In the Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) school board race, there are three candidates running for two open seats: incumbent David Ackerman and district parents Francesca Segrè, a communications professional, and Robert Maclay.
Ackerman, the former principal of Oak Knoll and Encinal schools, has been on the school board for four years. Ackerman has endorsed Segrè, a former journalist who applied for appointment to an open school board seat last fall. Maclay is a district parent whose children attend Oak Knoll.
How to safely reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic is among the challenges facing district officials this school year. San Mateo County granted the district a waiver at the end of September to reopen classrooms for in-person learning, starting with kindergarten and first grade classes. The rest of the grades will be incrementally resuming in-person learning over the coming weeks.
At the same time, district officials have been tackling how to address a persistent achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Another major topic of importance is if the district will renew or replace a parcel tax that district staff has said is only a "temporary solution" to the district's financial woes. Measure X, the parcel tax that passed in 2017 with an initial rate of $360 per parcel, will expire in 2024.
The Almanac asked candidates about all these issues and more via questionnaires.
Maclay said he wants to bring his leadership skills, which includes helping lead information technology at Stanford Healthcare, to the board as the community faces "unprecedented challenges" during the pandemic.
Maclay, a parent to a kindergartner and a third grader at Oak Knoll Elementary School, said many Otters may recognize him as a volunteer for the hot lunch program.
His top three priorities as a school board member would be to reopen schools safely for staff and students; build trust in the community that their children will receive the highest quality of education in the district; and ensure funding levels to ensure the high quality of education in the future.
Maclay said virtual learning has been a "mixed bag," with some students adapting and others not able to focus on screens the entire day.
Virtual learning has put new strains on families, especially for those with younger children and those with IEPs (individual education program plans for special education students), he said. "The district is still adapting to our new reality and working hard to make virtual learning work."
Maclay supported the move back to classrooms, saying he believes in the science that children learn better in person.
"I must give credit to the amazing teachers and principals in the district who have overcome every obstacle to make the new school year start as well as it did," he said on his campaign website. "I recognize the start of this school year was not normal, nor ideal, but everyone has come together and made the best of it. The theme for this school year is adaptation and the district has worked to adapt as fast as possible."
Enrolling more students in preschool is one way to help address the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, Maclay said. Many studies show early learning is critical for children.
He encourages continued investment in the district's Early Learning Center as one of the responses to the achievement gap. "With the pandemic there has been a dramatic impact to public finances, which has already impacted the budget of Menlo Park and caused cuts to many programs such as the Menlo Park Children's Center," he said.
The district will need to partner with other organizations, such as the city of Menlo Park and local employers, on its programs to help close that gap, he said.
Measure X will need to be renewed or replaced to maintain the district's current budget, he said.
"Measure X was supported by 80% of voters in the district, which speaks to the commitment the community has to our schools," he said.
He will host a virtual meet and greet on Oct. 21 from 7 to 8 p.m. here.
Maclay did not solicit endorsements.
With a resume that includes reporting for KQED, the New York Times and Reuters, and experience as a parent, active member of the school community and public policy professional, Segrè said she is well-equipped to serve on the school board.
With two children in the district, Segrè hears about the struggles and successes with distance learning, the uncertainty of returning to campus, and the emotional impacts of socially distant living firsthand, she said. Segrè's mother also lives in Menlo Park, so as a board member, she would be invested in making choices that consider the health and safety of the wider community.
"These are high-stakes decisions for your family and for mine," she said. "I'm running for Menlo Park City School District board because I want to ensure that all of our children, despite circumstance and despite COVID, are prepared to build the future of their dreams."
Segrè applied for a vacant school board seat last fall, but the trustees chose former board member Mark Box for the one-year appointment. Ackerman said Segrè impressed him, but the trustees wanted someone who could come up to speed quickly on district issues and contribute immediately given the short stint of the appointment.
As a board member, she would like to ensure reopened schools are as healthy and safe as possible for both the school community and wider community.
"No single intervention is sufficient to make schools safe, and no school environment will be 100% risk-free," she said.
She said she was impressed with how quickly teachers transitioned to distance learning over just a three-day period.
"This rapid response was almost unheard of in other California districts," she said. "There is room for improvement. As a parent, I see and hear teachers spending precious live instruction time targeting tech-support challenges for individual students. Students can email or call in to get support; but help is not necessarily immediate. I would like to have a dedicated tech support phone line to assist students in the moment, so teachers aren't stopping class to troubleshoot one child's spotty Wi-Fi."
Segrè would also like sustainable, innovative and transparent funding solutions for the district. Moving forward, the district is facing a contraction in many of its funding sources: property taxes; Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation donations; state and federal contributions; and the sunsetting Measure X parcel tax, she said.
"The economic turbulence we're experiencing today is unprecedented; yet I stand firm that we must maintain our investment in education. Our children today are starting their lives in the shadow of a pandemic — we must provide them with every tool to get through it now and thrive in the future."
At the same time, the district will need to navigate potential new expenses, including COVID-related costs. This combination of reduced revenue and increased expenses could threaten educational offerings, she said.
The district has frozen hiring and put in across-the-board placeholder cuts of $1.5 million in the 2021-22 school year and another $1.5 million in the 2022-23 school year.
Segrè notes that poverty is all too often linked to performance.
"Schools alone cannot close the achievement gap, but this is a top priority for me," she said. She wants to add resources to the district's Family Services Coordination team, which makes in-home visits to support students who are not connecting to school regularly. She said the district must ensure these students have the best hardware and connectivity available, so that technology isn't an additional barrier to success. She would also like to extend and financially support programs that aim to close the achievement gap, such as mentorship and academic assistance.
Along with Ackerman's endorsement, Segrè is backed by San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, Menlo Park City Council member Ray Mueller, former Menlo Park district school board members and more.
The pandemic upended Ackerman's plan to retire from public service. Over the summer, he saw the need for a former administrator or teacher on the board while he served as the board's representative on the district negotiating team with the teachers' union on the conditions for returning to work in both distance and in-person learning.
"The memorandums of understanding we agreed to demonstrated to me the necessity that during these extraordinary times the board have at least one member who had actual experience as an educator and administrator dealing with union issues, instruction and curriculum," said Ackerman, who has 45 years of experience in the field. "There will be numerous challenges ahead as we educate our children during this pandemic. The board needs a representative that has experience with teachers, teachers' unions, instructional pedagogy and curriculum development."
Ackerman's first priority is the "safe and expedient" reopening of schools. The district must quickly meet children's academic and social needs, which have been affected by distance learning, he said. The pandemic will also impact finances, he said.
"The pandemic is going to negatively impact our future financial ability to provide the highest quality education," he said. "We must bring our community together to reestablish financial security for the future."
The district did an admirable job transitioning to distance learning last spring in such a short time period, he said.
"No one wanted to start this school year with distance learning," he said. "Distance learning is not an effective full-time replacement for the fabulous job our teachers do under normal circumstances. It is inevitable that distance is a disappointment. Our teachers and principals should continue to listen to the feedback parents and students are providing."
Staff will also have to provide social and emotional supports to students as they trickle into classrooms after this long period of isolation, he noted. He voted in support of the waiver to return to in-person learning and believes the district has implemented good safety precautions.
There are many factors that have contributed to the achievement gap between students of differing socioeconomic backgrounds. Poverty, poor health, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and lack of day care have had a devastating effect on learning, he said.
"While we can lobby for fair and just remedies in these areas, there are areas where we have direct influence," he said. "During my term on the board we have initiated an early learning program for 3- to 5-year-olds targeting our socioeconomic challenged families. Our district needs to hire a more diverse faculty. Our faculty needs further training on unconscious bias, maintaining high expectations, and relationship building with families from different backgrounds. We need to attack the 'rumors of inferiority' that pervade our society and the unconsciousness of our underachieving students."
Ackerman said there is no doubt Measure X will have to be replaced so the district can continue to provide a high-quality education for students.
"Under the laws governing public schools the majority of our funding comes from property taxes, parcel taxes, state and federal allocations, and community fundraising," he said.
Ackerman said he did not solicit endorsements.
Robert Maclay, 39, is a parent and an IT director at Stanford Healthcare. He has lived in the district since 2011 and has leadership experience in corporate and health care settings. He holds a degree in telecommunications from the University of Colorado Boulder. His campaign website is here.
Francesca Segrè, 47, is a content producer at LinkedIn and was a journalist for more than 20 years. She has lived in the district for a total of five years. She has been on the Encinal Elementary and Hillview Middle school site councils; served on the Menlo Park Atherton Education Foundation board; and volunteered at Encinal and for Hillview's theater program. She holds a master's degree in public policy administration from National University of Singapore and a bachelor's degree in sociology from Brandeis University. Her campaign website is here.
David Ackerman, 74, was elected to the school board in 2016. He is retired, but taught elementary school for 15 years and was a principal for 30 years, including 15 years as an administrator in the Menlo Park district. He has lived in the district for five years. Ackerman serves on the superintendent's early learning education advisory committee and is liaison to the Menlo Park Atherton Education Foundation and Menlo Park and Atherton city councils, along with other posts. He holds a bachelor's degree in education from Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, and a master's degree in education, curriculum and instruction from Webster University. He does not have a campaign website.
School board candidates filed their campaign finance disclosure statements during the week of Sept. 21. The finance reports cover the period of July 1 to Sept. 19.
Maclay's 460 form was not available on the county's website.
Ackerman did not report spending or raising any money during the period.
Segrè raised $3,856, including $242 from Magee and $194 from former Menlo Park City Council member Kirsten Keith. She spent $1,581 on lawn signs, postcards, her candidate statement and marketing.