Schools

Election 2018: Meet the candidates for the MVLA Board of Trustees

Four candidates are running for three open seats on the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees. Joe Mitchner will be leaving the board after 12 years, and incumbents Debbie Torok and Fiona Walter are running for re-election.

Steven Nelson

Q: Why are you running for the board?

I believe in the core value of the district – quality: “Every teacher, every classified staff member and every administrator should set excellence of instruction and program as their No. 1 priority.” I have direct experience in serving on an elected school board making the “difficult difficult” decisions that are required of a board. Unlike other members/candidates, I have seven years’ experience as a teacher, which I think is beneficial. I earned a California Teaching Credential and have five years in charge of science and math classrooms plus two years of work credit built up as a daily substitute.

The board is not running a voluntary organization, but a legislative local government – with community-shaping power in its majority decisions.

Q: How can the district improve students’ mental health?

I served for a time on the Community Health Awareness Council. I convinced my board that this organization, a Joint Powers Agency, needed better budget support committed by the Mountain View Whisman School District (joining the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District and the cities).

The district can continue to support and use the Community Health Awareness Council and all the other new resources that North County is starting to receive. We need to well coordinate these resources for our students.

Q: How will you ensure that the Measure E bond money will be spent well?

The voters of the Mountain View Whisman School District elected me to help oversee Measure G bond spending – even though I wrote the ballot argument against it, as it was projected to be unequally used. I delivered the campaign promises I made in 2012, and recently went to a groundbreaking for a new neighborhood elementary school, with 450 student spaces, in the previously empty quadrant of the Mountain View Whisman district. The “difficult difficult” decisions need a trustee who already understands the legislative process and complicated school finances as well as I do! Mountain View High-Los Altos High equality was well fought, and I will vote for it.

Q: What’s an important issue facing the district, and how would you start to solve it?

An important issue for the board is the necessity of a Good Neighbor Policy using the California Environmental Protection Act as its guidance. Continuously monitoring our impact on our neighbors is important: noise, traffic, street parking, light. Starting to self-monitor these impacts, all measurable, is important for construction and operations. The board legislates policy, the administration implements that policy.

On Oct. 23, 2017, I first presented that by-area trustee elections will have to be faced. Maybe one trustee area can be centered around each campus neighborhood.

Debbie Torok (incumbent)

Q: Why are you running for the board?

I am seeking re-election to the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees to bring numerous projects started during my eight-year tenure to successful completion.

My priorities and focus are:

• Continuing emphasis on closing the achievement gap and raising achievement levels of all demographic subgroups.

• Overseeing Measure E projects to ensure on-time and on-budget completion.

• Ensuring continued Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation.

• Prioritizing wellness initiatives.

Ultimately, my goal as an MVLA trustee is to drive improved academic achievement by all students at all performance levels.

Q: How can the district improve students’ mental health?

The mental health of our students is a board and district priority. I sit on the district’s Wellness Committee. The district, with board approval, has implemented a three-tiered wellness plan offering varying degrees of help ranging from districtwide awareness events to individual crisis intervention and awareness.

We are constantly fine-tuning the mental health programs. A Healthy Kids Survey was conducted to identify areas of need. The number of on-site therapists/psychologists and contracts with the Community Health Awareness Council has been increased. The board approved a revamped homework policy to better balance homework loads.

Q: How will you ensure that the Measure E bond money will be spent well?

The district’s Facilities Master Plan, approved by the board, determines the priority and budget for each project supported by the $295 million bond. The same process that successfully implemented Measure A on time and ahead of schedule will be used for this bond measure.

The board has hired a construction manager to track projects against budget constraints and provide regular updates. The board will approve all contracts, change orders, bond expenditures and bond sales. Per Proposition 39, the Strict Accountability in Local School Construction Bond Act, a citizens’ bond oversight committee will review district bond expenditures and present findings to the board.

Q: What’s an important issue facing the district, and how would you start to solve it?

Closing the achievement gap and increased student enrollment concerns are foremost, but here I would like to call attention to challenges created by social media. Misuse is one issue, but it is also about online bullying, inappropriate content, identity theft, etc. The relentless evolution of social media apps makes keeping up with the students a challenge.

The district currently trains students and parents on digital citizenship and internet safety, but I’d like us to deepen our understanding of where students are vulnerable on social media so we can minimize potential risks and consequences.

Catherine Vonnegut

Q: Why are you running for the board?

I want to serve all students in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District to help them achieve their goals academically, socially and emotionally, no matter the range of challenges they face.

I have an innate desire to volunteer for education. I have volunteered helping youth for over 40 years as a School Site Council chair, Mountain View High PTA president, PTA Council president and as a member of the MVLA Adult School Advisory board.

I want to participate in policy decisions guiding the district in our fast-changing world based on the benefits to our students. I want to oversee that our bonds are well spent.

Q: How can the district improve students’ mental health?

High school students face many anxieties and stresses – academic (for example, competing for university admission), emotional (family and peer concerns), social (bullying and isolation) and economic (homelessness and lack of food security). Wellness centers are planned in the new bond-funded student unions where mental health awareness will be emphasized. Ongoing review of homework, summer requirements and course load may reduce stress. Continual access to counselors and methods to identify students in need and training for teachers can help students. On-site counselors and partnerships with mental health agencies already provide services and could be augmented. Parent education and support are necessary as well.

Q: How will you ensure that the Measure E bond money will be spent well?

The approved Facilities Master Plan has specific schedules and construction plans, and a board-approved oversight committee is being established. The board may appoint additional oversight committee members if specific expertise is sought. Finance staff is working with bond brokers to get favorable bonds released at the best rates. The first $100 million of bonds was released with an AAA rating. That being said, the board has ultimate responsibility as the overseer for the outcome and to ensure the projects are as approved, within budget and schedule. My background as a treasurer of many organizations will help me evaluate expenditures.

Q: What’s an important issue facing the district, and how would you start to solve it?

Field lighting at the campuses is a current concern. Public input reveals sound systems, traffic and pool lighting intertwine with the field lighting concern. These other situations can and are being researched separately. Trial lighting could be demonstrated. Rules for type and hours of use will be drafted before final decisions on lights. In the longer term, I must emphasize ongoing integration of new technology in the classroom and administration, continuing to teach ever more complex academic materials to prepare students for a changing world, and maintaining and enhancing student safety and well-being.

Fiona Walter (incumbent)

Q: Why are you running for the board?

I am seeking a second term to provide continuity on many long-term district plans as well as to address future student needs.

Sustained leadership is essential in these key areas: construction to accommodate future enrollment growth; critical budget decisions as our district grows; support for struggling students and mental health services; and ongoing teacher support for new initiatives.

As current board president, I’m proud of our very successful high school district. The hard work required to achieve this level for all students is a never-ending challenge I thoroughly enjoy. I am eager to spend another four years on the MVLA board.

Q: How can the district improve students’ mental health?

MVLA has placed enormous emphasis on improving student and staff mental health in recent years. Examples of our efforts include: approving a districtwide homework policy, seven full-time therapists in addition to Community Health Awareness Council staff available on-site, refer-a-friend boxes on each campus checked three times a day to ensure timely follow-up with students in crisis, help buttons on school websites for 24/7 assistance, Spartans PAUSE (Mountain View High) and Wellness Week (Los Altos High) provide support/breaks during finals weeks, mindfulness training added at both campuses, and so much more. Wellness centers (at both Mountain View and Los Altos highs) incorporated into the Facilities Master Plan will further augment these efforts.

Q: How will you ensure that the Measure E bond money will be spent well?

MVLA has a proven track record of on-time and under-budget bond construction projects and carries an AAA bond rating. Prior to asking the community to support Measure E, we spent almost 18 months developing a Facilities Master Plan along with a detailed budget for each project in that plan. The Facilities Master Plan is our roadmap for the upcoming construction work. With regular progress and budget updates at our meetings, active board review of construction-related contracts and a citizens’ oversight committee, I remain confident that we can keep our covenant with the community and provide the projects in the master plan as promised.

Q: What’s an important issue facing the district, and how would you start to solve it?

Enrollment growth is a looming challenge for MVLA. We must provide a world-class education for all of our students, no matter how large that number grows. Measure E is one part of the solution. It lets us provide facilities to house our students. The second part is personnel. More students require more staff, which requires careful budget monitoring (85 percent of our budget is people). MVLA is funded by property taxes, not per student, so growth years become particularly challenging. Our 17 percent reserve target (currently at 12.5 percent) will help us weather the enrollment growth while still maintaining our incredible staff.

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