Not one, but two seats will soon need to be filled on the Las Lomitas Elementary School District governing board. Jody Leng, who was elected to the board in the Nov. 3 election, recently informed the district she would not assume her seat. The other open seat belonged to board president Jon Venverloh, resigned last week amid public outcry over his wife's racist and misogynistic tweets about Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Leng could not be immediately reached for comment on her decision to run for a seat and then decline to take it once elected.
The board voted 4-0 Wednesday, Nov. 18, to appoint new trustees in lieu of holding a special election, which would cost between $365,000 and $438,000, according to San Mateo Chief Deputy County Counsel John D. Nibbelin. The trustees agreed that the cost of a special election was "exorbitant" and preferred to try the appointment route.
"The (appointment) process is conducted in public; to me it's the right balance of equity and access and saving the district close to half a million dollars," said Trustee Dana Nunn during a Wednesday night meeting. She noted that a contested election is the "gold standard" for the community to select new board members but there's also no guarantee that a special election, which wouldn't be able to happen until at least May, would be contested.
Without Venverloh and Leng, there will only be three sitting board members in December: Nunn; board member-elect Jason Morimoto, who assumes his seat on Dec. 11, and John Earnhardt. Trustees Diana Honda and Bill Steinmetz did not seek reelection and their terms end on Dec. 11.
There is urgency to fill the seats sooner rather than later, given the board's duty of managing the district's strategic plan and the extra tasks around distance learning and reopening classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nunn said.
Appointees would serve until the next regular election for district trustees, which is in December 2022.
The county requires the district to either order a special election or make provisional appointments within 60 days of the vacancies (on or before Jan. 7, 2021 for Venverloh's former seat, and Feb. 9, 2021 for the seat to which Leng was elected), according to a presentation by Nibbelin for the school board's Wednesday meeting. If the board does not take one of these actions, Nancy Magee, the county superintendent of schools, will order a special election.
A newly elected trustee would serve for the balance of the term remaining after the resignation of the incumbent. In case of Venverloh's vacancy, an elected successor would serve until December 2022. In the case of Leng's seat, an elected successor would fill her vacancy until December 2024. Trustees said they are open to holding an election if their appointment search is not successful.
After an appointment is made, a special election may still be required if at least 1.5% of the voters sign a petition calling for an election, Nibbelin said.
Morimoto asked the board to wait until after he is seated on December to select the new board appointments.
Venverloh, a former Google executive, in 2018 joined the elected board that oversees Las Lomitas Elementary School in Atherton and La Entrada Middle School in Menlo Park. He issued a statement on Facebook Nov. 8 announcing he was stepping down from the board and condemned his wife's tweets. His wife, Mehridith — who volunteered for Mothers Together at Menlo Church from 2012 to 2014, according to her LinkedIn page and the church — issued an apology to Harris and community members on Facebook, saying her comments were a result of tapering off of her medication.
Martha Lampert, president of the Las Lomitas Education Association, read a statement from teachers during the Wednesday meeting.
"Teachers stand with the staff, administrators and board members to support all our students and families, particularly our students and families of color," she said. "Each member of our diverse community enhances our school and enriches our lives. Bigoted statements that question the integrity, accomplishment and character of people of color, of women, of LGBTQ people and of people who live at the intersections of these communities are intolerable and have no place in our Las Lomitas family or on either of our campuses. We will speak up loudly and strongly against any racism and bigotry."
Nunn opened the meeting by addressing the controversy with Venverloh.
"I'm disgusted and deeply sorry for the pain and hurt this has caused in our community," Nunn said. She noted it was an incredibly hard week for the district. "All we can do is move forward and do better together. … We've gotten a lot of emails and calls for a more diverse board. I would welcome that. We can hopefully find strategies for more candidates and more diverse candidates."