Reed Union School District: Newcomer joins two incumbents on slate in four-way race
The four candidates running for three seats on the Reed Union School District board include a mix of incumbents and newcomers who all say they’re eager to lend their experience and perspective to help further the district’s student-centric approach to learning.
Board members Sherry Wangenheim and Afsaneh Zolfaghari and challengers Sarah Buck-Gerber and Shelby Pasarell Tsai are competing on the Nov. 8 ballot for spots on the five-member board. The third seat up for election belongs to A.J. Brady, who chose not to run for re-election after serving two terms.
Pasarell Tsai, Wangenheim and Zolfaghari are running on a slate and endorsing each other; all are Tiburon Peninsula residents and district parents. Buck-Gerber is an East Corte Madera resident who lives in Reed district boundaries but whose three children currently attend her neighborhood’s Cove School, in the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District, as part of the inter-district transfer program between the districts.
That program’s future is unclear as the two districts are in ongoing negotiations to strike a new long-term deal that would allow the transfers to continue — and that uncertainty has drawn concern from Buck-Gerber and the families of the nearly four-dozen students who currently take advantage of the arrangement, prompting them to consider filing a petition calling for the neighborhood to be officially absorbed into the Larkspur district.
The fate of the transfer program is just one issue facing the Reed district; other key initiatives for board candidates include addressing the achievement gap, continuing efforts to boost diversity and inclusion on school campuses and maintaining high-quality programs amid declining enrollment.
Buck-Gerber eager to bring her perspective to board
Buck-Gerber, 43, has lived in East Corte Madera for five years with her husband and their three elementary-school-aged children. She earned a bachelor’s in management from the University of Northern Iowa and a master’s in industrial relations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently works in human resources.
She said she has attended several Reed district board meetings in recent months for discussions on the inter-district transfer program and determined she could add some “real value” to the board.
“I have a very laser-focus on our children and what’s best for them, and I think sometimes you can get board members who may sway away from that,” she said.
Buck-Gerber said she believes in the Reed district’s emphasis on social-emotional learning and believes both her career experience, which she said includes managing million-dollar budgets, and her experiences as a parent would be an asset to the board.
She said that even though her children do not attend Reed district schools, she has many neighbors and friends whose children do. She acknowledged there would be a “learning curve” if elected as she familiarized herself with district policies and priorities but noted that is something most new board members face as they take on the role. She said she has spent time researching key issues and attending board meetings to learn more about the district.
“I’d be jumping in with both feet, but I’m super passionate about it,” she said.
Among her priorities if elected would be continuing to focus on developing a strong curriculum and on social-emotional learning.
She said she believes her perspective as an East Corte Madera resident would be an asset to the board. Though Brady, the outgoing board member who has served for nine years, is an East Corte Madera resident, Buck-Gerber said that she doesn’t believe that section of the district community has always been at the front of the board’s focus.
She suggested the community be better incorporated into school events, noting the district could host something in a park in East Corte Madera or have East Corte Madera fire officials participate in school visits the way Tiburon and Belvedere first-responders do.
“I think I could have a very positive impact and let East Corte Madera children and families have a voice in being included in some of the events where they feel maybe left out,” she said.
Pasarell Tsai says collaborative style would be an asset
Pasarell Tsai, 47, has been a Tiburon resident since 2013. She’s married to Tiburon Planning Commissioner Jeff Tsai, and the couple has two daughters: Ella, a Reed district graduate who now attends the Branson School, and Charlotte, who is in fifth grade at Bel Aire Elementary School.
She spent her early childhood in Puerto Rico before her family relocated to California. Pasarell Tsai graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s in human biology and earned a law degree at the University of Chicago. She spent two decades as a practicing attorney and is now the Tiburon-based vice president of operations and business development for Costa Isabela Partners, a real-estate development company that focuses on sustainable projects in Puerto Rico.
She previously volunteered as the vice president of family giving for the Foundation for Reed Schools and currently serves on the board of the YMCA of San Francisco; in that role, she said, she helped set up a task force that worked with the Marin County Office of Education during the pandemic to open up in-person learning centers for underserved youth throughout the county.
Pasarell Tsai said she’s proud of the educational opportunities the district has provided both of her children and cited that as her motivation to run for a seat on the board.
“I’m just so thankful for that education and have been really involved with the community over the years, and it seemed like the time to step up and sort of do it on a bigger scale,” she said.
As a board member, she said, she would work with her colleagues to help address the achievement gap within the district and would put student health and safety first.
“I don’t think we can anticipate the next huge challenge coming down the pike for our schools,” she said. As a result, it’s important that the district continue to invest in its infrastructure, in teacher training and in resources for students, Pasarell Tsai said.
“At least we can hopefully be ahead of the curve when it comes to the next (challenge),” she said.
Pasarell Tsai said she believes both her familiarity with the school district and her training as a lawyer will be assets to the board, noting her leadership style is a collaborative one.
“I’ve worked with big groups of people and worked to bring everyone together,” she said. “You don’t always find a solution that everyone loves, but you find a solution that works for everyone.”
Wangenheim eager to address key issues in second term
Wangenheim, 51, has lived in Tiburon since 2002 with her husband, Aaron. The couple has four children, including a fourth-grader at Bel Aire school. The other three kids attended Reed district schools and are now in high school and college.
She earned a bachelor’s in economics from the University of California at Los Angeles and holds master’s degrees in business administration from the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Columbia University. She works in finance operations and currently does financial consulting for Advantage Solutions, a company that provides insight-based sales, marketing and technology solutions for retailers and manufacturers.
Wangenheim was appointed to the board in late 2017 to fill an interim seat. She ran unopposed for a full four-year term in 2018 and served as board president in 2020 and 2021. Before joining the board, she had spent a decade volunteering in Reed district classrooms and on the board of the district’s Parent Teacher Association.
She said her original interest in serving on the board came from her “deep and passionate interest in education,” and she wanted to run for a second full term to address several district initiatives, from academic achievement to facilities master planning, that the board had to put on the backburner as it has dealt with the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past several years.
“I feel like a lot of the things that we started to really work on got put on hold because of COVID, and I’d like to see some of them through to fruition,” she said.
If re-elected, Wangenheim said among her top focuses would be addressing the academic and social-emotional impacts of the pandemic on students. She said the social isolation caused by the pandemic has had lingering effects on kids, noting there were a lot of missed “playdates, sleepovers and other things that happen outside of school that are translating to difficulties in school.”
She also cited facilities master planning, addressing declining enrollment and continued implementation of state-mandated programs such as universal pre-kindergarten and universal free meals as priorities for the board over the next four years.
She pointed to her financial acumen as a strength she brings to the board, along with the care she tries to take when making decisions.
“I don’t try to make snap judgements on things, I try to think all the way through the problem at hand and make sure that the solutions that we come up with aren’t causing other problems,” she said.
Zolfaghari pledges to lead with ‘integrity and respect’
Zolfaghari, 43, moved to the Tiburon Peninsula in 2011 and currently lives in Belvedere with her husband, Andy Ashcroft, and the couple’s three children: Zoraya, a seventh-grader at Del Mar Middle School, Kaveh, a fifth-grader at Bel Aire, and Garrett, a second-grader at Reed Elementary School.
The daughter of two immigrant parents, Zolfaghari was raised in San Rafael and graduated from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where she majored in biology and minored in medical sociology. She went on to earn a master’s in public health from Harvard University.
She worked in public health until she became pregnant with Zoraya and has since been a stay-at-home mom. She won a four-year seat on the Reed district board by default in 2018 when no other candidates emerged in the race.
Before joining the board, she was active in the district’s Parent Teacher Association and volunteered with the Foundation for Reed Schools. She also served about six years on the Belvedere-Tiburon Joint Recreation Committee board of directors; was on the board of Belvedere-Hawthorne Nursery Schools; and was actively involved with Tiburon Peninsula nonprofit All In, which helps local underserved children gain equal access to enrichment programs.
She noted she takes her role as a board trustee very seriously and feels a sense of duty to take care of all of the district’s students.
“I’m very humbled by that responsibility, and I’m committed to working with our board to thoughtfully analyze all issues that come to us,” she said.
She cited student achievement, including addressing the district’s persistent achievement gap, student mental-health and emotional wellbeing and continuing to ensure the district is in a strong financial position as among her priorities for office.
“My top priority is making sure that every single one of our students has access to excellent education with high expectations for student achievement and a focus on differentiated learning,” she said.
Zolfaghari said an effective board member is someone “who leads with integrity and respect and diligence.”
As a board member, she said, she tries to come to meetings having done her research but also with an open mind. She said being willing to listen to different perspectives is important, noting, “I don’t like to sit in my own little bubble, in my own echo chamber.”
“I really value transparency, effective communication and community engagement,” she said. “I do not shy away from hard conversations.”
Candidates agree on importance of addressing achievement gap
The candidates weighed in on how the district can make substantive progress in closing its persistent achievement gap, which has only been exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic.
While Reed district students continue to significantly outperform their peers across the county and state on standardized tests, the district’s students of color, economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners consistently lag behind their fellow students in both English and math.
On last year’s test, about 80 percent of Reed district students met or exceeded grade-level standards in English, 76 percent in math.
However, just 64 percent of the district’s 53 Hispanic students who tested met or exceeded grade-level English standards, 63 percent in math. About 47 percent of the district’s 32 students who identified as economically disadvantaged were deemed proficient and better in English, 50 percent in math. And of the district’s 19 English-language learners tested, 37 percent met or exceeded expectations in English, 38 percent in math.
Data for the Reed district’s Black, Native American/Alaska Native, Filipino and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students was not statistically significant, as 10 or fewer students in each group took the test.
Zolfaghari said she is “committed to being a champion of the work of lifting students up and eliminating this gap.”
Key to that effort, she said, is being able to extract useful data from the district’s various assessments and then giving teachers the professional development and other tools they may need to focus on differentiated instruction.
“Our district is going to make sure they have the data and resources they need and training they need to address this, and the time they need to do this,” she said.
Wangenheim agreed with the need for clear data to accurately quantify the gap, pointing out that it is more pronounced for economically disadvantaged students than it is for students of color.
“What I want to make sure we’re providing is the opportunity for students to thrive in our district, and if there’s anything we’re doing to impede their progress, we want to make sure that we’re removing all barriers,” she said.
She said that some of the state-mandated programs the district is implementing may help, including universal pre-kindergarten, which allows for earlier interventions, and the universal free-lunch program.
“All those kinds of things are barriers traditionally for students of socio-economic disadvantage,” she said.
Pasarell Tsai said the district needs to take a proactive approach to addressing the achievement gap.
“If we can’t do that in a well-resourced district like this, where is it going to happen?” she said.
She noted the new universal pre-kindergarten program will hopefully allow schools to start partnering with families earlier and offering more resources to students and that the district should continue to take advantage of its intervention specialists, who work one-on-one with students who may need extra attention.
“I’d like to see us go out and investigate best practices on how we would adapt and identify how we would assist those families and children,” she said.
Buck-Gerber agreed that the district should focus on early intervention for students who may be falling behind standards, “not letting them fall through the cracks.” She said the district should also rely on educational experts to determine what the best methods of instruction are for all students.
She’d like to see the district explore more summer or after-school classes, as well. It’s important for the district to look at data and “make sure we’re getting what we need out of it,” she said.
All of the candidates agreed that students perform best at school when they feel represented and respected and said they supported ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts in a district where nearly 80 percent of students and the majority of teachers and staff identify as white. The district previously adopted a set of social-justice standards that help inform its curriculum and instruction and has a diversity and inclusion committee.
Buck-Gerber noted that inclusivity is directly linked to housing affordability, which is an issue on the Tiburon Peninsula and in Marin, and said it’s important for the district to have a diverse staff and embed issues of diversity and inclusion into its programs and curriculum.
“If kids can see there are others who are like them, it makes for a better, more welcoming place,” she said.
She said the district should continue to look into training for teachers, students and parents on implicit bias and other topics.
Pasarell Tsai said she’s heard from economically disadvantaged families they “do feel on the outskirts” of the school community.
“I think we need to take a really proactive approach to making sure children value other children for who they are,” she said.
Wangenheim said the district has done a good job of weaving inclusion into its curriculum, starting at Reed school with Kimochis, a character education and social-emotional learning program. At Bel Aire, fourth-graders take part in the Mosaic Project, designed to celebrate diversity and build awareness of prejudice and stereotyping, and activities at Del Mar include participation in Challenge Day, which focuses on social-emotional awareness and relationship building.
“All those things are important to building empathy and understanding and respecting differences,” she said.
She said future efforts should be guided by metrics, noting the district administers the YouthTruth survey each year to students, staff and families to solicit feedback on academic challenge, school culture and emotional and mental health.
Though she said she doesn’t feel like the survey has yielded enough reliable data yet, it’s important for the board to “watch the trends and tweak programming to make sure students are really feeling included and part of the community.”
Zolfaghari also said the YouthTruth survey is a good way for the district to better understand the needs of its students and pinpoint focus areas for the district. She noted recruiting and retaining a diverse, highly qualified teaching staff is critical. She said the district could look into setting up a teacher residency program as well as ensuring mentoring and support groups were available to teachers of color.
She also pointed to the district’s efforts to embed its social-justice standards into curriculum, which she said was key to “helping our students understand how they see themselves and how they see others, how they can celebrate differences and similarities within each other so they can treat each other in a fair way.”
District to focus on continued mental-health support
After the pandemic forced school campuses to close abruptly in spring 2020, the Reed district was one of the first in the county to return to in-person learning that fall on a hybrid schedule, and students were able to experience a mostly normal school year in 2021-2022. This year, most COVID-related classroom restrictions have been eliminated, leaving the district to consider how it will manage the virus moving forward as the pandemic fades.
All the candidates said the board should continue following the advice of experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Marin Public Health, and abide by the guidelines those officials set forth, including when it comes to a potential COVID vaccine mandate Gov. Gavin Newsom has said will take effect for schoolchildren ahead of the 2023-2024 school year.
They also agreed it’s important for the district to continue to try to meet the mental-health needs of its students, particularly in light of the events of the past couple of years. While Wangenheim noted the district’s social-emotional curriculum is strong, it will likely need to be supplemented to address additional issues facing students.
“I would say there’s an anxiety level that I’ve never seen in children before,” she said.
Pasarell Tsai noted the district is very well-resourced when it comes to mental-health services, including having a psychologist available to students on each campus.
“I think we’re starting ahead, but I think we can always do more,” she said, suggesting the district could think about establishing a wellness center for students.
Zolfaghari said the district will need to prioritize social-emotional learning even more and continue to rely on its psychologists to meet the mental-health needs of its students.
“We have seen that the social-emotional skills of students have waned during the pandemic, so it’s important that we lean on our very strong social-emotional program and that we continue to support our students,” she said.
Buck-Gerber said the district should go “above and beyond” in offering mental-health services to students, as “sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, and it will be too late when we find out.”
She said it’s important to “always be checking and making safe spaces for our children and families to voice (their needs) and feel comfortable and welcome to do so.”
Inter-district transfers cause controversy among parents
The issue of inter-district transfers has become a hot-button topic over the last several months, after the most recent agreement between the Reed and Larkspur-Corte Madera districts expired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
That agreement gave kids living on 15 streets within the Reed district’s East Corte Madera boundaries the choice to attend The Cove School in their neighborhood, with the Reed district agreeing to pay an amount equal to the Larkspur district’s parcel tax — currently $910 — for each student approved for the transfer.
Reed district officials have noted that inter-district transfers between schools in California typically don’t have payment attached; while the agreement between the Reed and Larkspur districts didn’t include payment when it was first established in 2014, a payment was built into the five-year agreement signed in 2017 because the Larkspur district said absorbing Reed district students would require additional classroom space.
The financial hang-up in striking a new agreement is in part because the Larkspur-Corte Madera district has recently transitioned from being state-funded to community-funded, like the Reed district; in community-funded districts, the majority of funding comes from property and parcel taxes instead of from the state based on per-pupil attendance. As a result, the Larkspur district has proposed that Reed’s future financial contribution account for the share of property taxes the Larkspur district would receive if the transfer students lived within its own boundaries. Under those terms, the Reed district’s payment would have been $500,000 in the current school year, up significantly from the $40,000 it paid last year.
As negotiations stalled, the two districts agreed to a temporary extension of the program for the 2022-2023 school year, with the district paying $70,000 to the Larkspur district to absorb the 45 or so students taking part in the program. The districts have set a December deadline to strike a new long-term agreement.
Citing the uncertainty of a new deal, a group of East Corte Madera parents who utilize the transfers earlier this summer began exploring the process of transferring the neighborhood out of Reed district boundaries and into the Larkspur-Corte Madera district.
While the group has reportedly collected enough signatures to submit the transfer-of-territory petition to the County Committee on School District Organization, they have not yet done so, with organizers saying they plan to see how the negotiations play out before moving forward.
Buck-Gerber, who has spoken at several district board meetings in support of continuing the inter-district transfers, said she has signed that petition.
She said the program should continue because “it has supported many children and many families in a very positive way, and that’s not something that anyone should want to take away or end.”
She said she believed the agreement should be accompanied by some payment from the Reed district to Larkspur-Corte Madera, though she said that amount should be “reasonable and purposeful based on what taxes are paying out and what it costs to educate a child.”
Buck-Gerber called the redistricting effort the only tool available to East Corte Madera parents should the districts not reach a new agreement on their own.
Critics of the petition have noted transferring the territory would simply shift the burden, as most students living in those East Corte Madera boundaries attend Reed district schools and could be instead forced to switch to Larkspur-Corte Madera schools.
Buck-Gerber said every conversation the group has had with any board member has always stressed that if the petition were to go through and eventually be approved, they would want all East Corte Madera kids who attend the Reed district to be grandfathered in so they wouldn’t be pulled out of their schools.
She noted inter-district transfers would also be available for parents to utilize if they wanted to send their kids to the Reed district, and she said she has talked to Larkspur officials who said they would approve those transfers on their end. However, it’s unclear whether the Reed district would approve those transfers and accept additional students.
Both Wangenheim and Zolfaghari said they were limited in what they could say about the program because the district is in active negotiations.
Wangenheim said her goal is to “not hurt students and families who are already caught in the process.”
However, she noted that transferring costs from one school to another is not something that’s typically done within inter-district transfers.
She said she feels “that students in our district can get the best education in our district.” However, if a petition to redistrict ended up being submitted, as a board member, “I obviously would be willing to listen through why” the parents behind the petition felt the way they did, she said.
Zolfaghari said the board was “committed to finding a workable solution” and that its decisions would “be guided by what’s best for students.”
“I’m (a Reed district) board member for the entire district,” she said. “Whether you live in Belvedere, Tiburon, East Corte Madera, I’m going to be making decisions and being very thoughtful about what’s in the best interest of all our students.”
Pasarell Tsai said any solution should not result in kids being pulled from their current schools. However, she said, “we as a board would need to make financially prudent decisions based on what’s best for the interests of the entire district.”
She said she had also heard that some people who signed the redistricting petition had done so under the assumption that it would create a scenario in which all parents could choose their district and were now trying to remove their names from the document after realizing that’s not what would happen.
She noted the area has long been a part of the district and “it would be hard to see it go.”
“If the majority of people in that neighborhood really wanted to switch districts, I think we’d have to take a hard look at it, but I haven’t seen the data to suggest that’s what’s really going on,” she said.
Board will need to adapt as enrollment decline continues
Among the other issues the board will be grappling with over the next several years is a continuing decline in enrollment.
The district had 1,543 students enrolled across its three schools in the 2015-2016 school year, and enrollment has fallen in each year since. The district finished the 2021-2022 school year with 1,025 students and began the current year in August with 1,024 students, boosted in part by 40 new pre-kindergarten students at Reed school.
While the district has largely been able to avoid staff layoffs amid the enrollment decline, relying instead on natural attrition and a retirement-incentive program offered in 2020, current board members have noted the district will likely have to adjust its approach to staffing and programs as it educates fewer students.
Zolfaghari said declining enrollment directly impacts the Foundation for Reed School’s ability to meet its annual $2 million commitment to the district to help fund programs including art, music and physical education, as well as teacher training.
She noted an impending recession could pose issues for the district as well if property taxes decrease.
However, she said, the district is in a strong financial position, ensuring that any decisions it needs to make in the future won’t be reactionary.
“We are going to make thoughtful decisions where we are not going to do anything that is going to be to the detriment of student achievement and what’s best for students,” she said.
Wangenheim said the challenge for the board is continuing to maintain “a level of fiscal responsibility that you know is sustainable if the district swings up in enrollment or swings down in enrollment.”
“The biggest thing is making sure the school district continues to attract students in the community and making sure students who go there receive the same quality of education,” she said. “That should be the focus no matter what.”
Pasarell Tsai also noted the decline in enrollment is likely going to affect the amount of money the Reed foundation can raise, and the district will have to look carefully at its spending.
While fewer students naturally means fewer teachers, she said she would want the board to be cautious about programmatic changes, particularly when it comes to the diverse set of electives offered at Del Mar.
“I do think those are really important to our children, and having robust elective options has been a huge asset that caters to a wide variety of different children and needs,” she said. “I would look carefully at how we could continue to maintain those offerings.”
Buck-Gerber did not share her thoughts on how the board should address decreasing enrollment.
Reach Assistant Editor Emily Lavin, The Ark’s youth and Strawberry reporter, at 415-944-3841.