With the coronavirus pandemic at the top of many peoples’ minds, how will you weigh if, when and how to bring students and staff back to campus?
That is a decision that the chancellor, cabinet and the two presidents will work very closely together on. It’s really the Santa Clara County Public Health Department that will dictate when it’s safe for students to come back. Our number one job is student safety, faculty safety and making sure that we have a safe environment.

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