Q&A with School Board candidate Hilary Cooper

Cooper is one of five candidates vying for three seats on the School Board. This is her first time running for public office.

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

I am 52, and have lived in Piedmont for 11 years.

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

I am an active volunteer in our community.  I received my undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and my teaching credential from St. Mary’s College.  Prior to having kids, I was a first grade teacher in Alamo. Before the sheltering in place began, I also worked occasionally as a substitute teacher at PHS. 

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

My husband, Graham, and I have two children, Minnie and Henry.  They both attended Havens Elementary, Piedmont Middle School and Piedmont High School.  Henry and Minnie are now attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Henry is a sophomore studying economics and Minnie is a junior and has been admitted to UW’s School of Journalism.

Have you worked or volunteered in Piedmont schools (or elsewhere) previously? If so, in what capacity(ies)?

Since moving to town, I have been involved with the Havens Parent Club, PMS Parent Club and PHS Parent Club.  I served seven years on the PMS and PHS Parent Club boards, including two years on each board as president. At Havens, I co-chaired the Tri-School Spring Fling fundraiser. 

I have co-chaired the Giving Campaign twice, which is the largest fundraiser for the Piedmont Education Foundation.  I volunteered during the Measure A Parcel Tax Campaign and I co-chaired the Measures G&H Parcel Tax Campaign. 

I am a member of The Cancer League and am a provisional member of the Piedmont Garden Club.  My daughter and I were also involved with the National Charity League for seven years where we focused most of our time at Piedmont Gardens, a local senior living community.  I also have worked as a substitute teacher at PHS.

In 2017, I received the Art Hecht Volunteer of the Year Award from PUSD in recognition of my work with the schools.

What inspires you to run for office?

I believe in public education and feel strongly about serving our community. 

I have held many volunteer positions in this community and I have also worked as a substitute teacher.  I believe that this year is a defining moment for all of our institutions, especially education. 

If elected, I will work collaboratively with our community, teachers, administrators, and parents to find solutions to today’s unique challenges.  Our response will require open-mindedness and innovation. We all want to see our children thrive, and so we must re-imagine how we teach them and keep them safe.

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

I am in a unique position because I can represent many different groups of our community. I am a parent of two recent Piedmont grads and understand what it means to send a student through our K-12 system. 

I am a volunteer and have focused most of my time on working with our school community. Through all of my volunteering, I have spent a lot of time on our campuses and have great working relationships with the teachers, staff and administrators. 

In addition, my experience of raising money for our schools has given me a deep understanding of our district’s budget. Finally, my work as a teacher brings that perspective to the table and will help me work collaboratively to represent all voices and to ensure an excellent educational experience for all students.

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

I think most people would agree that re-opening our schools safely and effectively is the most significant challenge our district has ever faced.  It is incumbent on all stakeholders to come together to find a solution. I am aware of the anxiety and fear that constrain our decisions, but we must continue to move forward with action. If we can acknowledge that there may not be a perfect solution for some time, then we can work on finding a solution that provides some relief in this most challenging of times. 

Beyond that, I think that our children’s social and emotional well-being must be addressed.  Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is as critical as academic and cognitive learning; no child can learn when they are struggling with motivation or self-esteem. All of our students are missing the personal interaction of being in the classroom with their peers and teachers — most especially our young learners.  It is imperative that we find a way back into the classroom.

What do you see as strengths of the Piedmont schools?

Our district’s reputation for offering students an excellent education is well known.  We have amazing teachers, new and improved facilities and outstanding athletics and extracurricular programs.

But I think what sets us apart from other districts is our proven record of innovation. We were one of the first districts in the state to adopt a one-to-one connected learning program, providing Chromebooks for each student.  Little did we know how critical that program would be in the COVID era.  Our Wellness Center has become a model for other secondary schools, emphasizing the social and emotional health of students as critical to their education. Piedmont Makers was established to support and inspire our students through STEAM education.  Their “Fab Lab” will be a highlight in our new STEAM building.  Without the passing of Bond Measure H1 this would not have been possible. 

Our district’s forward thinking mindset will enable us to better address the challenges we face today.

What will be your top priority if elected?

Students will always be my top priority.  I believe that we are at a unique moment in history, and how we help our children through this will set them up for success.  I would like to try and change our mindset from one of thinking in terms of “learning loss” to “teachable moments.” 

We know we face many challenges, but how we face these challenges is what matters.  We may now see a much greater emphasis on project-based learning and that may in turn lead to a deeper understanding of content and subject matter.  We also face many issues in terms of racial injustice and I believe that we can come together to address these issues as a community.

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

Our children are growing up in an historic moment.  From the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement, they are coming of age in a time unlike any other.

I have heard many students raise their voices to be heard and I have seen them protest and march. Our students need and want to talk about these incredibly tough issues. We need to equip our teachers with the tools to safely and productively engage in conversation with our students and create learning moments.  As students become activists, we must provide them with the skills they need to both speak and listen with sensitivity.  There are many areas in our curriculum that could accommodate this, especially our social studies classes. 

I am excited for our students’ generation to become involved members of our society and I welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with our community to make sure our students are outstanding contributors to the world.

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?

I do believe our students need to return to in-person learning and that their social and emotional well-being makes returning a priority of my campaign. 

That said, I do think it’s critical that we let science drive our decisions.  Many schools in the state have already applied for a K-6 waiver and that will afford us the opportunity to learn from each other and implement best practices. Some studies out of China, France and Switzerland have suggested that children under the age of 16 are far less likely to spread COVID than adults. There are also many studies that suggest that it is very unlikely for someone to contract COVID from surfaces. 

As we learn more and develop guidelines to ensure the safe return of our students to the classroom, I support applying for a special waiver for our youngest students.  Using COVID tests for students and teachers is also critical.  We need to create a safe environment and get our kids back in the classroom.

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

Over the last decade, I have served in various volunteer roles that have enabled me to work closely with the district.  I have attended Budget Advisory Committee meetings and I have worked tirelessly to raise money for our schools. 

Unfortunately, California remains 41st in per student funding and Piedmont does not receive the same funding as other districts.  Our budget has had additional pressure put on it with our obligation to employee pension funds. Since we have limited opportunities with state and federal funding, we must continue to raise money at a local level.  One option we could explore is the evergreening of our local parcel tax (Measure G, which provides one-quarter of our district’s budget) so that we can assure those funds into perpetuity. 

We, as parents and community members, must also continue to strongly support The Giving Campaign, which raises millions of dollars annually for our schools.

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

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to substitute teach at PHS.  The classes are cold in the winter and hot in the spring.  Many classes have limited electrical outlets and extension cords snake through the rooms so that students can charge and work on their laptops.  The chairs and desks are decades old, and walls and roofs are stained from water leaks. So, it’s an understatement to say that I was thrilled when Measure H1 passed. 

It’s also safe to say that I will continue to support reasonable bonds that will improve our PUSD facilities.  All three elementary schools have been upgraded and renovated, and in the case of Havens, completely rebuilt.  Our high school is in the midst of two new building construction projects.  I am excited to see the new STEAM building and I sincerely hope that our community will continue to support the infrastructure work that needs to continue.  Our middle school should be next on the list.

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

I am a big believer in collaboration and I can’t think of a better partner for our district than the city.  What makes Piedmont so special is our community and our sense of “small town.”  We know our neighbors, we look out for one another and we always have a cup of sugar to share.  If our community pool is leaking 3,000 gallons of water a day, then let’s fix it!  I know it feels like there are a lot of projects going on and that’s true.  But our buildings and facilities need help; we can’t continue to put band-aids on cracks in our foundation.  Our kids will benefit from a community pool and we should all support Measure UU. 

The city has long been supportive of our district, and when I co-chaired Measures G&H, the city postponed the campaign for a new pool in order to support our campaign. This is the kind of partnership that serves the whole community and is to be commended.

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?

The pandemic and the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others has highlighted the inequities and racism that have become institutionalized in our communities. In schools, from availability of laptops and connectivity to health care to racial injustice, we are seeing the divide as we never have before. 

We must address these issues at the same time that we address issues of safety as we reopen. To simply go back to how things were would be a missed opportunity. We are lucky to have some amazing support groups in Piedmont like the Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee (PADC) and the Piedmont Racial Equity Committee (PREC) that we can collaborate with for solutions to help our neighboring districts. 

We should work with other districts to share information, whether at the classroom level or parent club level. I would also like to explore opportunities for our students to become more actively engaged with students in neighboring districts.

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

Serving as a parent club president presented me with many opportunities to work with parents and support groups.

I have found that listening is always the best place to start and then I try to find common ground. We constantly face competing priorities. For example, through the grant process at PHS, we often faced tough decisions based on student needs and available funds. 

I learned that making sure parents are well-informed was the best way to ensure that all parties understood the outcomes. Information sharing often happens at the micro level. I hosted many parent coffees with administrators, creating an opportunity for parents to be heard and to ask questions, and also for the administration to be heard and provide information. 

We are all committed to providing our students with an excellent education in a safe environment, and these types of gatherings can help ensure that parents, teachers and the administration understand each other.

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

I hope that my previous answers have conveyed this, but I am deeply committed to serving our students and I am excited about the prospect of serving on the school board.   

Contact Hilary Cooper at hilaryforpiedmontschoolboard@gmail.com. Learn more at hilaryforschoolboard.com

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