Q&A with School Board candidate Cory Smegal

Smegal is one of five candidates vying for three seats on the School Board. She is an incumbent seeking a second four-year term.

What is your age and how long have you lived in Piedmont?

I am 51 and have lived in Piedmont for 16 years.

What do you do for work, either in or out of your home?

I am not currently working, but have been volunteering as a School Board member for the last four years.  I have an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and previously worked in consulting for KPMG and marketing for AT&T.

If you have children, do they attend, or have they attended, Piedmont schools? If so, which ones?

Yes — Anna is 19 and went to Wildwood, PMS and PHS. Tommy is 17 — he also went to Wildwood, PMS and he is in his final year at PHS.

Have you worked or volunteered in Piedmont schools (or elsewhere) previously? If so, in what capacity(ies)?
  • Current School Board member, four years (Vice President and Correspondent, two years; Facilities Steering Committee, Board Liaison; Measures G&H Parcel Tax Campaign, Board Liaison)
  • Giving Campaign, Committee, six years.  Co-Chair, two years, raised more than $3.4 million over two campaigns
  • Wildwood Parent Club — seven years — including Club President
  • Piedmont Education Foundation Co-Treasurer
  • APCP Treasurer and Tri-School Treasurer
  • Piedmont Education Foundation Grants Committee Co-Chair
  • Piedmont Middle School Site Council — two years
  • Appointed to Math Task Force that relaunched District curriculum
  • Piedmont Middle School March Mingle Founder
  • Piedmont Middle School Learnscape Legacy Wall Creator
  • Piedmont Community Church Mexico Trip Team Leader
  • Piedmont Scouts BSA Merit Badge Counselor
  • Piedmont Baseball/Softball Board Member — nine years
  • Piedmont High School Booster Board — chaired Highlander Classic
  • Youth sports coach — soccer and softball
What inspires you to run for office?

For the past four years, I have served on the Piedmont Board of Education and am currently Vice-President. I believe that experience is important, and I care deeply about the schools and the well-being of our students and staff. 

Throughout my term, I’ve worked collaboratively to solve issues the District has faced.  For example, I worked hard last fall to get both Measures G&H passed to provide both stable and incremental funding to the District.  

During this time, I’ve built strong relationships with stakeholders from within the District and in nearby Districts. I am a clear communicator and direct in expressing my views. I am responsive when people raise questions and concerns. 

I am running for a second term because there is more work to be done to support students and staff. Our District is remarkable and we will get through this challenging time together.

What are your qualifications to be on the School Board? Any special skills or experience the voters should know about?

As a School Board member for the last four years, I have relevant experience, I’ve made strong connections, and I am collaborative. During my term, the Board has faced a host of issues — from challenging budgets to new curriculum to large construction projects.

We’ve written and modified policies to improve the student experience. More recently, we’ve worked on student stress, teacher morale and pandemic operations.

Throughout this time, I’ve counted on the connections I’ve made. I’ve worked closely with every member of our administrative staff. I’ve built relationships with students, teachers, staff and parents at all levels to learn about their concerns. I’ve also worked closely with board members from other districts, sharing best practices.

I’ve learned during my term that Board members have to work as a team to solve complex problems. I believe that my experience is important and can strengthen the Board over the next four years.

What do you see as the most challenging issues currently facing the school district?

The most challenging issue facing the District is that we are in a global pandemic and yet we must continue to educate and support our students.

This challenge is unprecedented, and it will take the collective effort of everyone — teachers, students, administrators, board members, parents and our community to get through this crisis.

Last spring, during distance learning, we compared the effort to “rebuilding the plane while it is in flight.” This fall, the District is working to ensure that the experience is not only different from the spring, but that it goes much further to meet both the educational and social-emotional needs of students. Even though school is 100% distance learning right now, the District is planning for a safe return to school so that students and teachers can make important in person connections that facilitate learning and mental health.

What do you see as strengths of the Piedmont schools?

The Piedmont schools are remarkable because of all of the people involved.

First, the teachers are amazing. They care so much for our students. I had the pleasure of watching a handful of synchronous distance learning sessions at our elementary level this past week and even in that most challenging setting, the teachers were engaging students with creative ways to learn. Next, the students really want to learn and they want to make their schools better. We have student activists at all levels and that gives me hope for the future. Finally, our parents and community go above and beyond to support the schools. The entire community believes in public education and wants the District to succeed.

The collaborative engagement among these groups is the biggest strength of Piedmont.

What will be your top priority if elected?

I have two priorities:

  • Maximizing safe learning environments
  • Creating opportunities to improve mental health

I believe it is critical during this crisis to focus on both student learning and mental health. From an educational perspective, many changes have been made to our distance learning process this fall that have improved the experience for our students. There is a consistent schedule, clear assessments and accountability. While all would agree that in person learning is preferred, teachers and administrators are working extremely hard to maximize student learning during this time of physical distance.

We must not lose sight of the fact that distance learning is very hard on students and teachers from a mental health perspective. We need to create opportunities for all members of our community to make safe in person connections. I’ve suggested opening Witter field for controlled student activities, such as small club meetings and more.

Do you see yourself being especially involved in any particular school issue or program, whether or not it’s your top priority?

As a Board member for the last four years, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in many different issues and programs. For example, the Board has adopted new science curriculum and approved new courses at PHS. We’ve managed challenging budgets, and we are in the midst of a large construction project. We’ve written and modified board policies to improve the student experience. We’ve worked on student stress, teacher morale and pandemic operations. We are currently focused on equity issues with much more work to be done.

One thing is certain — the School Board will face several challenges over the next four years, and Board members must be ready to respond and develop creative solutions, even if the topic wasn’t initially a top priority. My experience over the past four years will be an important asset to the Board during the next term.

How and when PUSD should return to in-person instruction has been a polarizing topic since the start of the pandemic. If elected, how will you balance the needs of various stakeholders — teachers, parents, classified staff, administrators, students — in your decision-making on this issue?

This topic has been polarizing, but I think it’s important to focus on what we do agree on — we would all prefer for our students to be back in the classroom. In-person instruction is superior to distance learning. Right now, the District is focused on how we can bring students, teachers and staff back on campus in a way that is safe.

I’ve said publicly, along with fellow Board members, that our priority is to bring our youngest learners and our students with special needs back first. Those students are having the hardest time with distance learning. To accomplish this safely, the District is relying on guidance from the California Department of Public Health and the Alameda County Health Department to develop precautions that will protect both students and staff.

The District has developed a Memorandum of Understanding with both teachers and classified staff that provides parameters for a return to in person instruction.

PUSD’s budget depends on state and local funding. What would you do to ensure our funding is robust?

As most people know, the state of California has woefully underfunded public education. Even with recent increases, California ranks approximately 40th in the nation for per pupil funding. Piedmont receives close to $9,600 per student from the state.

The District and the Piedmont Education Foundation (PEF) have worked hard over the last several years to ensure our funding is robust. Last November, the District put a parcel tax renewal, Measure G on the ballot, plus a supplemental parcel tax, Measure H, to be used for staff compensation and retention. Both measures passed and will provide more than $13M of the District’s $45M budget. In addition, PEF has increased its support for the 20-21 school year and is donating more than $3.3M to the District. But the larger problem is state funding.

During my term, I’ve worked to increase our advocacy efforts in Sacramento. We must work with our state representatives to fix the underlying problem.

What do you think about PUSD facilities and bond measure H1?

In November 2016, the voters of Piedmont overwhelmingly passed Measure H1, a bond to support the District’s Facilities Master Plan. After dozens of community meetings, multiple surveys and hours of Board discussion, the Board decided to begin with the construction of a new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) building at PHS.

For the past two years, I have been the Board liaison to the Facilities Steering Committee — the group that has overseen the construction efforts. This project has been challenging, but the outcome is amazing. The STEAM building will be ready for occupancy toward the end of October and will have six new science labs, plus an engineering lab, new 2D and 3D art studios along with additional computer labs and classrooms. In addition, a new theater is under construction and is slated for completion during the fall of 2021.

I have been very supportive of the facilities program and if re-elected, I will continue to push for thoughtful decisions.

Between the city and the schools there are many shared facilities and programs. What is your perspective on city-school partnerships and collaboration?

As Vice President of the School Board, I participate in the joint City-School liaison meetings. We meet quarterly and discuss topics ranging from safety to programming to traffic on the Magnolia corridor. Over the last several years, the District has worked to strengthen its relationship with the City. In addition to the City-School liaison meetings, Superintendent Booker meets frequently with City Administrator Lillevand and Chief Bowers. Our Director of Facilities also meets with city staff to discuss shared facilities and provide construction updates.

This open communication is vital, but it’s also critical in a town our size that we partner to make efficient use of our facilities. At our recent School Board meeting, the Board unanimously agreed to support Measure UU, the city initiative to rebuild the community pool complex. The pool is a great example of a shared resource that all Piedmonters can enjoy.

Recent events have highlighted the educational inequity between Piedmont and nearby school systems such as Oakland Unified. What measures, if any, do you think PUSD should take to address this problem?

A lack of state funding (see previous answer) for public education makes gaps between districts like ours and Oakland Unified widen because Piedmont has such strong community fundraising support.

The state of California has tried to lessen this gap by providing supplementary funding to districts that have students who are in foster care, are on free and reduced lunch or are English as a second language learners. But the supplemental funds are not enough.

That is one of the reasons that I am supporting Proposition 15, the Schools & Communities First initiative that will be on this November’s ballot and I’ve advocated with our state representatives to adequately fund public education. 

Also, I’ve been incredibly impressed with our student advocates. Recent Piedmont graduates and current high school students started an organization called Piedmont for Oakland Public Schools (POPS) which has raised both money and awareness about important equity issues.

School Board members must navigate a wide range of parent opinions and demands. How will you handle those pressures?

As a current Board member, I’ve been listening to opinions and responding to inquiries and pressure from parents and other stakeholders over the past four years. Keeping an open mind and being empathetic to all viewpoints has helped me navigate these challenging discussions. I am always available to talk about issues over the phone or via email.

I think the more input the Board receives, the better the decision-making process is. I also work hard to communicate my thoughts clearly in writing and in Board meetings so that parents understand how I’ve deliberated and made my decisions.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with voters about your candidacy?

If I am re-elected, I promise to continue to work hard, listen to all stakeholders and leverage my experience to help navigate the district through these challenging times.

Contact Cory Smegal at corysmegal@gmail.com and learn more at www.voteforcorysmegal.com.

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