Seven candidates have pulled papers, to date, in the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education race, including one incumbent and six newcomers.
The terms of trustees Sharifa Wilson and Marielena Gaona Mendoza are ending in November. Wilson confirmed she is not running for reelection after 12 years on the board, while Gaona Mendoza plans to run for a second term.
Wilson said "it's time for some new blood" on the school board and that she hopes to see more young people run for local office in East Palo Alto.
"It's time for the younger people to step up and serve in public office in this community. East Palo Alto (has) had a long tradition of community engagement and community involvement," Wilson said. "I want to make sure that that continues to happen."
Below is information about each of the candidates.
Bronwyn Alexander left her longtime job at Belle Haven Elementary School in Menlo Park last year so she could run for a school board seat in this election.
Alexander, a teacher since 1992, has worked in Ravenswood since the early 2000s, first as a teacher, then an instructional coach in science, math and reading. The administrative role provided her with a taste of having influence over more than just one classroom of students each year, and her concerns about how the district was operating at the time motivated her to make a bid for school board, she said in an interview. In 2018, she was among the teachers, parents and community members who rallied against renewing the contract of former Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff.
"I didn't like the way it seemed that students and teachers seemed to be the last thing on the school board's mind, not the first. I decided I wanted to have more influence," Alexander said.
Alexander now works as a language and literacy specialist in the San Mateo-Foster City School District.
She's running on a slate with Joel Rivera, a construction labor manager and husband of a Ravenswood teacher. The Ravenswood teachers union has endorsed both of them.
She said the K-8 district, now under a new superintendent, has made progress in improving communication and transparency. But she wants to see improvement in other areas, including teacher retention, equity and environmental sustainability.
If elected, she said she'd prioritize increasing teacher pay to reduce turnover. At Belle Haven, she said she once heard a student tell a new teacher, "Why do I have to remember your name? You won't be here next year anyway."
"Teachers in Ravenswood do a serious amount of work outside their contract hours, and we're one of the lowest compensated districts in the area still," she said. Increasing stability among teachers also helps build relationships and connections with students and families, she said.
One of Ravenswood's most pressing issues is years of sharply declining enrollment and a corresponding decline in state funding. Alexander said she would push for bringing more students into Ravenswood by communicating about the improvements the district has made in recent years, from makerspaces at all of the schools and a dual-immersion program.
"Too many Ravenswood students are attending the Tinsley program, which I am adamantly against, and too many of our students are choosing to go to charter schools or to private schools in the area," she said. "We need every single Ravenswood student to start attending Ravenswood schools again."
Whoever is elected to the board in November will be doing so at a time of great uncertainty for schools in the age of COVID-19, with local districts starting the school year completely online and no sure timeline for when they will be able to reopen.
Alexander said the board must stay on top of maintaining connections between students, families and teachers as well as addressing inequities in students' home environments, from technology to simply having a quiet space to learn.
"I think the most important thing is to make sure that the kids continue to learn, that we don't end up with a year and half of summer slide because our students especially can't afford that," she said. "It has to be coming from the top down how to make sure that our students continue to learn."
Jenny Varghese Bloom
Jenny Varghese Bloom, a college admissions counselor at Insight Education, said she wanted to run for school board because she offers "another experienced and dynamic voice." It's also a personal choice: Her daughter is a Ravenswood kindergartener and her son attends the district's preschool.
"East Palo Alto is our community and our children have always been in care and education here. I believe that my perspective and ability to connect with others will complement the existing board," she wrote in an email.
Varghese Bloom, who grew up in Texas, has worked as a college student mentor, community college assistant instructor, legal assistant and college counselor. She holds a bachelor's degree in human development family sciences with a focus on child development from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's degree in early childhood education from Loyola Marymount University.
At Insight Education, she helps high schoolers and their parents navigate the college admissions process.
"I bring to the table my experience across an expanse of fields within education which can inform and help discern best practices moving forward," she said.
Varghese Bloom said her priorities, if elected to the school board, include focusing on better preparing Ravenswood students for high school -- an area she knows well through her work as a college counselor -- and listening to input from parents, students and teachers.
The greatest challenge facing the K-8 district, from her perspective, is financial.
"I know that it has been a building season for the board with reassessing budgets and making sure that resources are allocated well to fund schools and teachers. I think that is something that will continue to be a challenge in Ravenswood," she said.
With two schools closing in the fall and students at the merged campuses starting the new year remotely, building "a sense of community and support" among families will also be crucial to focus on this year, she added. She wants the district to continue hosting virtual town halls at least once a month to keep parents informed and connected.
Zeb Feldman said he wants to bring his expertise as a labor contract negotiator to the Ravenswood City School District. He currently represents managers, administrators and supervisors who belong to the Santa Clara County Employees Management Association Operating Engineers Local 3.
He said he was approached by friends, mentors and "local politicians" to run for a seat on the school board.
"Professionally and personally I'm accustomed to stitching together diverse coalitions and finding a common cause. There's been some acrimony and controversy in Ravenswood recently. I'm really looking to bring some professionalism, budget research and expertise and contact negotiations understanding" to the board, he said in an interview.
Feldman, who has lived in East Palo Alto for 11 years, attended public schools in Menlo Park and graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School. Looking back, he said he's struck by the funding disparities between a Basic Aid district like Menlo Park and Ravenswood, which relies heavily on state funding rather than local property taxes. He said he wants to look into obtaining a "Basic Aid equivalent designation" for Ravenswood and offered that as an example of why he thinks people asked him to run for office: "They've seen me bring a fresh view and creative solutions to previously intractable problems."
One of the biggest challenges facing Ravenswood, he said, is hiring and retaining quality employees, including both teachers and staff such as janitors, guidance counselors and bus drivers.
"I think we can only do that by being more competitive in terms of our pay compensation and of course that means we have to have the economics to back that up," he said, suggesting that the district tap local "patrons" such as Facebook, Google and Stanford University to help bridge funding gaps. He also sees opportunities to partner with more affluent neighboring districts for "mutual" fundraising.
"I'm really looking for innovative ways to keep our property taxes more localized and to partner with fundraisers," he said.
Feldman described himself as an expert in public proceedings — well-versed in California's open-meeting law, the Brown Act, and Robert's Rules of Order, a set of parliamentary rules for meeting conduct — as well as in reading budgets, negotiating contracts and navigating management-labor relations.
"I think that is a needed perspective," he said. "I'm really just hoping to bring technical expertise on those items to the table and then understand the needs and desires of the community and the students as well as staff."
Marielena Gaona Mendoza
Marielena Gaona Mendoza, first elected in 2016, said the district has improved under new leadership "but we are not there yet."
"I want to continue to advocate for a better education for our students so parents are not forced to take their children to other school districts, charters, or private schools in order to have access to excellent education and a safe learning environment," she said.
Gaona Mendoza works as a special education teacher in the Redwood City School District. She has served during a tumultuous time in Ravenswood, including a budget deficit, the forced resignation of Hernandez-Goff, the departure of other top administrators, the closing of two elementary schools and the eventual, permanent hiring of Superintendent Gina Sudaria.
Gaona Mendoza said she was most proud of increasing accessibility as a board member and a "strong commitment to the values of transparency and fiscal responsibility in government and listening to community concerns which resulted in the departure of (the) previous superintendent."
Gaona Mendoza cast the sole dissenting vote against renewing Hernandez-Goff's contract in 2018, and the next year voted to place her on paid leave.
Gaona Mendoza said she also advocated for special education students, including changing the way they were being restrained in classrooms, and worked to address safety issues at Ravenswood's new comprehensive middle school, including hiring more custodians, yard duties personnel and an extra vice principal to respond to student fights, the pulling of fire alarms and students skipping classes.
Gaona Mendoza's top campaign priorities include equity and the digital divide, including mandating technology training for teachers and offering technology help to parents to increase students' success with distance learning.
"Most of our parents hold one or two jobs in order to make (ends) met and have no time or the means to provide support or supervision to their children during at-home learning. Therefore, we need to provide them with technology training and provide a safe and supportive place where students can be supervised and get support with their school assignment. This is a must if we want to narrow the academic achievement (gap)," Gaona Mendoza said.
Gaona Mendoza was the top vote-getter in 2016, winning 36.3% of the vote.
Julian Alberto Garcia
Julian Garcia, a graduate and former employee of the Ravenswood City School District, is making a second bid for a seat on the school board. He ran in 2016 on a slate with parent Nicole Sbragia. His campaign slogan was "leading from the grassroots," an alternative to the then leadership status quo in Ravenswood.
He did not respond to an interview request for this article.
Mele K. Latu
Growing up in East Palo Alto and Redwood City, Mele K. Latu said she "always knew that I wanted to help people, I just didn't know how or in what capacity." Her bid for school board is an extension of that early desire, she said.
Latu attended Clifford School in Redwood City and graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School in 2009. After attending college in Miami, she traveled abroad for a year and then returned to work in East Palo Alto. For four years, she worked for One East Palo Alto on the nonprofit's behavior health advisory group ambassador team, which advocates for and supports mental health in the community including through a project that worked to provide culturally competent crisis support to middle school students who experience trauma as a result of violent crime in East Palo Alto.
In that role, she worked directly with students at Ronald McNair Academy, Cesar Chavez Academy and the Ravenswood Middle School.
Latu, who is Pacific Islander, said students often told her "it's rare that we see someone from East Palo Alto that works here and doesn't work as a security guard or a janitor."
"They felt like there was a connection," she said. "For them to see someone who looks like them, who talks like them, who lives down the street from them to be able to do what I've been able to do was inspiring to them."
Latu now works as a community collaboration manager for the Emerson Collective, the social change organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs. She works at the organization's Bloomhouse site in East Palo Alto, which is "part of the long-term vision for Emerson Collective to partner with the local community in creating the future of the East Palo Alto waterfront," its website reads. (Bloomhouse is physically closed due to the coronavirus shutdown but still providing virtual services.)
If elected to the school board, Latu said she would focus on creating "togetherness" in a district that's gone through leadership transitions, financial upheaval and is threatened by outside forces of gentrification and housing affordability. She pointed to her "network and rapport within the community" as a source for building stronger relationships in the district.
Similarly, she said she's committed to being an accessible official who prioritizes communication. She said the district should be developing a COVID-19 version of its long-term strategic plan.
"What is education going to look like post-COVID and how are we going to be able to maneuver that? It's not just about planning for this year but the following year and the year after that," she said.
Latu also advocated for incorporating more East Palo Alto history — including how the city was incorporated and its deep-rooted legacy of activism and community engagement — into Ravenswood curriculum to combat negative stereotypes of the community. This kind of curriculum would "show our young people that East Palo Alto is more than the stigma" often affiliated with the city," she said.
Joel Rivera became a U.S. citizen so he could run for a seat on the Ravenswood school board this fall.
Rivera immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a young child, was raised in San Francisco and moved in 2000 to East Palo Alto, his wife's hometown. He wanted to run in the 2016 school board but was a U.S. resident, not yet a citizen, at the time, so he couldn't run. This year, he became a U.S. citizen.
Rivera has worked for 20 years in the construction industry, including as a foreman, assistant superintendent and superintendent. He currently works as a labor manager for Nibbi Brothers General Contractors in San Francisco.
He said he was motivated to run by watching the amount of time and effort his wife, Jesusita Rivera, a fifth-grade teacher at Costaño Elementary School, puts into her job outside of school hours and requirements. He recalled watching her stay up late one night to write grants to fund a field trip, wondering why there weren't established systems in place to address a funding need that in many districts would be a given.
"It brought me back to my construction background. When we have needs, we go to people who specialize in (them). We won't bog down folks that are better skilled at certain areas," he said. "It frustrated me. That's not fair."
Rivera's two children attend the Menlo Park City School District through the Voluntary Transfer Program, or Tinsley program.
"Some of the sad truths of our neighborhoods is that our kids grow up a little too fast, a lot too fast sometimes," he said of their decision to not send their children to Ravenswood schools.
Rivera said he wants to fight the very trend his own children are a part of: the increasing number of students who live in East Palo Alto or east Menlo Park but don't attend district schools there.
If elected, he said he would focus on increasing engagement among working parents so that it's the "default, not an exception."
"It's not the norm in our area for parents to participate on a regular basis. They can't — long hours, two jobs, multiple people working and a lot of them are intimidated by the language barrier," Rivera said. "That's one of my goals — to have it feel regular, comfortable."
Rivera, as both a parent and the spouse of a teacher, witnessed firsthand the challenges of distance learning when schools closed in the spring. For his children, it was a state of "survival," he said.
But when it comes to reopening schools, health and safety should come first, he said.
"We're asking for really negative results if we try to have kids go back before it's safe to do so, even with the challenges of remote teaching," he said.