Tamalpais Union High School District board: Candidates talk equity, pandemic, budget at forum
Updated: Oct 7, 2022
Five of the six candidates vying for three seats on the Tamalpais Union High School District board discussed a wide range of topics — including equity in education, fiscal responsibility amid declining enrollment and navigating the continued effects of COVID-19 — at a Sept. 22 virtual forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Marin.
Incumbents Kevin Saavedra and Cynthia Roenisch are seeking to defend their seats in the upcoming Nov. 8 election; the third open seat belongs to Dan Oppenheim, who was elected in 2018 but chose not to run for a second term. The four newcomers in the field are Renee Marcelle, Barbara McVeigh, Damian Morgan and Emily Uhlhorn. However, Morgan at the last minute was not able to participate in the forum.
Saavedra, a financial adviser who lives in San Anselmo, was first elected in a four-way race for three open seats in 2018. He has been a Marin resident for 25 years, and both of his kids attended Archie Williams High School, formerly Sir Francis Drake High School. He began volunteering in local public schools about 10 years ago, first in the Ross Valley School District. Before being elected to the Tam district board, he served on the district’s fiscal advisory committee and was the treasurer for the district’s 2018 parcel-tax campaign.
“I’ve enjoyed providing my voice to stewarding and helping to oversee this administration,” he said.
Roenisch was elected alongside Saavedra in 2018. She’s a Kentfield resident and former attorney who is currently an advanced-placement English teacher at Alameda High School. Before being elected to the Tamalpais district board, she served 13 years on the Kentfield School District board. For the past two years, she’s served on the Tam district’s racial-justice task force, which is composed of 100 people, and has been conducting an audit of all the district’s courses to include anti-racist content, developing specific policies to amplify the district’s anti-discrimination policy and purchasing training resources that support implementing anti-racist practices.
“I’m looking forward, hopefully, to being re-elected to continue that work and to focus on diversifying our curriculum, diversifying the experience that’s reflected in our curriculum and diversifying our hiring so students feel safe and included and engaged on our campuses,” she said.
Uhlhorn, a mother of four, brings four years of experience as a Mill Valley School District board member to her election bid. She currently serves on the Joint Legislative Advisory Committee, a countywide committee of superintendents and elected school-board members who advocate on behalf of public-school students, and also headed the Mill Valley district’s successful 2016 campaign to renew its parcel tax.
She said among her priorities if elected would be continuing the district’s work toward racial equity, which she said is “all about imbuing each school and each classroom with anti-racist, culturally responsive teaching practices.”
She said her time on the Mill Valley district board has given her a “keen understanding” of school finance and that she knows “what levers we can pull and what we can’t” when it comes to budgets.
She also said it’s important the Tam district work with its feeder districts, which include the local Reed Union School District, to continue to address the mental health and learning impacts of the pandemic.
“The more we work together to address these issues with a focus on eliminating the achievement gap, the better,” she said.
McVeigh, a writer, educator, film producer and activist who lives in Fairfax, ran unsuccessfully for a board seat in 2018, losing out to Saavedra, Roenisch and Oppenheim. She said her three decades of experience fighting for social justice, workers’ rights and immigrant rights, along with her many artistic endeavors, would be an asset to the board.
“I see so much racial injustice in our schools, and our youth have no understanding of the power of the community we have and our responsibility to it,” she said. “I would like to be a strong voice and put my position forward on those issues.”
Marcelle is a family-law attorney whose two teenagers attend high school in the district. She previously served six years as the chair of the Kentfield School District’s citizens oversight committee for Measure D, a $30-million facilities-improvement bond passed in 2014. She noted she had “extensive experience” with multimillion-dollar budgets and projections.
She said she was “very seriously invested in curbing the influences that are invading our schools for reasons other than improving educational outcomes.”
“My goal is to stay focused on academics and not ideology,” she said. “I will bring the Marin school districts together to collaborate, share resources, close the opportunity gap and ensure all students find success in high school and beyond.”
Morgan is a resident of Marin City and a business consultant who formerly served five years on the board of the city’s Community Services District. He is a 1992 graduate of Tamalpais High School.
Issues of race, equity continue to be a priority in district
Candidates were asked how the district can best support marginalized students and how the district can help mitigate learning loss suffered amid the pandemic.
Equity issues have been at the forefront of many district discussions over the past couple of years, during which time it renamed Sir Francis Drake High as Archie Williams High to disassociate the school with the British explorer’s history of slave trading and honor to Williams, a former math teacher at the school who was also a gold medalist in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany, a flight instructor with the Tuskegee Airmen and one of the first Black meteorologists. The district also adopted an anti-racism resolution, committing to dismantle racist policies and practices within the district, and appointed the racial justice task force.
Saavedra said he’d like to see the district continue to push itself in how it conducts that work. He noted he was not entirely supportive of the way the task force has been structured or the framing of the anti-racist resolution, saying there were “missed opportunities on a variety of points.”
“I think we’re doing the work, but I think we could be doing better than we’re doing,” he said.
McVeigh noted her father was one of more than 11,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who walked off the job as part of a general strike in 1981 and who were subsequently fired by President Ronald Reagan, who said the workers were in violation of the law.
“I got to witness how the media can propagandize and how the government can put fear into you when you’re actually doing something that is very important,” she said.
She noted that racial and economic inequity has built over the past four decades and is the “cornerstone of so much angst between different people.”
“It’s a place where we have to look at and understand and unite,” she said.
Roenisch said kids have to “feel safe and included on campus in order to soar.” She noted the district has removed barriers to enrolling in advanced-placement classes so they are accessible to everyone and stressed the importance of culturally responsive teaching, in which teachers connect students’ cultures, languages and life experiences to what they’re learning in the classroom.
She said the district’s ongoing efforts to “expand and diversify both our curriculum points of view as well as diversify hiring to better reflect individual experiences that people have, that can only help students.”
Uhlhorn agreed with Roenisch, noting that ensuring all students feel valued and respected on campus is “absolutely foundational” to their success. She said it was important to make sure teachers “have the training they need to be able to respond appropriately and include and elevate all voices and to make all families feel included.”
She also said it was important the district collaborate with its feeder districts on equity and inclusion work.
“We need to all be speaking the same language, doing the same work and coming together around how we make absolutely every student and every family feel welcome in the community,” she said.
Marcelle said the district should continue programs such as the Team program, a one-year experiential education program open to juniors in the district, and the Pathways program, an alternative education program for juniors that includes access to college coursework and internships.
She also said parental involvement was key to supporting all students. When parents, students and teachers all feel connected, she said, “it’s a recipe for excellent success.”
Saavedra said he hopes the county expends “political capital” to affirmatively address potential learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Tamalpais district to move to remote learning for nearly all of 2020 and a hybrid schedule for a large part of 2021.
McVeigh said it was important to “focus on the positive” when considering the effects of the pandemic on students, which she noted was a “world global event not many would ever experience and hopefully we won’t experience again.”
“Let them extend themselves into the wisdom that they gained from it, maybe through health and taking more responsibility for their health, or others in the community, or understanding the corporate junk-food industry and what it is doing to our communities,” she said. “These are learning opportunities. When a negative thing happens to you, find the point you can learn from.”
Roenisch said the district is already trying to address the achievement gap among students who struggled with learning during COVID, though she noted the district’s standardized test scores show learning loss was not as severe locally as it was in surrounding counties and nationwide.
She said the district ran a summer-school session this past summer with extensive outreach to families to help students recover credit or retake foundational courses. She also said one of the district’s focuses this year is on reducing chronic absenteeism and lauded the district’s wellness centers, noting the services they provide can help students deal with anxiety or depression or “some of the things that might be getting in the way of students either coming to school or succeeding when they are there.”
Uhlhorn also pointed to the district’s summer-school effort and noted the district has worked to expand its AVID program, which is dedicated to preparing all students for college and other postsecondary opportunities, and hired more instructional coaches.
She said math was the subject in which there were the most D’s, F’s and incomplete grades last spring and noted California is in the process of rolling out a revised math framework. She stressed the importance of the district working with its feeder schools to be leaders in curriculum and instruction.
Marcelle said the key to mitigating learning loss was lower class sizes “so children can get connections with their teachers so that they will be engaged with their teachers.”
“To get lower class sizes, you need to have more teachers, so that’s the sort of thing we need to be doing and concentrating on,” she said.
Candidates discuss learning amid prolonged pandemic
Several candidates agreed that deferring to public-health officials and any guidelines they may issue was the best way to continue to manage learning amid the ongoing pandemic.
Uhlhorn said her “guiding light would be keeping kids in in-person school,” noting that data shows there is less transmission of COVID-19 among kids in school than out. However, she said, it’s not the board’s role to create COVID guidelines, stressing the importance of following rules set by health officials.
“They are the scientists, they are the experts,” she said.
Roenisch agreed, saying “we defer to the experts with the focus on prioritizing keeping the schools open, given the evidence around transmission and the importance of people being in person for learning.”
She said should it become necessary for the district to temporarily move to remote learning due to an outbreak or increased virulence, “that can happen much more quickly than it did in past.”
“We’ve got the technology, teaching practices and all of that,” she said.
Saavedra said following public-health guidelines served the district well, noting “we are lucky to live in a community that believes in science.”
“I believe we have adhered ourselves to science, and I think we have done well in that effort and thankfully with the support of our community,” he said.
McVeigh said she also likes to listen to the experts, but she pointed to the Great Barrington Declaration, an open letter published in October 2020 by Sunetra Gupta, a professor of epidemiology at University of Oxford; Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University; and Martin Kulldorff, who at the time was a professor of medicine at Harvard University.
The letter called COVID-19 lockdowns harmful and said they could be avoided through “focused protection,” in which those at risk could be kept safe while society continued to function normally, presuming without evidence that mass infection could be tolerated. The World Health Organization was among the numerous academic and public-health groups that called the strategy harmful and said it lacked scientific basis.
McVeigh claimed the vast majority of people who had “very unfortunate reactions” to COVID were “extremely elderly” or had “major dietary diseases,” which she said calls out for a larger conversation about nutrition.
“Nutrition is where we need to go,” she said. “We need to make sure our children are healthy.”
Marcelle said she thought the district “did a great job with COVID” and said she was very pleased that the county made masks optional in schools earlier this year.
“I think keeping masks off is a really good idea,” she said, adding that keeping schools open would be the way to go in the future.
Candidates give takes on district budget, curriculum
After a sustained period of increasing enrollment, the Tamalpais district is now projecting enrollment will decline over the next several years. In the current school year, the district is expecting 4,844 students across its five schools. That’s projected to drop to 4,685 students next year, 4,538 in 2024-2025, 4,336 in 2025-2026 and 4,236 in 2026-2027.
Uhlhorn said the district has done a great job over the last four years building its reserve fund amid the enrollment boom.
Now that enrollment is slowing down, she said, it’s important to align the district’s staffing needs accordingly, hopefully through natural attrition through retirements rather than layoffs. She also said the district needs to be aware of rising pension costs and how a potential recession could affect the basic-aid district, which is primarily funded through property and parcel taxes rather than state and federal funds.
“We need to make sure as we look at the out-years that we’re really planning to staff appropriately and proportionally as we reduce our enrollment,” she said.
Marcelle said the key to maintaining a balanced budget and ensuring student success amid declining enrollment is to continue to find ways to share expenses with other districts. She applauded the current board for building the reserve fund.
“The board is completely ready for any recession that could or could not be coming along our way,” she said.
Saavedra pointed out that when he was elected to the board, the district was in danger of fiscal insolvency. To course correct, he said, the board had to make hard decisions and be accountable to the community for those choices.
“We’re in a good place now,” he said. “Going forward, it is ensuring that we stay at a comfortable reserve level while we are hopefully able to reintroduce programming we feel is valuable at schools and throughout the community.”
He said managing a basic-aid district “is like turning a battleship: you need to see it years in advance.”
Roenisch said continued fiscal stability in the district partially hinges on having board members who are “fluent in financials.” She said the attitude of fiscal prudence is shared in the district by the board, Superintendent Tara Taupier and staff.
“We are a team working on this, trying to maintain and even extend the phenomenal programs that we have while also having healthy reserves where if something happened, we’d have time to unwind,” she said.
McVeigh noted that Marin is “one of the most artistic communities in the country,” adding that it’s home to musicians Narada Michael Walden, Carlos Santana and Joan Baez and that there are “diverse cultural artists in the Canal (district of San Rafael) who are phenomenal.” She suggested collaborating with the county’s artistic community to fundraise for the schools.
“Why are we not tapping into these people who have lived here and want to contribute to their own community while showing our children what it means to come together as a community?” she asked.
Most candidates agreed the district needed to take steps to ensure that student curriculum is relevant to life outside of school, though they expressed some differences in how they thought the district should approach that topic.
McVeigh said the community has gone “so big-tech heavy,” which she said was a “real injustice.” She said the economics behind big tech have supported an “authoritarian communist nation,” referring to China.
“What we’re lacking in is showing (students) and valuing (students) for other kinds of work besides technology,” she said.
She said the district needs to reconfigure educational priorities and what it considers essential learning.
“That goes to food, that goes to land, land management, restoration, some of the problems that (students) are going to be facing,” she said.
Roenisch said curriculum needs to be engaging and culturally responsive so “students can see connections between what they’re getting in the classroom and the experiences they’re having in the real world.” She noted the district does have several programs, including the Team and Pathway programs, that are more directly related to job pursuits and that the district recently brought back its teacher leader program, in which teachers are focusing on reviewing curriculum and addressing the issue of relevance.
Uhlhorn agreed the district is “tackling this (issue) head on” and again stressed the importance of culturally responsive teaching and hiring diverse staff members.
“We know students do better when they’re reflected in the people who are teaching them and the books and history they’re learning about,” she said.
She also said there’s a new career program being rolled out that will be open to students countywide and housed at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael and noted it’s important for the county Office of Education and school districts to work together on initiatives like that.
Saavedra also pointed to the importance of the district’s Team and Pathways programs. He said that coming out of the pandemic, the district had an opportunity to think innovatively.
“Whether that is getting kids out of the classroom into the natural environment or a more commercial environment to help them understand the application of what they’re learning into what would ultimately be career, or college and then a career, I think that the oddity of COVID provides an opportunity to reconceive some of those things, and I believe that thinking has begun,” he said.
Marcelle was skipped over by the moderator and was not given an opportunity to provide a response, and she did not ask for a turn before the moderator moved on to the next question.
Reach Assistant Editor Emily Lavin, The Ark’s youth and Strawberry reporter, at 415-944-3841.