Local voters who watched a virtual forum last week got a good preview of what they’ll get when they elect two of five candidates to the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education in November.
Those voters will take special note, too, that this will be the first school board election in probably two decades without the familiarity of a “business as usual” candidate, as neither incumbent is competing for re-election this year. Seated socially distanced from each other at the Huntington Library last week, candidates Julie Chan Lin, Jane Chon, Jesse Hong, Mike Killackey and Doreen Summers spent more than an hour taking questions — some prepared ahead of time, others submitted by viewers — while constituents watched via Zoom.
The forum was hosted by the San Marino City Club, which customarily hosts forums for local candidates at venues such as the San Marino High School auditorium when there isn’t a pandemic.
Candidates were tasked with weighing in on broader issues like educational mandates and teaching culture as well as more localized issues such as aging facilities and a declining student population.
JULIE CHAN LIN
A newcomer to politics, Chan Lin took the position that school board members should firmly stay on top of administrators when they dictate policies and plans and that parents are entitled to the same expectations of board members.
“I also think that it’s the board’s responsibility to not get defensive when parents have questions, but instead to listen with an open mind,” she said. “I think that inviting criticism is a sign of our confidence, and when we defend ourselves and we can’t take it, then that is our insecurity. We need to be open-minded and we need to constantly be working for the very best of every child in this district. We need to do better so that the students who’ve left to private schools want to come back and their parents feel confident in our system that they can bring them back.”
Chan Lin was among a vocal group of parents who successfully urged voters to reject last year’s bond proposition, which would have funded a trove of new and upgraded facilities as well as years’ worth of deferred maintenance. That being said, she stressed she took the stance not out of total opposition, but rather as a matter of priorities.
“Of course that’s important,” she said of improving the district’s footprint. “The issue is, $62 million for a performing arts center, and new swimming pools. As a community I think we’ve spoken up. We need to work with the community, we need to engage the community and we need to be responsible. We need to put forth the amount of money that is truly needed for what is in the best interest of the students.
“The curriculum and the education is what will move the students forward,” Chan Lin added. “It’s how they will build confidence. It’s how they will build skills for their resume to get to the college they want to go to. It is not the brand-new buildings. I was in drama for four years at San Marino High School. I loved my time there. It was not about the building; it was about the teacher.”
Regarding how to address teachers who seem to be underperforming, Chan Lin suggested that it may be an issue of poor fit more than the qualifications or drive of the instructor. She added it was just as obvious to administrators and principals as it is to parents when a teacher needs help.
“I would work to engage with those teachers and understand,” she said. “Are they tired out? Are they overwhelmed? Is something going on in their personal lives? Or would they like to try out something else where maybe they don’t interface with as many students, but they get to use their skills and find their passions in other ways?”
Asked about her thoughts on anti-racism and anti-bias education, Chan Lin cast support for it as having a broader important lesson for young people.
“It really is about teaching our students to have more empathy,” she said. “I think everybody could have more empathy. We are at a time right now where we are so divisive in so many ways.”
Having run for school board in the previous election, Chon hit the ground running in terms of her vision as a prospective member of the panel.
“You need to look at whether or not your program is meeting its intended goals and using your limited resources, in our case, effectively,” she said. “We have a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that the funds are being spent appropriately to support learning and personal growth for all students in the district, and in understanding how the schools are funded.”
To develop those goals, Chon said, the board should develop plans that look ahead as far as the next decade to help guide the district.
“I think it’s important that we make a plan, and that requires communication with our community,” she said. “We need to know exactly where we need to be a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, and we need to make sure we are advocating for all of the students who are in our schools.”
With that in mind, Chon said this sort of planning must coincide with how the district plots out the still-needed upgrades to facilities and infrastructure. Complicating that problem is that the state’s already limited funding of public school districts is leaving less and less room for maintenance — hence the backlog of deferred work.
“We need to address not only the deferred maintenance which might have to do with replacement and repair, but we also need to look at a preventative plan as well,” Chon said. “We need to look, most of all, at how that’s going to fit within our broad educational plan.
“I think the last time we had a facilities bond come up, the community made it very clear that their priority was not in being committed to a bond for [another] 40 years,” she added. “We really need to understand what the community is going to be committed to, because our infrastructure is going to be our most important thing for our students.”
One consideration for that question is what the district will learn from its COVID-19 pandemic-mandated distance learning, which Chon suggested has benefited perhaps 15% of students on the basis that they aren’t facing as much bullying or anxiety as they would in-person.
“This is an interesting situation, because I don’t think anybody saw it coming,” she said. “We need to stop looking at online programs as being inferior and subpar to what is offered. Although that may be what happened in the past, we are seeing, because of COVID, a rise in online opportunities that we never saw before.”
Ultimately, Chon said, the district will have to make hard decisions and show good faith to maintain or re-earn trust from members of the community.
“At this point, we’ve got a $40 million budget — $10 million of that comes from local funding sources in the form of taxes and donations, and we need to stop taking those things for granted,” she added. “We need to stop expecting the community to always step up when we’re losing students who go out of state, to private schools and for other reasons. “
In seeking one of the school board seats, first-time candidate Hong talked about the opportunities he wanted to help bring to both the district’s students and to parents in the community.
As an example, he praised the parent-run Lego-based robotics teams at elementary schools, and said those should become part of a broad, districtwide robotics program that helps prepare students for the successful Titanium Robotics team at SMHS.
Making sure that students and staff are taken care of, he said, will help open these doors of opportunity for people.
“Mental health and students’ well-being will be one of my top priorities,” Hong said. “We already have a wellness center at the high school, and I believe we could have an additional, interactive telemedicine clinic. This is where we will have live physicians or nurses or health-care professionals to answer questions for our staff and our teachers. Especially at this time of a public health crisis, we need to be supportive of our students and our staff.”
School board members should serve a role as liaisons, Hong said, and should give families and residents ample opportunity to ask questions and air any concerns about the district, schools or staff members.
“As board members, we need to be keenly aware of what’s going in the schools,” Hong said. “Any parent at any time, if they have an issue with a teacher, they should let their school board member know — not because they will help solve them, but just so that they’re aware of these issues and they can talk to the principal and the superintendent [about them].”
In terms of addressing concerns about bringing in talent to the district, Hong said he would lean on his past experience in hiring successful people as a pharmacist. Qualifications are one thing, he added, but fit is a crucial part of the hiring process.
“I think track record is one of the most important things I look for when I hire people,” he said. “We need to hire the right person for the right job.”
Given his prior and current involvement throughout the community, Hong said he would use his experience to keep in touch with various interest groups and members of the community, to ensure that they feel represented at the table. At the same time, he said he’d use it to communicate background to the board’s decisions and the district’s initiatives to those who might not be sure why something is happening.
“I would like to see that we have more open meetings where there’s clear communication so the board is receptive to what the parents and residents are looking for,” Hong said. “But the parents and residents also need to be able to understand why the board made the decision it made. If elected, I want to have constant communication and dialogue with our community.”
A school board, Killackey argued, should support the district’s teachers in a manner similar to the way teachers support their students. This means giving them as many opportunities for professional growth and assistance as feasible, he said.
“We need to always evaluate our teachers with an eye toward ensuring that our teachers are receiving the proper professional development that is needed,” he said. “Do they have the skills? Do they have the knowledge of the best practices and the cutting-edge technology and tools that are needed to best educate our children?
“In order to have success, we need to evaluate and find out where they’re having shortcomings, where they can improve and where their challenges are,” Killackey added. “These are skilled professionals who have trained and been educated on how to educate our children. They are dedicated to our children, but we need to be dedicated to them.”
An attorney who also ran for school board in the previous election, Killackey said he has the skills necessary to help the district navigate through disputes, whether it be during union negotiations, lawsuits filed against the district or even in pitching proposals to a skeptical community.
“I have extensive experiences in trying to get parties to come together to find out where is the common ground: Where is the lowest common denominator between everyone in the group and how do we build from there?” he said. “My experience in difficult negotiations is not necessarily where somebody has taken a specific position, but rather where they try to change and divert from the mission statement or process or procedure. That’s where we need to ensure that whatever the issue is, we have proper, solid integrity in the institution, credibility in the process and a procedure that everybody follows.
“If you have the same goal and you have a solid process, that’s how everybody works together to achieve a successful plan,” Killackey added.
With regard to the restrictions caused by the pandemic, Killackey said the district should maintain its own return plan so that it’s ready to go when county and state officials give the green light.
“We don’t want a situation where children return to a school and then, because of a lack of planning or other deficits, we need to immediately take them back off campus, and then put them back on campus,” he said. “It’s pretty distracting and it’s also very concerning to students.”
Part of convincing voters to approve a facilities improvement bond will be to educate them on the long-term savings that should come with installing newer and modern equipment. Volunteering with the San Marino Schools Foundation, Killackey had previously advocated for the initiative.
“We need to be able to show that it will also be fiscally conservative and responsible to actually go with replacement or updates, rather than trying to fix something,” he added. “For fiscal conservative people, why is a bond important? It will save money, and when it saves money from the general fund, it then goes to teachers and other programs.”
Being on the school board is her opportunity to amplify the voices of the community, Summers explained, and to translate those concerns and requests into policy for the administration to carry out.
“I don’t think when you sit on a board that you come in with your personal agenda,” she said. “We are elected officials. We are there to represent the desires and the wills of San Marino and the district. We are charged with going in there and being objective and listening to our constituents. We have that responsibility to the voters.”
Since her twins are at SMHS right now, Summers said she has skin in the game and has heard enough concerns from her fellow parents there that she felt someone needed to represent them.
“I really want to be there and be a voice for our community,” she said. “I think I really understand where they’re coming from and honestly, I’m at the point where I want to stop complaining and I want to do something about it, and that’s why I’m here today.”
Solving some of these problems ought to be easy, Summers contended: Enough has been said in the past several years about ideas like block scheduling that a discussion should be straightforward, she said. Summers added that it’s on the school board to keep pressure on administrators to enact those policy goals.
“We have things that have been on the table and have been discussed for almost a decade,” she said. “For some reason, we don’t seem to be able to move the needle on that. I think what we really need to do is be really clear with our administration and set clear goals, clear timelines, and then we don’t just drop it. We have to keep coming back.”
Summers said she also was an advocate for improving curriculum and programming offerings first and foremost, to help retain young students in the district.
“It’s not sustainable,” she said of the declining enrollment. “It’s a problem, and if we don’t start having some honest conversations about what’s going on, I fear for the future of our district. There are a lot of just wonderful families and they don’t make that choice easily to leave this district.
“We really need to get a handle on what we feel that our students are lacking,” Summers added. “Along those lines, I think it’s really important that we look at our AP and honors classes and how our students are getting access to these classes. There’s a lot of frustration by families feeling like maybe it’s not a fair playing field.”
All of that said, Summers commented that it’s important to make sure the facilities are up to snuff, but the district should not conflate necessary infrastructure fixes with a wish list of nicer amenities.
“We need to really make sure we’re not putting the ‘nice to haves’ above the critical needs,” she said.