The three candidates in the race for the single contested seat on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education faced off in an in-person forum in Danville on Tuesday night, with topics including curriculum, teacher recruitment and retention, and opinions on current and future district practices.
Jerome Pandell, Michelle Petersen and Jesse vanZee – each vying to hold elected office for the first time – sought to amplify their campaign platforms in the live forum at San Ramon Valley High School, hosted by the San Ramon Valley Council of PTAs and moderated by the League of Women Voters.
The event opened with remarks from Ravneet Julka, vice president of legislative affairs for the Council, and from student Aarnav Verma, followed by prepared opening remarks from candidates and a question and answer period moderated by Ann Flynn of the League of Women Voters.
Candidates had the opportunity for two one-minute rebuttals each, with no audience participation permitted.
Julka sought to emphasize the role of civil discourse in democratic functions such as elections, amid increasingly partisan discourse surrounding school board decisions in recent years on social media and at board meetings, and to emphasize the non-partisanship of the council.
"To the individuals who make those comments and make those posts, I ask you: Are you furthering the cause of education for our children or seeking attention from behind your keyboard?" Julka said.
Verma also emphasized the shift in atmosphere leading to increasingly partisan discourse in school board decisions and elections.
"Candidates have turned elections into (referendums) on their chosen hot button topic," Verma said.
Other opening remarks centered on the uniqueness of school board elections compared to those for other offices, including the high stakes for caregivers and parents invested in their children's education -- and for students themselves -- amid traditionally low voter turnout compared with other races.
"School board elections are simply different than other elections," Verma said, adding that more high profile offices such as governor attract candidates who are familiar to voters, leading to higher turnout than the 5% to 10% national average for school board races.
In their opening statements, the three candidates sought to highlight their priorities if elected, and spoke about their relevant experiences in assorted volunteer positions related to the district.
"For the past six years from 2015 to 2021, I served on the Facilities Oversight Advisory Committee," Pandell said in his opening statement. "What that basically did is ensure the school bonds voters generously enacted ... can do and expand educational opportunities for students and create safe supportive learning environments."
Pandell also pointed to his work in fundraising for the district and service on the Access to Excellence Committee.
"When I say I want to meet every student where they are, I truly mean it," Pandell said. "And one of the things we have to do is retain and recruit the best teachers, and ensure our students feel mentally healthy and supported in the classroom, and expand educational opportunities for every child in our district."
Petersen also highlighted recruitment and retention of educators as a key campaign goal if elected.
"As a parent leader I have seen firsthand the effects of COVID not just on our students but our educators. Our nation is facing a hiring crisis in retaining teachers," Petersen said. "As a trustee, I will look (for) ways to continue to attract the best educators while retaining quality staff."
Petersen pointed to her volunteer work with the Alamo Elementary School PTA, in particular as president during the height of the pandemic, from 2019 to earlier this year.
"During this time I always made my decisions with the best interests of parents, teachers and school communities in mind," Petersen said.
Petersen also noted the increased political polarization facing public education, and said she would seek to maintain focus on key educational priorities if elected.
"Education affects all of us, and as a parent leader who has demonstrated the ability to work with other parents and staff, I will be the voice that will listen through the distractions and respond with reason and civility," Petersen said.
vanZee pointed to his work with the Montair Dads Club, and investment in the district's future as a parent of young children in its schools, as motivations for his campaign for the seat, along with concerns about curriculum and the goal of additional parental input in board decisions.
"We moved here because we wanted to attend great schools and we love the history of good schools, but I do think the future of our schools is not ... on the same course," vanZee said.
"I'm seeing ideology replacing education," he added.
Although increased scrutiny and outcry over K-12 curriculum has come to be a conservative talking point across the nation, vanZee said that for his part, he believed this was an effort to increase inclusivity and remove politics from the classroom.
"We don't have Republican, or Democrat, or independent kids; we simply have kids who want the best education that they deserve," vanZee said.
Questions included what the school board currently does well and how candidates would contribute to that; what the most compelling part of the district's Strategic Directions Plan is, along with broader topics such as supporting diversity in the district and curriculum and book bans in schools, as well as the impacts of the pandemic and other recent developments on student mental health.
Pandell again pointed to his work on the Access to Excellence Committee and insight from meetings with district officials including present and former board members as factors that give him respect for how the district is currently run, and a sense of how he would operate if elected.
Petersen applauded the current board's role in providing direction and vision to the district, and that she was optimistic for the district's future.
vanZee said that while the work board members do isn't easy, he would seek to increase parent participation in district and school decisions.
"I'm running (as) a voice for parents to be back on the board of education," vanZee said.
As the night's discussion progressed, Petersen and Pandell expressed disagreement with vanZee, and support for leaving decisions about curriculum and student mental health to the experts.
"I do think the content of our language arts and social studies curriculum is great," Pandell said, pointing to existing channels for parent and community input on selecting and approving course materials.
"I don't think someone at the board level should be in the position of content-based decision," he continued. "We should trust the teachers we hire ... to make those decisions."
Petersen said that despite national controversy over the teaching of race- and gender-based topics in schools, she would push the district to follow state law and existing practices. She also pointed to the value of books that are being banned in other parts of the country.
"Book bans ... affect students in marginalized communities," Petersen said, adding that many of the books being banned in other parts of the country "can be a lifeline for these students."
She also pointed to existing channels for parental input, including opting out of certain texts, and listed the books in her personal library that are banned in some schools elsewhere, encouraging voters to check their personal libraries and reflect on the same thing.
vanZee, however, said that he believed that more parental involvement in curriculum decisions is better, and emphasized concerns about current textbooks and topics in schools.
"On the broader scale, I would oppose any sort of teaching that teaches students they are oppressed or oppressors," vanZee said.
Petersen and vanZee also expressed differing opinions on the causes of and solutions to mental health struggles facing students. vanZee pointed to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures on students' mental health, with Petersen characterizing young people's mental health struggles as a larger problem impacted by other factors.
"If there's one thing that's become clear over the past three years, it's that kids benefit when schools are open," vanZee said, adding that he would seek to prevent future school closures with this in mind if elected.
Petersen pointed to troublingly high rates of suicide for young people, and noted that it had been a crisis since before the pandemic, with suicide being the leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. She pointed to additional factors including the earlier onset of puberty and the impact of social media, and said she would seek to guarantee funding for the 12 existing counselor positions in the district if elected, as well as support increases in counseling positions.
"We really need to reduce the stigma of mental health by promoting awareness to parents and students and increasing access," Petersen said.
Pandell said that students' social and emotional health should be at the forefront of decision making at all levels of the district, and that he would seek to increase support and resources for teachers to account for and address mental health struggles.
In discussing the district's current communication practices, all three candidates pointed to difficulties acquiring and spreading information about the recent arrest of former Diablo Vista Middle School biology teacher and longtime local cheer coach Nicholas Moseby on allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of minors, and said they would address these if elected.
"It was very upsetting," Petersen said. "It caused a lot of upset and anger."
"In every path moving forward we'll need to look at how we've reacted to things and realized what we can do better," she added.
In discussing the district's finances, Pandell said he would seek to maintain its high-ranking status for parents and ensure that it remains "destination district" for parents and students, as well as increasing efforts to make it a destination for educators
"We also have to make it a destination district for teachers who want to come and work in our classrooms and live in our communities," Pandell said.
Petersen pointed to California's relatively low rate of funding per student compared to other states, despite having more funding for schools than other states, and noted that this could be addressed in part by a shift from using attendance numbers as the basis for state funding to enrollment numbers, which would increase funds by $25 million.
vanZee pointed to a potential recession, declining enrollment, and negotiations with the teacher's union as challenges he would seek to address if elected.
"You're going to need someone who has great business acumen that can work with boards and has that background," vanZee said. "I have that background."
All three candidates will continue their campaigns for the Area 1 seat being left vacant with sitting trustee Ken Mintz's decision not to run for reelection this year. Election day is Nov. 8.
Video of the forum is available at the Council of PTAs YouTube channel.
Editor's note: A prior version of this story incorrectly listed the school at which former teacher Nicholas Moseby worked prior to his arrest. Moseby taught biology at Diablo Vista Middle School to start the 2022-23 academic year, and worked at San Ramon Valley High School the year before. Embarcadero Media regrets the error.