There will be some new faces looking out from the dais at Menlo Park City School District board meetings starting Dec. 11, the day district parents Sherwin Chen and Scott Saywell begin their terms on the school board.
Both served on the campaign team for the district's most recent parcel tax, Measure X, and both have served on school board and superintendent advisory committees. As members of the Board of Education, both Chen and Saywell want to prioritize fiscal responsibility and maintain high-quality education.
Chen, Saywell and incumbent Stacey Jones were the only candidates for the board's three open seats, so the Nov. 6 board election was automatically canceled. Incumbents Terry Thygesen and Joan Lambert did not run for re-election.
2,932 students enrolled in the district this school year. The district has four schools: Encinal and Laurel School in Atherton, and Hillview Middle School and Oak Knoll School in Menlo Park.
The district opened a preschool this year, which is funded separately from the other schools.
Chen, 46, moved to the district in 2005. He has two children: a fifth-grader at Oak Knoll and an eighth-grader at Hillview. He has an investment background and most recently served as a managing director at a technology investment firm that he helped co-found.
"It's a natural next step for me," he said of becoming a school board member. "I'm incredibly grateful to the district. My kids have had a great experience (in the schools)."
Chen said he has a passion for education and at one time considered becoming a teacher. Joining the board is one way to satisfy that interest, he said.
He also brings his professional training in finance and strategic thinking to the board, he said. He holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and an MBA from Stanford University.
Among Chen's priorities as a board member will be to help the district address the challenges it faces in achieving financial stability with rising pension costs. It's also important, he said, to maintain the district's high academic standards and to maintain a high level of transparency in communicating with the public.
The district is prioritizing teacher compensation, developing a formal philosophy to guide its decision-making in that area. Officials found that 34 percent of teachers and staff who left the district at the end of the 2017-18 school year did so because of long commutes and high cost of living.
"At the end of the day, all the stuff we do only really works if we have great teachers," he said.
Saywell, 45, grew up in Menlo Park's Sharon Heights neighborhood and attended Menlo School. This is his second run for the school board; he first ran in 2016, he said, out of concern that two parcel tax bond measures had failed in May of that year.
"I wanted to get involved so we got on the right track," he said. "I didn't want to start taking steps backward. The parcel tax (failing) pushed me over to run."
Saywell has a bachelor's degree from University of California at Los Angeles and an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He has children in second and fourth grade at Laurel School.
Saywell, who is a senior director of business development at Theravance Biopharma, said his children have received an education that is second to none. The district's community values high-quality, comprehensive education for all students, he said.
"I want to continue to bring the best educational product for all kids in the district and to continue to work on the education gap," he said, referring to a prevailing achievement gap between students from affluent families and underprivileged children.
Saywell said that although the board was fortunate to have three good candidates, a contested election would have brought awareness and attention to the district. During the last contested election, he said, community engagement was high.
He said he is aware that teachers commute long distances because of the high cost of living in this area. Good compensation and allowing teachers' children to attend schools in the district are two ways to address the issue, he said.