Mill Valley schools board: Hopefuls discuss biggest issues facing district schools at forum
The five candidates competing for three seats on the Mill Valley School District board of trustees shared their perspectives on how to tackle the district’s biggest challenges — including combating pandemic-related learning loss, managing a $194-million facilities improvement project, ensuring campuses are safe for students and reversing the sense of divisiveness they said has plagued the district over the past few years — at a Sept. 29 virtual forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Marin.
The Nov. 8 election promises to bring major turnover to the board, which is responsible for overseeing the 2,640-student Pre-K-8 district that includes Strawberry Point Elementary School. All the candidates — Natalie Katz, Carol Morganstern, Sharon Nakatani, George Rosenfield and Yunhee Yoo — are newcomers, as none of the three incumbents — Todd May, Marco Pardi and Emily Uhlhorn — chose to run for re-election. Uhlhorn is one of six candidates vying for a seat on the Tamalpais Union High School District board of trustees.
Katz, Morganstern and Rosenfield are running on a slate; while they said they each arrived at the decision to run for election separately, upon meeting each other, their shared goals and desire to create unity within the district resulted in their aligning themselves.
Katz, 41, is a former human-resources specialist and parent to a third-grader and a fifth-grader at Edna Maguire Elementary School. She and her husband moved the family to Mill Valley from Seattle in 2019.
She said she was encouraged to run by many parents in the community and noted she has the support of the Mill Valley Teachers Association.
“Hopefully that’s proof that I have in a short period of time been able to get my arms around what’s happening in the district and also just develop some great relationships that will lend well to, hopefully, my future role on the board,” she said.
She said she is the only candidate who will have kids in both elementary and middle school in the district starting next year, giving her a “direct view into what’s happening on a day-to-day basis in the schools and a natural, organic connection point with teachers and parents in the community to understand what’s happening and to be able to help make changes and manage policies accordingly.”
Morganstern, 46, is an attorney and legal recruiter who has a child in third grade at Tamalpais Valley Elementary School. She said she and her husband moved to Mill Valley from San Francisco in part to take advantage of the “top-quality” public schools.
She noted her experience as a parent in the district and as a legal recruiter would allow her to bring a fresh perspective to the board.
“My goal is to put our children first, make sure we listen to our parents and teachers, but most importantly to our students, and make decisions that are really going to benefit them and hopefully address learning loss and social issues that I think are really important,” she said.
Rosenfield, 60, manages a mortgage banking firm. He and his husband have twin daughters who are in third grade at Strawberry Point Elementary School; the family has lived in Mill Valley for nine years.
He noted that as a member of the LGBTQ community, he’s spent three decades fighting for inclusion and equality, and it was a similar sense of wanting to serve the school district community that led him to run for the board.
“To come out of COVID and see what’s happening in our schools with learning loss and sort of the tension that exists today between so many stakeholders, I just feel it’s my duty and a calling to show up and be present and help be part of a solution to what we’re seeing as the problems that face our school district,” he said.
Both Nakatani and Yoo are running independently in the race.
Nakatani, 49, is a LEED-certified freelance architect who has lived in Mill Valley for 18 years. She and her husband are parents to two teenage daughters, one who graduated from the Mill Valley district and is now in high school and another who is in eighth-grade at Mill Valley Middle School.
As her kids were growing up, she served three years on the board of Mill Valley Nursery School, a four-year term on the board of the Parent Teacher Association at Edna Maguire and has volunteered serving lunch at the middle school. She noted she has been attending district board meetings for years.
She said her experience as an architect would come in handy as the district embarks on its ambitious facilities improvement project, while her familiarity with the school district would be an asset as the district aims to repair some of the relationships between stakeholders that have fractured amid the pandemic.
“With three seats coming up (on the board), we can really approach this with a clean slate mind and establish trust together, establish mutual respect, open lines of communication and transparency and hold each other accountable to that, all while keeping in mind and always ending with the question: ‘Is this best for students?’” she said.
Yoo, 53, is a retired investment professional who has a third-grader at Tamalpais Valley Elementary. Within the district, she has volunteered as a room parent, served on yard duty, co-chaired the Tam Valley book fair and served for two years as a member of the Tam Valley Parent Teacher Association board.
She said she was asked to run for the school board by parents and teachers as she was volunteering her time scooping ice cream on the Tam Valley campus on the last day of school last year. She mulled the decision over during the summer before deciding to run.
She called herself an “unbiased critical thinker” and a “consensus-driven decision maker,” skills she said she would use as a board member to help bring the community together.
“We really need to unite because it really matters, and it does take a village to raise our children,” she said.
Addressing learning loss a priority for candidates
All the candidates agreed that tackling pandemic-related learning loss is an urgent priority within the district.
Katz noted that data has indicated “significant drops in performance” over the past few years due to the remote learning that took place amid the pandemic.
She said the district needs to drive a “rigorous curriculum” to ensure “equitable results.” That includes making sure elementary-and middle-school curriculums build on each other so students are prepared for high school and ensuring consistency across the curriculum at the district’s elementary schools.
She said the district is actively taking steps to help kids catch up and that it’s important kids are confident and engaged in their learning.
“If they fall behind now, then if they don’t get caught up to where they need to be, that’s just going to become a cumulative effect over the years,” she said.
Morganstern said the best way to tackle learning loss is to focus on differentiated learning, with teachers meeting each student where they’re at. She said the goal would be to see every student advance one full grade level in achievement from the beginning of the year, regardless of their individual starting points.
“We want to make sure we are adapting and adjusting and giving kids what they need,” she said.
Nakatani agreed with the importance of differentiated learning. Key to that, she said, is making sure teachers within the district communicate with and learn from each other.
“We need to give them the opportunity to collaborate on that and give feedback on the district level,” she said.
Yoo said that while she knows the district has plans in place to address learning loss over time, she feels the district needs to act with a sense of urgency. She said one way to provide more targeted help, particularly in math, is to hire more teachers on special assignment to work directly with students.
She also stressed the importance of differentiated education, noting the district “needs to have teachers who are trained in the pedagogy of each grade.”
Yoo said she was particularly troubled by data indicating that learning loss has been most severe for high-needs students, including English language learners, socio-economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.
“I think we need to help those students, identify them early and give them support early,” she said.
Rosenfield noted the state is currently in the process of rolling out a new math framework, which he said when implemented in the district would hopefully bring additional structure and rigor.
He said collaboration between parents and teachers is key to achieving positive academic results for students.
“We’ve got differences between schools even within Mill Valley, and we need to set an agenda to bring equality to that and some rigor to that and help set our kids up for success,” he said.
Repairing fractured relationships will be key
Each of the candidates pledged that if elected, they would work to help unify a school community they said has been fractured by the stresses of the pandemic over the past few years — and to bring respect and decorum back to the board, which has been criticized for the tone of its discourse. That includes an incident earlier this year in which current board member Michele Crncich Hodge, whose term ends in 2024, was heard calling her colleagues “idiots” in a hot-mic moment during a break at a Zoom meeting. Board members have been criticized by parents for their unprofessionalism in conducting meetings, while parents have also questioned the district’s commitment to communication and transparency.
Yoo stressed the importance of being flexible and taking in different perspectives.
“I think you really need to understand different viewpoints, try to get as much information on others’ perspectives, respect it, be focused on fact-based arguments based on research and be understanding of our needs,” she said.
She said she would like to see the board hold itself more accountable, pointing to a 2018 strategic plan that laid out goals for the district but was seemingly never revisited.
“The board should revisit its goals periodically and kind of assess ourselves and the superintendent,” she said, saying the board should ask itself: “Are we doing what we promised?”
Morganstern said being an active listener is one of the most important qualities a board member can possess when dealing with stakeholders and communicating with each other — “not just listening to what they want to do but understanding why they want to do that.”
She referenced frustration from parents who say they’re not getting enough information from the school board and don’t have ample opportunity to give input and stressed the importance of “making everybody feel heard and making everybody understand what goes into the decision process.”
She noted “we can’t all get the outcome we want” but said helping stakeholders understand what goes into a decision “will help us.”
Katz agreed with Morganstern, saying that “understanding why people want what they want and what they’re advocating for and ultimately collaborating and compromising” is critical.
She said that while stakeholders may have different opinions, they all share the common goal of wanting to put students first.
Rosenfield said it’s the board’s job to be communicators “and open those lines up between the various stakeholders, for bringing people together, for getting parent involvement so that people are heard.”
He said not every decision is going to please each board member, but that “once a decision is made, it’s our job and it’s our responsibility to see that through toward the best outcome.”
Nakatani noted the district’s mission is to develop students who are collaborative, critical thinkers, curious, empathetic and life-long learners, among other qualities. She said board members should aim to embody those same attributes.
“As a board member, if we adopt those same 12 precepts that we ask our students to have and we show that as board members and we are accessible and good listeners, then I think we can actively promote unity amongst all these various factions,” she said.
Board will be responsible for facilities improvement
Among the upcoming tasks for the board will be overseeing the district’s implementation of a multimillion-dollar facilities improvement project. District voters in June approved a $194-million bond measure to fund major improvements to campuses, with two-thirds of that revenue going to build a new middle school; the current campus was built in 1972 and its aging facilities do not support modern learning, district officials say. The district anticipates a two-year planning process to determine if the school will be built on the same or another site and what it will look like.
The remaining funds will be used for improvements to the district’s five elementary schools, including Strawberry Point, where priorities include building a new shade structure, making outdoor learning and playground improvements, roofing work to the administration and multi-purpose buildings and work to the electrical infrastructure.
Nakatani said her more than two decades working as an architect, with particular experience in building large public-education facilities, would be helpful as the district embarks on the facilities improvement project, noting she has sat on the opposite side of the table and understands engineering specifications and the other components that go into the process.
“I can advocate for the district, I can advocate for the community and the students to really articulate the needs that we want to ensure we get the best building using our bond dollars wisely, and really not just building for the immediate future but building for future generations of students,” she said.
Yoo said she’s advised portfolio companies to manage similar projects and is familiar with budgeting, forecasting costs and building contingencies into projects. She noted that while there will be an advisory committee helping to oversee the project, final decisions will rest with the board.
“You need to be asking the right questions to hold the contractors, engineers and architects accountable,” she said.
She said the board needs to be “fiscally responsible and disciplined for the tax holders that approved the bond.”
Morganstern said that while it’s important to oversee the project, the board can leave the “nitty gritty” of the building details to the experts. As a board member, she said, her primary concern would be “to make sure the education of the children isn’t interrupted,” particularly at the middle school.
Katz and Rosenfield agreed with Morganstern, with Katz saying the board should work to minimize any disruptions during construction.
“We are having these important projects happening across our schools to ensure healthy, safe sites that are good for all of our kids,” she said.
Rosenfield said his nearly 30-year career in finance would enable him “to be the watchdog or the watcheye of exactly making sure people are on track” as the project progresses.
Candidates also found mostly common ground on their approach to school safety, advocating for a holistic approach that places student mental health at the forefront.
Katz said that part of ensuring safe campuses is about physical safety — making sure locks work, that each classroom has shades that can be pulled down and that students and teachers are familiar with exit routes.
But even more important, she said, is ensuring inclusivity on campus so students “feel accepted as a diverse community.” That means addressing issues with bullying head-on and making “proactive threat assessments” so the district can intervene before problems develop.
Rosenfield said people have asked his opinion on having tall fences or armed officers on campus, but he said that in looking at campuses where there have been safety incidents, those types of precautions haven’t really helped.
He said it’s more important for the district to understand its student population and have the resources to step in early when a problem has been identified.
“It’s having counselors that are there to help support the needs of kids as they’re moving through the school district,” he said. “It’s having (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs that expose our children at a young age to many different cultures and beliefs and family types so they do feel safe, they feel comfortable and they love going to school.”
Nakatani said that to ensure campuses are physically safe, the district should continue to work with law-enforcement officials and other experts. She also said the district should focus on mental health, noting the middle school’s wellness center is close to opening.
“There’s a sense of pride that you have when you feel like you belong to a school and that you’re safe there,” she said.
Yoo said the district needs to improve its facilities and wondered whether the district had set protocols in place to respond to a school shooting or another emergency.
“I think it’s important because when something bad happens, you need practice to know what to do,” she said.
She also said she’d like to see more counselors at district schools, noting the elementary schools are currently sharing counselors.
“I think it’s urgent, and to this date I have not seen our board address it in any of the meetings,” she said.
Reach Assistant Editor Emily Lavin, The Ark’s youth and Strawberry reporter, at 415-944-3841.