This editorial was published in the Oct. 21, 2009, issue of The Almanac.
With the seats of retiring members Sally Stewart and Gordon Lewin certain to be filled by newcomers, voters have a rare chance to bring a fresh approach to the strategic direction of the Sequoia Union High School District.
The openings come as the district is facing major challenges in funding, due to flat or declining property values, and state finances in the tank.
In addition, the new board must address an above-average dropout rate at a time when earning a high school diploma is critical if students hope to find even the most menial job and become contributing members of society.
Then there is the yearlong struggle with Everest, a new sister charter school to the highly successful Summit Preparatory Charter High School, and seen as a threat by district Superintendent Pat Gemma and some board members.
In our view, this is the district's major issue at this time. The district's attempt to frustrate Everest's grass-roots support has wasted resources, including probably several hundred thousand dollars in a court fight with Everest that should not have been necessary. The district must face up to charter schools and develop a strategy that collaborates with them and can address petitions for more charter schools that will come, given the long waiting lists for entry into Summit Prep and Everest.
Eight candidates are running for two openings on the Sequoia board. The winners and their colleagues will oversee a $100 million-a-year budget in a district that serves more than 8,000 students.
After interviews with the six active candidates, Chris Thomsen of Menlo Park and Bob Ferrando of Atherton clearly stand out as the most qualified to resolve the debilitating charter school stand-off. Both have children in Summit Prep. Mr. Thomsen also has a son at Menlo-Atherton High School and Mr. Ferrando has a daughter at Encinal Elementary School. Both candidates have solid administrative and financial credentials, skills that are badly needed on the Sequoia board today.
Mr. Thomsen, a former biotech entrepreneur and now the executive director of Stanford University's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, has a wealth of educational experience. He knows how organizations work and how to bring about change when necessary.
Besides making it a board priority to address the district's 27 percent dropout rate (compared with 21 percent statewide), Mr. Thomsen would work to develop a budget that could track expenditures by program and by school, something that has not been done to date.
To heal the charter rift, Mr. Thomsen said he would work toward having comprehensive schools such as Menlo-Atherton and Woodside meet the needs of students who would otherwise consider charter schools. With a child in both camps, Mr. Thomsen views himself as a candidate who can bridge the gap between the two institutions.
Mr. Ferrando is the chief financial officer for a Bay Area roofing company. He said he would bring a private sector view to the job, in part by supporting a move to program-based budgeting and by recognizing charter schools as investments that appear to be giving good value for the dollars spent.
The district, he said, also needs to provide more opportunities in technical education because the "reality is not everybody is college bound." People in technical careers also need to be articulate, tech-savvy critical thinkers, he said.
When comparing charter schools with the district's comprehensive schools, Mr. Fernando said diversity is the key, and charters offer a vital and popular alternative. The student owns the money for his or her schooling, not the district, he noted, and the district should embrace Summit and Everest.
The Almanac urges voters to elect Chris Thomsen and Bob Ferrando to bring a wide-ranging and valuable set of skills to the Sequoia board.