When San Ramon Valley Unified School District Trustee Ken Mintz, who has served on the board since 2009, announced he would not run for reelection, it opened up a seat on the board ... and an opportunity.
Jerome Pandell, Michelle Petersen and Jesse vanZee are vying to represent SRVUSD's Area 1, which consists of Alamo, portions of Blackhawk and Danville, and the small portion of Walnut Creek within the district.
All three candidates have admirable strengths and would serve with dedication, but only vanZee promises to bring the independent thinking and the change this board needs.
Incumbents Susanna Wong Ordway (Area 4) and Rachel Hurd (Area 5) were unopposed for reelection. The uncontested races are disappointing on many levels, especially since the current board is overly compliant with the administration's wants and whims. They have no qualms spending money that does not directly benefit the education of all students, despite words of caution from the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE).
On Oct. 18, the district presented details of its new agreement with the teachers' union, San Ramon Valley Education Association, which would include an 8.5% increase in pay retroactive to July 1 and a one-time 1% payment based on each union member's salary as of Nov. 1.
The CCCOE projected an increase in expenditures across the district of $18,343,948, which it said the district can afford if its average daily attendance (ADA) and revenue assumptions come in as projected. If those come in lower than expected, however, "the district may need to plan to address any deficit."
The district was also encouraged to be "prudent in its spending and mindful that any further negotiated settlements could cause the district to look at implementing additional reductions."
Recruiting and retaining quality teachers is imperative to providing students a quality education. "Equity liaisons," which the district spent roughly $2 million to hire for this school year, are not a necessity. Still, the current board voted unanimously to spend this money, which is not "prudent".
In addition to spending on non-essentials, the board tends to disregard parent concerns way too often. The California High School cheer mascot debacle and the "uncomfortable" girls in the San Ramon Valley High locker room are two recent examples.
In no way are we denying that racist and homophobic incidents have happened on SRVUSD campuses. But when the parents' only option is to bring it to the board, and the parents are told they are at fault, they and their children are racists and/or anti-LGBTQ and that the district "experts" know what's best for their children, that causes division, mistrust and anger.
The only Tri-Valley school district experiencing these worrisome problems at this scale is SRVUSD. So a change is essential.
vanZee, a district parent, school volunteer and the vice president at an organization that manages cancer treatment centers, has the knowledge of the district and organizational leadership experience the district needs now. He also has the independence and backbone to question the status quo, be a voice for parents and push back when warranted.
He has said he wants parental involvement and transparency to come back to the school board, to return the focus on core academics, safe schools and fiscal responsibility to "ensure the limited budget dollars go to students and teachers in classrooms."
Attorney Pandell is seeking election to the SRVUSD board for the second time, following a 2014 campaign and several years of volunteer and fundraising work with the district. An SRVUSD alum, Pandell served from 2015 to 2021 on SRVUSD's Facilities Oversight Advisory Committee, which reviews and provides input to the board about projects and expenditures related to bond-funded projects.
Pandell has experience in and knowledge of the district, and we particularly appreciate his advisory committee work. We just aren't convinced he would offer the independent thinking and wherewithal to stand alone in decisions that is so desperately needed.
Petersen is also a parent and active volunteer with the district. She is a retired firefighter and currently works as a corporate event planner.
While serving as the PTA president at her child's school for three years, Petersen "navigated the hiring of a new principal, the closure of school due to COVID and the transitioning back to in-person learning." She currently serves on the San Ramon Council of PTA's as the sister school ambassador.
She lists wellness programs that address stress and anxiety students and staff are facing, academic excellence and safety -- both physical and social-emotional -- among her top priorities.
Petersen said she believes SRVUSD is a destination district known for its academic excellence, and we agree. However, she said "funding challenges are chipping away at this," and we do not accept that funding is the challenge, but how those funds are being spent.
It is heartening to hear Petersen believes parents' voices are critical, but inferred in a statement to our editorial board that she would be the one to express those views, as opposed to hearing straight from parents.
It should also be noted that Petersen mentions her political party in some communications. A trustee position on a local school board is non-partisan -- and should be. Bringing political party affiliation into the conversation is divisive, and this district, board and community need to work toward better unity, not more discord.
We recommend vanZee for Area 1.