Megan Pillsbury and Amal Smith will participate in their final Piedmont Unified School District Board of Education meeting on Dec. 14. The two members have combined for nearly 13 years on the Board.
Smith was elected in February 2014, prior to elections being moved to November. She has termed out of office. Pillsbury served one four-year term and has retired to Inverness and did not run again this November.
The obvious event to discuss with the outgoing members is the COVID-19 pandemic — coping with school closures, online learning, health and safety, learning loss, and emotional well-being of students and staff.
“There was never a right answer,” Smith said.
Said Pillsbury, “I think there’s always an opportunity to look back and think of what we could have done or should have done. Most of those are not really regrets. Thoughts of what we could have done differently are based on what we know now. We have a better understanding of what we could do to stay safe than we did at the time.”
Smith had a split answer on how the PUSD handled the pandemic.
“How did we do? Not as well as I’d have liked,” she said. “I think we did the best we could in any given moment given all the fluidity and changes we had to deal with. In hindsight, there are a lot of things I think we could have done different. But I think people forget the abject fear that went through the community. It was a blur. It feels like it was a constant churn in terms of trying to come up with strategies and processes and trying to address the needs of everybody, holistically and individually.”
The very start of the pandemic exposed how impossible it was to know what would come next.
“I have a very distinct memory of the meeting we had on Friday, March 13,” she said. “We’re going to close for two weeks. And having parents stand up and say you can’t close until you tell us when you’re going to open again. Then the world just blew up.”
Pillsbury saw what happened in Piedmont during the pandemic in the context of what was going on across the United States.
“I feel what we experienced in our district over the last three years has been a microcosm of what’s happening across the nation,” she said. “We have a small segment of our population who have extremist views and are very vocal. We have a strong group that responded to the George Floyd murder and have been working hard to make some changes in response. We developed an anti-racist board policy. We had groups of students from the high school lobby for more work for social justice.”
Smith has worked for the University of California for years. She is currently the associate dean for financial affairs for the School of Medicine at UCSF. She had been volunteering for the District for years before running for school board. She said she originally felt her background in higher education would be a good match for the Board.
“All of that is thinking that I had some knowledge base that I could share and use with the work that goes on in the district,” Smith said.
A priority for Smith was the emotional well-being of students, including dealing with issues such as consent and assault.
“I did want to do work around giving our students education and agency around their health decisions,” she said. “To understand what’s happening in terms of what they want and don’t want. A model of sexual education like what happens in places like the Netherlands. I think our students are learning more lessons in that area that are more age-appropriate.”
Pillsbury is a former teacher in Piedmont and that was a motivating factor for her running in 2018.
“The teacher perspective was not present on the board when I decided to run,” said Pillsbury. “I know in having spoken with other board members that they valued the insights I had on education. They valued the insights I had because of the connections I had with teachers. I don’t know if it swayed any voters.”
Smith will continue to work at UCSF. She is 61 and not retiring yet. She said PUSD can do a better job of communicating going forward although sometimes it can be difficult to please everyone.
“What does communication and community participation look like,” she asked. “Very few decisions are made without input from work groups or task forces or whatever you want to call them. They are advisory — not decision makers. I think there’s a high level of frustration from people who participate, that they are in an advisory role. I think that translates into a feeling of a lack of transparency.”
Pillsbury is 66 and looking forward to retirement near Point Reyes.
“I feel a little bit guilty not running for another term because I really liked being able to provide a teacher’s perspective,” she said. “It’s important to lobby our school board members to get more connected to the different school sites and ask questions of educators and school administrators because I feel it’s just easy to sit in the board meetings and read papers but not really delve deep. Our teachers who are actually on the front lines can provide so much information.”
Both said they will miss the people they worked with in the District — parents, teachers, administrator, students.
“It really has been an honor to serve on the school board and I have been so lucky to work with the board members I served with, and with the educators and the community who really want to create a vibrant and stimulating educational system to serve our kids,” Smith said. “Even where we disagree, we have been so respectful.”