Despite the fact that the Menlo Park City School District recently came out on the losing end of a sometimes contentious campaign to gain approval for two parcel taxes, and that board members may soon find themselves making some difficult budget decisions, a dozen people showed up at a June 1 information night for potential school board candidates.
The terms of board members Jeff Child, currently the board president, and Maria Hilton, end in December. Neither has yet announced whether a re-election bid is planned.
Some of those in the audience asked questions related to the recent campaign.
"I was gobsmacked at the level of vitriol" and incorrect information that was posted online, including the Almanac's Town Square forum, one person said. "It seems like there's now a place (online) for everybody who's got a sharp knife for the district," she said.
"Do you all see a way out of this going forward?" the speaker asked.
Another woman had an even more pointed question: "Has this become an impossible job?"
Board member Stacey Jones, who provided information along with fellow board member Joan Lambert, said board members "have to have a thick skin. I think you have to take anonymous attacks with a grain of salt."
As for "people with other agendas," she said, "I don't let them bother me. I'm here for the kids."
She likened the anonymous comments to a painful aspect of her middle school, "slam books," in which students anonymously wrote critiques of their fellow students and passed them on. "It's the new adult version of slam books," she said.
Ms. Lambert said that anonymous forums give people a license to say things they wouldn't say if their names were attached. "I think that's just the world we live in," she said. People distrust the government, and "I think we are a part of it because we are a government entity," she said.
Other than a thick skin, the requirements to become a candidate for the unpaid four-year board term are fairly liberal, the board members said.
"Anyone can be a school board member," said Ms. Lambert. Board members need only reside in the school district, and be at least 18 years old and a registered voter, she said. District employees cannot be school board members in the district they work for, she said
In response to a question, Ms. Lambert said that three current board members have children who previously were in the district, and two others are parents of current students. However, she said, "it honestly doesn't matter if you're a current parent or not," she said.
Ms. Lambert said the Menlo Park district's board has spent a lot of time in recent years looking at the district's mission, core values and guiding principles. This direction is "really the main job of the school board," she said, along with hiring and managing the superintendent.
"We have to set the policies and the direction for the district," but then the board must trust the superintendent to carry them out, she said. The board also has the final say on textbooks and curriculum standards, receiving recommendations by the district's educators, she said.
Ms. Jones said the board members must do a lot of preparation for meetings, often over weekends. "We come to meetings prepared and we try to be as knowledgeable as we can," she said. "It is a lot of study and a lot of reading."
Ms. Lambert said board members also must listen to their constituents. "We are the voice of the community," she said, and board members must figure out how to best resolve concerns brought to them.
The time commitment was a concern of some of those in the audience. "If you had a paid job that was full time, could you do this?" one person asked.
Ms. Jones said she has three children between ages 8 and 12 and works part time but is looking for a full-time job. She added that she is "not concerned" that she won't be able to handle being a board member while working full time. "We work really hard to find times that we can all meet," she said.
Ms. Lambert said board members need to attend one or two board meetings per month, serve as liaison to one of the district's schools, serve on at least one board committee, and attend events representing the district.
Audience members asked the two trustees why they had joined the board and what have they accomplished.
Ms. Lambert said she grew up with a mother who was an educator and a sister who is a teacher. While trained as an attorney, she was attracted to working in the schools and did a number of volunteer jobs before taking on the school board, she said.
She said she is proud that she helped to change the district's school lunch program so students who receive free or reduced-price lunches get the same meals as all other students, and also for helping to expand the summer school program to include incoming kindergartners who need extra help.
"Though (board members) work as a team, if someone has a good idea and brings it to the team, people are generally supportive," she said.
Ms. Jones said she also grew up with a parent who was an educator and volunteered in the schools. "It seemed like a logical next step," she said.
While she is only in her first board term, Ms. Jones said, she has "enjoyed, honestly, watching the minds of my fellow board members work," often coming from different directions but still reaching consensus.
The filing period for candidates is July 18 to Aug. 12, with candidate information sessions run by the county on July 13 and 21.
The two board members invited anyone with more questions to email them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.