Voter guide: Four run for two school board seats in Menlo Park district

New board members will face difficult financial decisions

In May, voters in the Menlo Park City School District failed to approve two parcel tax measures the district said were needed to balance its budget. Now voters have the opportunity to choose two new members of the district's five-member governing board, which faces difficult decisions about the district's future.

Five candidates filed to run for the two board seats that opened up when incumbents Jeff Child and Maria Hilton decided not to run again. On Sept. 23, however, candidate Scott Hinshaw announced that for personal reasons he is withdrawing from the race. His name will appear on the ballot, but he said he cannot serve if he is elected.

Scott Saywell

David Ackerman

Caroline Lucas

Alka Gupta
That leaves four candidates for the two four-year terms: Alka Gupta, Caroline Lucas, David Ackerman and Scott Saywell.

Here is information about each candidate:


Alka Gupta

Age: 46

Civic, volunteer activities: Past board member, Saheli, aiding victims of domestic abuse; early adviser, Pratham Boston, underprivileged children's education in India; past board member, South Asian Leaders of Tomorrow; past chair, TiE mentor program for entrepreneurs.

Involvement in school district: Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation board member, co-president.

Education: B.S., Case Western Reserve University; MBA, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Work: 20 years in consumer internet, payments, and commerce as a business strategist and operator at eBay, Lycos, and startups.

Time in area: 10 years.

Family: 9-year-old son and husband, who works at Cisco.


Ms. Gupta grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, daughter of immigrants and educators who taught her that "anybody can take anything from you, but no one can ever take your education from you," and that "knowledge is power," she said.

That background gives her "a sense of passion and commitment," toward education and the job of serving on the school board, she said.

In addition, Ms. Gupta said, she thinks she has a unique base of experience for the job. Her experience as a board member and co-president of the Menlo-Atherton Education Foundation gives her knowledge about the district, schools and community while her business background gives her experience in applying "fiscal rigor, an understanding of complex organizations and experience in customer engagement (which translates to community relations in the district)."

Ms. Gupta said decisions on how to balance the district's budget need to be "data-driven," and the process needs to be transparent.

She said that if district enrollment continues to grow, as is projected, that "something else will have to give." Increasing revenue, with a parcel tax, will probably be important to preserving the district's educational quality. "I think teacher quality is important," she said. "I think teacher quality is supported by salary."

However, the timing of the recent pay increases and bonus given to district employees is "very unfortunate and not ideal," she said.

"In general, I support adjusting salaries to align with the cost of living index. I look forward to working through budgetary trade-offs with the larger community and staff," she said.


Caroline Lucas

Age: 49

Civic, volunteer activities: Girl Scout leader and current volunteer; Spanish translator in medical clinics, Ravenswood City School District classroom volunteer.

Involvement in school district: Hillview Middle School: Co-founder, service club, volunteer Character Education Program; charter member, MPCSD Project Cornerstone Asset Development Team; classroom volunteer.

Education: Doctorate, educational leadership, University of Southern California; master's in education and Spanish, plus multiple subject teaching credentials, UCLA; bachelor's, Santa Clara University.

Work: 27 years as a public educator as a teacher and teacher coach in school districts and the New Teacher Center.

Time in area: Menlo Park, 17 years; husband's family here since the 1860s.

Family: Two children at Menlo-Atherton High School and husband who all attended MPCSD schools and M-A.


Ms. Lucas, who has been a public critic of some of the district's actions, said as a board member she would push to get the public more actively engaged in board decisions before they are made, not after the fact.

"If I'm elected I'm going to ask the public what they want," she said, suggesting posting videos of meetings, holding more town hall meetings and using more interactive surveys.

"It's kind of shifting from dictation to the public, to cooperation with the public," she said. "What would it be like to ask -- to really hear?" she asked.

With regard to putting another parcel tax measure on the ballot, she said: "I would need to feel like the public endorsed" whatever is put forward. "It's not really about what I want," she said. "If elected I'm there to represent in the true sense what the voters want."

Ms. Lucas said there are "creative ways" to decrease the district's spending without inflating class sizes, such as having classes in music or art less often. "Our means may force us to make some choices," she said. "It may mean class sizes go up a little bit."

She also said that the teachers' compensation package needs to be looked at. She recently worked two years in the Portola Valley School District, where teachers only get raises if they can show they have met performance standards. "I taught in a pay for performance district and I loved it," she said. Salary "is not the only factor" in attracting teachers," she said.

Ms. Lucas said that she disagrees with the timing of recent district salary increases and bonuses. "Perhaps postponing a vote on the increases until a fiscally responsible five-year budget was in place, in addition to providing more long-term security for the teachers, would have built some good will and support with the citizens," she said. "Their support is needed to establish long-term financial stability."


David Ackerman

Age: 70

Civic, volunteer activities: For 15 years as a Menlo Park district principal, involved in almost all school-related Oak Knoll and district-sponsored community activities.

Involvement in school district: Principal, Encinal School, 2000 to 2002; principal, Oak Knoll School, 2002-2015; served on major planning and problem solving district-level committees and chaired and led school-level committees.

Education: Master's degree in education

Work background: 45 years in education (15 as teacher and 30 as principal in four states and diverse schools and communities).

Time in area:San Mateo County, 15 years; Menlo Park, since February 2016.

Family: Three children (two are teachers) and seven grandchildren. Partner is a librarian in the school district.

Website: None.

Mr. Ackerman said he was inspired to run for the school board after the parcel taxes failed in May. He was "stunned" by the loss, he said.

"I thought I had a lot to offer," he said, including knowledge of how schools run and how principals and teachers think, and about the district community.

"I think there's a lack of inspiration in terms of leadership of the school district," he said. "I think there needs to be a refocus on what it's all about," which is students and teachers, he said.

What the community needs to know to support the schools is more than facts and figures about the budget, he said. "I think that's only part of the story. The other part is emotion and inspiration," he said.

"What are our dreams for our kids what is our dream for our community?" he asked. "I think that part was entirely missing from the parcel tax campaign."

Mr. Ackerman said he has been asked if he would have a conflict of interest in negotiating compensation for district staff, since his partner is a district librarian.

It turns out, however, that the California Fair Political Practices Commission says that a public official does not need to recuse himself from a decision that affects the compensation of himself or a relative as long as the change affects a whole class of people, not just the specific employee.

Mr. Ackerman said that while he would have voted to give the district's employees the recent salary increases and bonus they were given, he questions some of the district's negotiating tactics, including that the district was negotiating the 2015-16 contract after the school year had already ended. He said the fact that the district has a high level of reserves also puts it at a disadvantage when negotiating.

However, he said, "we cannot expect our teachers to love, protect, and educate our children and grandchildren and then ask that they bear the burden of balancing the districts' budget by sacrificing their own family's financial well-being."


Scott Saywell

Age: 43

Civic, volunteer activities: Coach, AMA softball.

Involvement in school district: President, Laurel School Site Council; member, extended Visioning Committee for Laurel School; classroom volunteer; STEAM Fair volunteer.

Education: Phillips Brooks elementary school, Menlo School; Bachelor's degree, physiological science, UCLA; MBA, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Work: Biotechnology professional with 20 years of experience in business development, marketing, and operations.

Lived in area: Grew up in Menlo Park, lived in the Willows for past 12 years.

Family: Two children in kindergarten and second grade at Laurel School. Wife Marianne Cooper, who grew up in Lindenwood and attended Laurel, Encinal, and Menlo-Atherton.


Mr. Saywell, who grew up in Menlo Park, said he thinks the quality of its school districts "are a big reason why the community is what it is," and he would like that to continue. "I want to keep it good, and I want to keep it on the trajectory that it's at."

His involvement in the schools has given him "a great perspective into how the school operates," he said.

He also plans to be around for a long time. "We plan this to be our home forever," he said. "I think that gives me a vested interest."

He said he felt that serving on the board "is something that I would really enjoy doing that is really important to me (and) that would benefit the community."

Mr. Saywell said his perspective is that the board in making its decisions should keep in mind their effects on students. "I view this as we're providing a product to our customers," he said, and "our customers are the kids."

"To me," he said, "it's all about ... providing the best possible environment for our kids to succeed."

Passing a new parcel tax measure is vital, he said. "I don't see a whole lot of excess spending going on," he said. Passing a new parcel tax measure needs to happen in partnership with the broader community not just the school community, he added.

"I think there's a perception of a lack of transparency and clear communication," he said. Residents need to know the results of spending their money. "There's no dialogue like that with the community," he said.

"I will support working together with the community to come up with a solution that will work for everybody."

Mr. Saywell said he agrees with the board's action on salary increases. "Increasing salaries by 2.5 percent barely maintains pay in an area with a high and rising cost of living," he said. "I see the school board's modest increase in employee pay for 2014-2017 as an action that any organization in this area should take if it wants to retain top talent in a competitive labor market."

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