Former Mountain View Whisman school board member Steve Nelson announced his candidacy for the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District board of trustees, vowing to fight for better representation on the school board and a clear plan to raise math achievement among Latino and other minority students.
The race for three seats on the school board, which was expected to go uncontested as of Wednesday last week, will now be between incumbents Fiona Walter and Debbie Torok and challengers Catherine Vonnegut and Nelson.
Nelson told the Voice that his decision to run something of a whim, after airplane troubles scuttled his vacation plans to Maui earlier this month. Since he was home rather than in Hawaii, he said he decided to file candidate papers at the last minute. Nelson said there shouldn't be uncontested elections, and that voters should have an opportunity to choose between the candidates best fit to lead the school district.
The high school district's governance has been quiet for decades, with a long string of uncontested elections and a roster of trustees known for unanimous votes on just about every decision. Some residents see the status quo as a signs that the district's operations are a well-oiled machine, while critics have argued that the board acts as a rubber stamp for the superintendent and other district administrators. Nelson's stance firmly falls under the latter viewpoint.
"I don't think this represents a good legislative environment," he said. "They shouldn't be in stasis mode."
The argument was the centerpiece of debate in the district's last contested election in 2014, where outsiders critical of the district's governance lacked the votes to upset the incumbents on election night.
Walter, who is seeking a second term on the board this year, said she has enjoyed serving the district over the last four years, and would like to continue her work on long-term issues related to enrollment growth, school construction, and academic and mental health support for struggling students.
Torok, seeking a third term, told the Voice she said wants to see through major facilities plans set in motion by the passage of the $295 million Measure E bond earlier this year, and that it wouldn't feel right to step down right as designs and contracts start coming in. It's important for the district to stick to campaign promises made to voters earlier this year, she said, along with keeping students' educational needs, safety and well being a top priority.
Sticking around after the first term wasn't her intent back in 2010, Torok said, but she now feels "vested and deeply committed" to student success.
A long-time Mountain View resident with a child who graduated from Mountain View High in 2005, Vonnegut has been an active parent volunteer in local schools for more than two decades. Along with past leadership roles at the Mountain View Education Foundation and the Mountain View High School PTSA, Vonnegut currently serves as a member of the high school district's Adult School Advisory Board and is a member of the local League of Women Voters for Mountain View and Los Altos.
If elected, Vonnegut said she will play the role of a pragmatic consensus-builder on the board, and that she would continue the district's long-standing track record of supporting all students and giving them an opportunity to qualify for colleges and four-year universities.
Nelson said his goals include holding the district accountable for supporting so-called "target" students, and that any money provided by the state for low-income students, English learners and foster youth needs to be spent exclusively on those students -- something that frequently irked him while he was a trustee for the Mountain View Whisman School District. He also vowed to spearhead an effort to introduce voting districts to ensure all areas of Mountain View and Los Altos are represented on the board, and said that no residents north of El Camino Real have served on the board dating back to 2000.
"It's clear, from whose been on the board and where they have lived in this last century, that it's time for district elections," he said.
Nelson was often the lone dissenting voice during Mountain View Whisman school board meetings during his one term on the board from 2012 to 2016, both on controversial topics as well as routine board business. He would occasionally articulate his points through posters, maps and charts. The dissent boiled over into public clashes over his many records requests, conducting his own opinion poll of residents and organizing meetings about a teacher housing idea. His clashes with the district's construction management firm and then-superintendent Craig Goldman led to tense board meetings and Goldman's resignation during the school year. Goldman left with a nearly $230,000 pay out in exchange for his signing a non-disparagement agreement and waiving of his legal right to sue the district and the school board .
Although Mountain View-Los Altos board member Joe Mitchner had pulled papers to file for candidacy, he ultimately decided against running for another term. He told the Voice in a statement earlier this month that his students have graduated from the district, and that now seems like the right time to step away from the district's governance and pursue more opportunities in the community and in his personal and family life.