ALAMEDA ELECTIONS '12: Introducing your school board candidates

ALAMEDA ELECTIONS '12: Introducing your school board candidates

Michele Ellson

Nine people are vying for three spots on Alameda’s Board of Education this November, including all three of the first-term board members whose four-year terms are expiring. The election comes as the school district is preparing to address the condition of its aging schools, along with a deep animosity between district leaders and teachers that developed over more than a year of unresolved contract negotiations and continuing fears over the stability of state funding – issues that some candidates acknowledged they’ll need to address if elected.

Candidates include incumbent board members Ron Mooney, Trish Spencer and Nielsen Tam; PTA Council chief Tom Lynch; Measure A parcel tax chair Mike Robles-Wong; Kurt Peterson, a member of Alameda’s Open Government Commission and Restoration Advisory Board who has been critical of what he sees as the school district’s lack of transparency; Barbara Kahn, a member of the Measure A Oversight Committee who has long been active in local school and children’s issues; Robert W. Mann, a local parent and attorney; and Jon G. Murphy, a professor at Merritt College with a doctorate in educational leadership.

Dennis Lee Spencer filed papers to run but withdrew them before last Friday’s deadline to file, and Leland Traiman, who said he pulled papers for school board, City Council and the Alameda Health Care District Board to educate himself about the process, is running for a hospital board seat.

In addition to chairing the Measure A parcel tax campaign, Mike Robles-Wong, a retired business manager who worked for several public agencies, served as the immediate past president of the Community of Harbor Bay Isle homeowners associations. His family is also the named plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking an overhaul of California’s school finance system. He said he’s concerned about the long-term prospects for Alameda Unified and the impact the quality of the district’s schools will have on the community as a whole.

Specifically, Robles-Wong said he’s concerned about declining state funding and the “recent public antagonism” between administrators and some district staff, and that he expects that as a board member, he would be dealing with that, along with the district’s aging facilities and a new superintendent’s contract (current Superintendent Kirsten Vital’s contract lapses in 2015). And he said that the district and board will need to seek “a lot of community input” to address these issues – and they’ll need board members who can help build a community consensus around them.

“I think it’s important to have someone who has that experience of being able to pull together a general consensus to move things in a proactive, positive direction,” Robles-Wong said.

As evidence of his ability to do that, Robles-Wong cited his leadership in helping to convince the City Council to nix a proposal to allow developer Ron Cowan to build 104 homes on part of the Chuck Corica Golf Complex, along with job experience that includes contracts, labor relations and budget work.

Barbara Kahn said she has been involved in children’s issues for the more than 50 years she’s lived in Alameda, efforts that have included stints on the board of the Alameda Education Foundation and several school district committees, including the oversight committee for Measure A. She said she is seeking to rebuild the relationship between the school district and its teachers and also with the community, in anticipation of future requests for financial support.

“I am running because I think that the current board has ceded its authority to a superintendent who does not have a sense of our community and who has sought and no doubt will continue to seek changes that are part of her agenda and not ours, culminating in the decision to move the district offices to Marina Village and out of Alameda High School incurring expenditures that will exceed a half million dollars per year,” Kahn said. “I hope to change the majority on the board so that decisions will reflect our community and be made transparently, with input encouraged and sought from teachers, community and other stakeholders.”

Kurt Peterson, a local businessman who said he attends most school board and City Council meetings, said that he supports a well-rounded education for Alameda’s students but that providing it will be a challenge in the face of state funding cuts. He said he finds a breakdown in teacher morale and school board decisions that included approval of a contract that gives Vital full medical benefits and annual raises and new, leased space for the district’s administrative offices “alarming” – especially in the face of voters’ approval of Measure A, which provides $12 million a year in additional taxes for schools.

Peterson decried what he sees as “waste, waste, waste” by a school board he thinks has acted like it is operating in economic boom times.

“I'm a fiscal conservative that believes that you need to get the most return for every dollar spent. The youth of Alameda deserve that,” Peterson said. “This is what I can bring the AUSD as a board member.”

Jon G. Murphy, the program director and instructor for Merritt College’s Allied Health Programs, holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Alameda’s Argosy University. In answers to questions from the Alameda Education Association he submitted to The Alamedan, he said teachers play a “crucial role” in guiding the district’s decision on class sizes, academic programs and learning environments but that as a board member, his role would be to be responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of the community.

“All constituents, from AEA and the District need to keep the perspective that we have a responsibility to the education of our students as these children will be our future leaders,” Murphy wrote in response to a question about what he would do to repair the relationship between the district and its teachers union. “I want to be an advocate for the students’ educational needs and this will guide my judgment and decision making."

Robert W. Mann, an intellectual property attorney and parent who volunteer teaches a GATE science class at Lum Elementary School and who knocked on doors to garner support for Measure A, said he is running to try to address the conflict between Alameda Unified’s teachers and administrators.

“In my career I have worked in a lot of negotiations and I do a lot mediation, and I just thought, ‘There has to be a better way to approach this,’” said Mann, who said he sees teachers as the “single most important thing” that public education provides and that he wants to reward good ones. He said he wants to gather more public input to address the district’s problems.

Since he has been on the board, incumbent Ron Mooney said the district has initiated a master plan for the district’s schools that expands school options, maintains neighborhood schools and raises expectations, and that the district’s leadership has improved student performance in the face of uncertain state funding – work he’d like to continue.

Mooney – whose activities over 15 years in Alameda have included leadership of school bond and parcel tax campaigns, service of the Alameda Education Foundation Board and in school PTA and school site council groups – said that while he may be criticized for some of his votes on the school board, he believes they reflect what was best for the district’s students, teachers and staff.

“The school board must make hard and sometimes controversial decisions, but I have always put the long term interests of the district first, and will continue to do so,” Mooney said.

Tom Lynch, who said he is optimistic about the future of Alameda’s schools and that they compare to those in other top Bay Area districts, said that as a board member he’d focus on the quality and equity of educational services in Alameda, fiscal management, support for teachers and support for parent participation. Lynch, who is the immediate past president of the Bay Farm Elementary School PTA and who co-chaired the Alameda Boys & Girls Club’s recent auction, said the next board will need to address the aging infrastructure of Alameda’s schools, lower costs and increase teacher pay to at least the county average.

“The next board will have to show they can live within the means the voters of Alameda have provided while raising the quality and equity of education in AUSD,” Lynch said.

While president of the Bay farm PTA, Lynch, who said he has state and local sales management experience, championed a “School Smarts” program that seeks to boost parental involvement, he said.

Trish Spencer, a parent who served as president of the PTA Council before she joined the school board and who said she substitute taught in nearly all of the district’s schools, said has given a voice to students, parents, teachers and staff as a member of the board. While on the board, Spencer voted against Vital’s contract and a lease for new office space for the district’s administrative offices, along with what she called “unneeded consultants.”

“I have given a voice to students, parents, teachers, and school site staff and personnel so that we, collectively, are best able to meet the needs of all our students and provide the best opportunity for each of them to receive a quality education,” Spencer said. “I will always put students first and effectively use our limited resources to ensure that every student succeeds.”

In addition to her school board service, Spencer is also co-chair of the Alameda Collaborative for Children, Youth and their Families, which serves more than 35 organizations.

Nielsen Tam, who served as a teacher and principal in Alameda’s schools for 39 years before joining the school board, said his long experience with the district provide him the knowledge, training and commitment needed to continue to help lead it. Tam, a Coro fellow whose community involvement includes membership on the boards of Alameda Family Services, the Alameda Community Fund and the Alameda Multicultural Community Center, said he values the perspectives of his fellow board members and that he will continue to seek partnerships with the city, businesses and community organizations.

“I bring preschool, elementary, middle school, and special education administrative and teaching experiences to complex decision making,” Tam said. “I will continue to respect, value and encourage the involvement and contribution of Alameda's parents, students and community.”

Tam said the district’s accomplishments during his tenure include approval of an anti-bullying curriculum for the district’s elementary schools and passage of budgets without cutting programs, enacting mass teacher layoffs or closing schools; high test scores and state recognition of Lincoln, Amelia Earhart and Lum schools as distinguished schools; the creation of partnerships with the Alameda Boys & Girls Club, Alameda Family Services and other local organizations; the passage of the Measure A parcel tax; and approval of magnet and innovative programs at the new Maya Lin school and Bay Farm and Earhart schools as anticipated by the master plan the board approved for the district’s schools.

If he is re-elected, Tam said he’d like to help maintain a balanced budget, shepherd through magnet programs at Wood Middle School and Encinal High School, increase technology and other support for the district’s teachers and schools, and continue to build partnerships with the city, businesses and community organizations.