Five candidates will campaign for three seats on the Pleasanton Unified School District (PUSD) Board this November.
In a recent interview with The Independent, Mary Jo Carreon, Steve Maher, Kelly Mokashi, Chong Wang and Jamie Yee each took the time to answer questions regarding their experience, views and goals. Below are their answers in last-name alphabetical order.
Can you please provide your background in education and what makes you a good candidate for the school board?
Carreon: My career has been dedicated to making a difference in the lives of students and families. As a 33-year elementary school teacher, I know how important it is to have good leadership on our school board. As a parent, I have also had two children graduate from our Pleasanton schools. Students have always been my focus as an educator. As a school board member, I will ensure that every decision we make puts students first. I am dedicated to the field of education and believe that I can make a difference serving on the school board.
Maher: I am a proven member of the board due to my experience and expertise in the field of education. I have 40+ years experience as a teacher, administrator and board trustee for PUSD. During my tenure, I taught elementary grades, special education, served as vice principal and principal. I have served in all but two schools in the district. I hold a BA in Social Science with an emphasis on Asian Politics, a minor in Biology, and a Masters in School Administration. I am a veteran, having served two years active duty as a hospital corpsman. A life-long educator, I am fully invested in the district, as I have three grandchildren attending district schools. During my career, four schools where I was principal were awarded the California Distinguished School Award. When I was principal of Alisal School, it received the very first California Distinguished School Award ever given in the Valley. I have been honored with numerous awards for leadership in Pleasanton schools. Three of the awards, of which I am especially proud, are Teacher of the Year, Administrator of the Year, and the highly prestigious California State PTA Golden Oak Service Award. As a testament of my dedication to the students of Pleasanton, I have donated my entire board stipend ($20,000+) to district programs, individual classrooms, the Foster Kinship program and at-risk/special needs programs. With the aforementioned experience and expertise, I believe I am well-prepared to be re-elected to the Pleasanton School Board.
Mokashi: I started my educational career as an art teacher. I also worked as an education consultant to guide key district leaders and teachers to implement new programs and make organizational improvements. I have a double Masters in Education: Curriculum & Technology/Administration. For the last 10 years, I have been an eLearning curriculum writer and instructor for an education company. I am a strong candidate for PUSD School board having worked with districts nationwide, coupled with my eLearning expertise. With three children currently enrolled in the district, I understand the perspectives of parents, educators and district leaders. I have previous experience working with district leaders on how to implement programs to improve student success. I also have executive leadership experience, serving as an Executive Director and as President of the Board for two different nonprofits. It’s these types of experiences that shape my leadership capacity to serve as a well-rounded candidate for PUSD school board.
Wang: My wife and I have lived with our two school-aged sons, who are a senior at Amador and an 8th grader at Harvest Park, in Pleasanton for six years. I got a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering in China. I hold a master's degree in computer science from Stanford University and have worked in the high-tech industry for over 20 years, which gives me experience in leading large teams and collaborating with people from diverse backgrounds. As a member of the district's Superintendent Budget Advisory council and Citizen Bond Oversight Committee, I have the financial knowledge and analytical acuity to make sound budget decisions and bring transparency to the process.
Yee: I would make a good school board member because I have 12 years of experience. I have been on the Board during the great recession, to building back up programs and hiring post-recession and, more recently, making decisions during the pandemic. I am experienced in public education and public education policy and advocacy. I have relationships with all of our Legislators and their staff. I keep them updated so they can effectively advocate for PUSD in Sacramento. I understand the community, and I have 12 years of experience working with constituents and am experienced at governance of a public board.
What do you feel are issues of significant importance to parents with children in the district? How do you intend to address them?
Carreon: The most pressing concern is COVID-19. We need to keep students and staff safe. We have the challenge of distance learning and making sure ALL students have equal access to curriculum. Parents want students to return to class as soon as possible and as safe as possible. We need to make sure we have proper ventilation, hand washing stations, and other safety precautions in place once it has been determined it is safe to return to school.
Maher: The most significant issues of importance to parents are 1) providing a robust remote learning program accessible by all students; 2) a sustainably safe reopening of schools for in-person learning. As far as addressing these issues, a robust remote learning program is being provided with student access to computers with hotspots and technical assistance to support when needed. Teachers continue to be provided in-depth, ongoing staff development. I have a known openness in listening to parents, school staff and community members who have concerns. When I receive these frequent calls and emails of concern, I refer calls to persons who can assist or I take forward the concern to the appropriate district personnel and always follow-up with the concerned individual(s).
Mokashi: I feel there are three top issues. Since PUSD is currently in remote learning instruction, one issue is how to best help our children with remote learning (i.e. engagement & motivation). Strategic integrated support from the district, the city, and local organizations to offer seminars/training for parents and teachers on specific remote learning challenges would be of benefit. A second issue is how to provide our children with frequent social/peer interactions that normally occur in school. Strengthened joint partnerships with the city, local programs, and the district to provide safe-social distancing activities and/or remote options are essential for the well-being of our children. Thirdly, parents need targeted support for social emotional services that are specifically tailored to the effects of the pandemic (i.e. increased anxiety, negative effects of technology).
Wang: The school district currently faces many challenges. The top two challenges are COVID-19 and budget. COVID-19 threats to everyone. The school district must provide high-quality education on the premise and ensure students, teachers, and staff's safety and health. The board should support the school district to enhance remote learning continuously and make sure that students, teachers, and staff could return to schools safely when onsite learning is allowed.
Yee: In my opinion, the potential impacts of distance learning, which include learning loss and lack of socialization, are immediate concerns. The inability to play school sports and the music students being able to play together live. By having an awareness, by reaching out and talking to students, parents, and staff has given me an understanding of the issues. A Board Member’s role is to engage with the community and convey the issues directly to the Superintendent. Depending on the issue, advocate for an agenda item, so the issue can be discussed from the dais. A singular board member cannot make a decision alone; decisions must be made collectively. But I can certainly and do very often raise issues from the dais.
How do you propose the school district budget should be handled in the wake of a recession and the significant cuts at a state level? Can you provide your vision for solutions that would lead to a balanced budget?
Carreon: School funding has always been a crucial issue for Pleasanton. The reality is we need to have more funding and more funding sources. We have a wonderful community in Pleasanton and we can work together to solve this. We have an advisory budget committee, but I would advocate for expanding that to include more community involvement.
Maher: I see the following as budget priorities: 1) presenting a balanced budget 2) managing funding cuts from the state, and 3) prioritize the restoration of cuts when funds become available. The process would begin by directing all departments and schools to search within their budgets for opportunities for cost savings. The next step would be to put a budget committee together made up of all stakeholders from district staff, school personnel, parents and community. Their task would be to make prioritized recommendations of possible cuts and prioritize the restoration of cuts when funds become available. The board is responsible to discuss the recommendations brought forward by the committee. The board always has final approval.
Mokashi: A multi-tiered solution will help address fiduciary recession issues that the district is faced with currently. I am a strong proponent of how financial decisions are made. I support a collaborative, data-driven model, with clear messaging and transparency of the allocation/expenditure of funds. After reviewing the district priorities, in my opinion, it would be of benefit for a more formal review of considerations for budget reductions in non-personnel areas and consideration for an audit of the costs of program services (i.e. negotiation of contracts/cost comparisons of vendors, etc., not elimination of specific programs). Strategies to increase revenues need to be explored, because presently the district has only allocated $310,000 in that category.
Wang: We are facing challenges with our funding. There is a $20 million budget deferral next year. The issue is going to be addressed by increasing community giving, parcel tax, district revenue generation, and saving through efficiency.
Yee: I joined the Board in 2008, the beginning of the great recession. I know what it was like to make cuts, and I would hope that my experience of seeing how past cuts have played out will drive my decisions in whatever difficult budget situation comes our way. To balance the budget, generally, we need to prioritize and make thoughtful and measured evaluations and decisions about what can be cut. Transparent communication and gathering feedback is a critical aspect of making budget cut decisions. Having thoughtful and respectful discussions with staff and the Board during Board meetings helps everyone to understand the potential impacts of each budget cut. We are also in need of looking for new revenue sources to keep the District continuing to move forward into the future. Advocacy and a good working relationship with our local legislators and their staff are also critical for the budget situation. My ongoing relationship with all of our state and federal Legislators over the years has helped them to understand our local issues and challenges. It better equips them to advocate for us in Sacramento.
What kind of experience do you have with virtual education and e-learning formats? How would you want the district to support teachers in terms of training as we continue with distance learning?
Carreon: I taught 2nd grade at Alisal last year when distance learning started, so I have direct experience with this. Our teachers are doing a great job of teaching under these difficult times, but more support is needed. Teachers need to be provided with the tools and the time to implement.
Maher: Although my personal experience is limited, as a board we have supported the hiring of additional technical staff well-qualified not only in the needed remote learning technology, but also in innovative ways of presenting curriculum. PUSD has continued to provide staff in-service in presenting virtual learning instruction. The board supported a plan that requires teachers to spend time weekly attending in-services focused on improving the presentation of online learning.
Mokashi: I am the only candidate with over 10 years of e-learning instruction and experience with Learning Management Systems, including experience designing asynchronous education courses and direct eLearning course facilitation. I also have extensive experience overhauling curricula to be more equitable and ‘culturally responsive.’ The district is working hard to support the teachers with training with professional development services. However, we need to continue to survey and work with teachers to determine what additional resources they need to support their students. Additionally, it should be noted that parents need e-learning and distance support as well to guide their children. Specific training for teachers (and parents) on specific strategies to be aware of implicit biases, cultural diversity and how that impacts student learning, along with engagement strategies for eLearning instruction (i.e. working with reluctant learners) are all important topics.
Wang: I believe my extensive experience in the IT field will enhance the district's knowledgebase in adapting to the ever-changing high tech and e-learning environment. I am an instructor to teach Hardware security module Courses and help our customers implement our software and hardware remotely at Entrust. I can understand the experience and issues our teachers run into. Based on the conversation with teachers, the school district provides excellent training and experience sharing. The school district should continue to support teachers to explore distance learning and provide and upgrade tools for teachers to create video and teaching materials.
Yee: The District is abreast of what is needed in terms of teacher training and professional development as our budget allows. The more critical issue for distance learning and even post pandemic is our tech equipment. We need to be able to provide our teachers/staff with the most up-to-date technology. The District has offered e-learning courses for many years. Our District was a leader 6 + years ago in training teachers to deliver instruction using technology, which may look like presenting lectures digitally and then using class time for discussion and group work. Many of our students already supplement their course work in enrolling in District approved e-learning courses. In recent years, the textbook adoption and purchase usually have a digital component to the curriculum. The digital aspect of textbook adoption has been a priority for the Board. Post pandemic, the District will continue with Independent Study, which will be called the Virtual Academy. One positive aspect of the pandemic is reimagining and learning about what works and what doesn't. I am excited that the District is simultaneously working to build up the Virtual Academy. Not all students learn in a traditional setting, and a Virtual Academy will be a critical option for many of our students.
What role should the board play during COVID-19 and the related shutdown? What has the current board done well? What could be improved?
Carreon: The board sets policy, and they need to set policy to keep students and staff safe during Covid. They have a current learning plan which is quite extensive. I appreciate that they have included many people in the decision making and that the plan is very thorough. I would like to include more safety measures and policies for when and how students return to the classroom. We need to really think through all possibilities for how we best use our facilities, how we handle a student or staff member getting sick, and how we transition from distance learning and back to, if needed.
Maher: The board needs to be well-informed and aware of the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) guidelines. The board was responsible to approve the shutdown of all in-person instruction. In addition, the board directed the superintendent and cabinet to present a plan for remote learning. Once the plan was submitted, it was thoroughly vetted by the board and approved. Some of what the plan included: the technology that was needed for teachers and students, determining what in-service the district needed to provide teachers, staff, students, and parents. The board also had to determine the funds needed to implement the plan. Back in March, we were able to implement the plan within one week. Concurrently, the district within a week had all needed supplies provided to students, and provided breakfast and lunch daily for more than 800 students. It was a challenge to provide remote learning for our most severe special needs students.
Mokashi: The PUSD School Board is the governing body that ensures policies and oversight for the well-being of the operations of the entire school district and therefore, the PUSD Board has played a significant role in determining when and if it is safe for students and teachers to return back safely. The PUSD school board, district personnel, and Dr. Haglund are doing a great job with frequent communication and transparency about the decision making processes. I have observed this firsthand, while serving on the Steering Committee as well. I agree with the district’s protocols for health and safety for both our students and staff, with appropriate standards for PPE and social distancing procedures for students and teachers. PUSD needs to continue to provide clear written communication and understanding of protocols in place for when occurrences of COVID cases occur when schools resume. Once again, more support services for parents on how to help their own children with eLearning strategies (i.e. self-regulation/time management strategies, etc.) is desperately needed. More social engagement options for children to socialize with their classmates (i.e. virtual recess) and opportunities for hands-on activities/projects to keep children motivated and interested.
Wang: The school district took the correct action to respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The board should take to the highest standard to protect students and staff. The school district should enhance communication with the community, teachers, and students about the COVID-19 status and policy update.
Yee: The Board's role is to provide oversight and support. Compared to many surrounding Districts, our Board met regularly and over the summer to discuss and give direction to the staff. Our discussions were thoughtful; the staff did an excellent job showing us many options supported by data when appropriate. Other surrounding Districts did not bring decisions to their Boards; Superintendents made unilateral decisions. We had numerous opportunities for the public to provide input. And deliver public comment. I can't say that I would change anything.
Do you believe distance learning will result in a gap in education for some students? If so, how do you propose the district address it? How could it possibly prevent it now?
Carreon: Our teachers are doing an amazing job at distance learning. However, there will be a gap in education for some students. Currently, every school has a school accountability report where they analyze data and determine what next steps are to close the gap. Teachers are experts at closing the educational gap and they will continue to do so. However, we do need to support our at-risk population. Funds have been provided by the state and we need to be sure we are best utilizing those for at-risk students.
Maher: Yes, I do believe distance learning will result in a gap in education for some students. We have addressed the issue by identifying the students who were not engaging or fully accessing the curriculum. Our intervention specialists, social workers, psychologists, counselors, and administrators have reached out to assist the students and parents. In addition, we are exploring the possibility of bringing these students onsite to provide small group support, while ensuring we follow all current ACPHD guidelines.
Mokashi: Distance and remote learning will affect our students in different ways, so yes, there will be some gaps. Academic, social/emotional, and peer socialization will have a great impact. Specific, targeted intervention resources and support will be critical to help bridge these types of gaps. Intensive academic support and more options need to be readily available for our students. Collaborative training/seminars for students, parents and teachers on specific topics including the effects of COVID must be integrated sooner, rather than later, including partnerships with mental health services from the city and county to address these types of challenges.
Wang: Yes, distance learning will result in a gap for some students. The school district is taking the action to prevent it. The school district is doing pupil engagement and outreach. There is a multi-tiered system of support for re-engagement.
Yee: For many students, there will be a gap. The District is already geared up to keep an eagle eye on the data and assessments of our students. This year we are implementing a new assessment tool that measures individual growth. This will be very helpful. They are already gearing up to identify students who are not making progress, which will lead to recommending and delivering interventions to those students. I will be asking lots of questions along the way to ensure this effort stays on track.
What are the district’s greatest strengths? How do you intend to support and grow that element?
Carreon: Pleasanton has excellent schools. Teachers and staff are one of the district’s greatest strengths. They are the heart and soul of the district. We need to support them by listening to what they need and providing it. Another strength is our engaged parent community. We need to recognize that strength and broaden our engagement.
Maher: Currently PUSD is the 11th ranked district in the state, ranked 1st in Alameda County with the number one elementary, middle, and high schools in the county. We have one of the highest graduation rates among California’s high schools. I will continue to support academic rigor and also support focusing on building success for our at-risk and underserved students.
Mokashi: The district is working very hard to communicate with parents and the community about ever-changing updates as it pertains to COVID and the pandemic and school related decisions. I applaud the district’s efforts to be transparent about their processes for making decisions and communication efforts. I am also impressed with the curriculum teams and the resources the district is providing their teachers. I embody these core beliefs and support open communication and engagement processes with our entire school community. I believe this is an important quality for our school board members as well.
Wang: The school district is ranking as one of the top school districts in the state. It has balanced high-quality educational and extracurricular programs, such as the marching band. I will continue to support and grow a balanced learning environment.
Yee: The District has many strengths -- our dedicated and professional teachers, teacher induction program, the overall integrity of our students, the support of the families and the community. To continue to grow our positives is to ensure that there is a harmonious culture on the Board and with the Executive Cabinet, which will ensure good collaboration and trust on the Governance team (the Board). Having a high functioning executive team is the only way that a District can continue to grow and move forward.
What are the district's weaknesses? How do you intend to address them?
Carreon: I would love to see more open and transparent communication. I know that among some, we need to rebuild trust in the community. I want to listen and be responsive to community concerns.
Maher: We need to focus on providing access for students who are at-risk and underserved. As a board member, I will support adding funding and services to achieve this goal.
Mokashi: The district needs to continue to integrate cultural responsive elements in all subject areas (not just social studies and history content), within the curriculum and more directly into teaching /classroom application to support our diverse student population and to promote more equitable best practices. Resources and seminar offerings for parents are needed, as they relate eLearning home strategies to help their children (as mentioned previously). We also should provide more options for children to socialize with their peers, social and emotional strategies and support for negative effects of excessive technology usage (i.e. strategies to help with anxiety and other issues that are increasing due to negative effects of COVID/remote learning).
Wang: The communication is ranked as the lowest one in the school district surveys from students, teachers, and parents. One of my top priorities is to enhance effective communication among all parties. This is to be accomplished by uniting all stakeholders, building effective and streamlined communication channels, increasing visibility and mutual trust.
Yee: The greatest weakness is being underfunded from the State and not receiving our full IDEA funding from the Feds. And succession planning, which is now one of the superintendent’s goals. These weaknesses can only be addressed by ensuring that there is a harmonious culture on the Board and with the Executive Cabinet, which will ensure good collaboration and trust on the Governance team (the Board). Having a high functioning executive team is the only way that a District can continue to grow and move forward.