LWV school board forum shines light on issues

Havens Elementary School

The five candidates for the Piedmont Unified School District Board of Education faced off on October 8 in an online forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

Veronica Anderson Thigpen, Hilary Cooper, Jason Kelley, incumbent Cory Smegal and Harry Titan discussed several key issues. Nancy Beninati hosted the forum. Election Day is November 3. All registered voters in Piedmont are being sent a Vote By Mail ballot.

Candidates were given two minutes for an opening statement and one minute each to answer questions from Beninati. The speaking order was random and the order rotated on each question.

The first question was how Piedmont schools can make the school environment welcome and safe for students from marginalized groups.

Smegal said listening is key. “Until we can understand the problem, until we can identify the causes of this feeling of marginalization and why students are not feeling included, it’s hard to provide solutions.”

Said Titan, “The goal is to diversify the teacher and staff community to include more minority

members. I think having more adults who are in a position of authority, who may belong to the same protected class that the child is experiencing being isolated from, then they can see that there are adults out there who will protect them and look out for their interests.”

Cooper said the school board needs to listen to students. “I also think the mentor program that the Black Student Union and the Asian American Association started at Havens is a really wonderful example of reaching out to our students to make sure that they have role models that look like them and share similar culture that they can feel like their voices are heard and have somebody to lean on,” she said.

Anderson Thigpen suggested adopting, “a K-12 anti-racism curriculum. This would be a way to

convey information to students throughout the district. It would also be something that teachers would get training in so they would also learn more about anti racism and what students would need to know.” She also said the District should create spaces, “would feel inclusive and welcoming for students of color and where they could meet up and feel a sense of community.”

Kelley started with a personal reaction. “I know what it’s like to feel marginalized in Piedmont schools,” he said. “As a gay kid in the 1980s, I felt very alone. And I really wish I had a teacher or other adults to connect with and talk with about that.” Kelley said diversifying the staff should be a priority and added, “finding ways to partner with neighboring districts, perhaps in extracurriculars and other activities so that our kids have a chance to interact with a broad range of other students.”

School reopening was the next topic. The current board recently voted to re-open schools in phase with special education students and K-2 students returning to in person classes first. Candidates were asked if they supported the vote and Smegal was asked to explain her vote in support. All said they supported the vote.

“I think risk is a very individual thing for individual students as well as households,” Titan said. “It’s not the same risk for everyone as teachers have been saying in their negotiations with the school district. Giving parents this choice, parental choice between 100 percent distance learning and hybrid in classroom instruction is the right way to go. Parents and families know what’s best for them and this will allow this flexibility that is sorely needed right now.”

Cooper noted the return of secondary school students will take longer. “I hope that the District will look at some kind of creative way to get those kids out in some kind of small group or pod or cohort where they can meet with wellness center counselors or some kind of teacher to just share feelings about how they’re doing,” Cooper said. 

Anderson Thigpen said, “Everyone is eager to have our students get back to school and get back to school safely and I definitely agree with the approach of phasing it in and bringing in our youngest students first and making sure that our students that have learning differences also get to go back to school first. We just want to make sure that we keep communicating with parents and families.”

Kelley said consulting with public health experts, educators, and parents was key to finding a consensus on how to move forward. “It’s not going to be perfect but I truly believe everyone is doing their best.”

Smegal thanked the other candidates for supporting the decision to reopen. “We have been planning for the entire summer on how to bring our students back safely,” Smegal said. “The board has met, not only in our regular meetings but in nine or 10 special board meetings to talk about reopening. When Alameda County gave the green light to do this phased reopening we were ready.”

The next topic was whether to continue to have a uniformed police officer on campus. 

“This is a complicated one,” Cooper said. “I think it goes back to honoring and listening to the children who stood up and said this isn’t something that we want on campus. What I would like to see is a mentor position. Someone who can be there for the kids rather than a uniformed police officer. I would rather have this be part of a Wellness Center program or an outreach where this person is providing advice and guidance to our students rather than looking like some kind of security measure that we put on campus where definitely the BIPOC students did not feel comfortable with that.”

Anderson Thigpen said the focus should be on wellness and using Wellness Center resources to tackle these issues. “These funds [the federal grant for the current juvenile liaison officer position] come from a pot of money that is focused on getting kids to not use tobacco products and smoke. “Recently, the Wellness Center, to address the needs of distance learning and COVID and kids feeling isolated, started lunchtime drop-in appointments.”

Kelley noted that this is part of a broader conversation.“What’s appropriate work for police to be doing and what can be handled better by other professionals with other experiences and other skills,” he said. “I would agree that especially listening to the kids that feel perhaps most vulnerable when uniformed police are around and pushing this toward a wellness-focused position is the way that we should explore go forward.”

Said Smegal, “The whole proposal started out as a more traditional school resource officer which was modified. It kind of went through this evolution. We really tried to reach this compromise in terms of this juvenile liaison officer. We have a strong partnership between the city and the schools in serving the needs of the students. We need to work to expand our mental health capacity. This grant does not really fit that need. And it’s my understanding we won’t be pursuing it again.”

Titan suggested the officer may still be needed to ensure compliance with masking and other safety protocols. “If we encounter children that perhaps are not following guidance they may need to be escorted off campus. We may find that we could use a school resource person. So I would want to see what the options are and what the needs are more carefully in this new environment that we’re dealing with before making a decision.”

The final question was what is the biggest challenge the PUSD Board will face in coming years.

Anderson Thigpen cited the pandemic and the consequences on the school district’s budget. “I think that we’re to have to make some tough decisions,” she said.

Kelley agreed. He added, “I also would like to see the board work on expanding the opportunities for students who are outside of the norm on either end of that spectrum,

both the special ed kids and advanced learners. They have a lot of commonalities in the services that they need. Early identification, curriculum differentiations, regular reevaluations. Making sure those kids are served best is a priority as well.”

Smegal mentioned the reopening of school and the budget as well.“But even prior to the pandemic, we really do need to focus on our students social and emotional needs

and their mental health,” Smegal said. “We had some challenges prior to the pandemic, and the

pandemic has really exacerbated that.”

Titan concurred. “I would add that I would also be trying to look at the learning loss, trying to measure it, make sure that we’re fair between hybrid and 100 percent distance learning kids,”: he said. “I would like to look at the outcome after post- graduation. I do still care about how well students are doing as far as applying to colleges and getting into the colleges of their choice. Especially since SAT and ACT exams are not being considered by a lot of colleges right now, I would want to make sure that our students have the best chance of success, the ones that are applying to four-year programs.”

Cooper said the school board being able to innovate and collaborate would be paramount.

“We have such an amazing talent pool in this community,” she said. “When we’re faced with the challenges that we are from the pandemic and opening schools safely to learning loss to the social and emotional well being of our children to trying to rectify the racial inequities that have occurred. I just think we’re going to have to be open minded and be willing to think really outside the box and what things are really going to look like, from flip classrooms to high school looking more like college.”

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