The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District is on the cusp of several major decisions that will be felt for decades, from how to spend $295 million in bond funds to preparing for an onslaught of enrollment growth exceeding 1,500 students in the coming decades.
District officials have suddenly found themselves immersed in not only academic performance and managing classroom activities, but also real estate negotiations with developers -- including tech giant Google -- on how to support an influx of new students. At the same time, the district must grapple with an achievement gap that district administrators admit looks a lot like an intractable problem.
Despite the challenges, the district is in a comfortable financial position, test scores have remained relatively high and stable, and the district's administration has gone to great lengths to make sure developers will help accommodate the projected housing growth in Mountain View. All four candidates for the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District's board of trustees -- two incumbents and two challengers -- say that the district has been a quiet, well-run agency that avoids controversy, split board votes and testy exchanges over public policy.
District staffers also are dealing with an increasing number of students with stress and anxiety seeking services from the school district. The district's clinical services staff has gone into overdrive to support upwards of 800 students with services over the last two years, and say that the school's services -- though separate from academics -- are filling an unmet mental health need in the community.
Vying for the three seats up for election are board members Debbie Torok and Fiona Walter and challengers Steven Nelson and Catherine Vonnegut. Nelson is a former Mountain View Whisman school board member known for being controversial and divisive, while Vonnegut is a Mountain View parent with a long background in volunteerism and involvement in the school community.
Whoever wins the election will help decide how to spend a majority of the $295 million in Measure E bond funds, which are aimed at adding much-needed classroom space at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools to accommodate near-term growth. Candidates largely agreed that long-term growth caused by construction in North Bayshore and East Whisman will need to be addressed -- and partially paid for -- by developers who want to build housing, and that the district has done a good job lobbying in the interest of schools.
Occupation: Retired software engineer and computer scientist
Education: B.S. in math and M.S. in computer science from Purdue University; licensed EMT
Years in the district: 41
Catherine Vonnegut has spent four decades in volunteer roles for local schools, serving young children to adults across Mountain View and Los Altos. She served as Mountain View High's first PTSA president -- which had previously not been PTA affiliated -- and played a major role in launching the Mountain View Whisman School District's Choral Fest, which she called an important community-building event as the Mountain View and Whisman school districts merged.
Vonnegut said the depth of her experience and knowledge, both present and historic, will be a valuable asset to a district that is mostly on the right track. She gives district officials high marks for providing lower-performing students with academic support and mental health services, and believes that district officials and city leaders are doing a good job working "in concert" with developers on an expected explosion in housing growth.
With regard to closing the achievement gap, Vonnegut said the district can only do so much with a limited annual budget. The district's tutoring centers are great resources and more volunteers should be encouraged, and more can be done to enhance the so-called "buddy system" with peer tutors. Vonnegut said good, equal access to technology, particularly computers and high-speed internet, is also essential.
For attracting and retaining teachers in such a high-cost environment, Vonnegut said she believes that teacher housing and matching teachers with homeowners who have a spare room could put a dent in the problem. A transportation program aimed at shuttling teachers to work, similar to employee transportation programs run by local companies, could also be part of the solution. Vonnegut said she would also prioritize staff training to make sure teachers are prepared for curriculum changes and new classroom tech and understand their role in supporting students with mental health needs.
Students in the district face a wide range of academic, social, emotional and economic stress and anxiety, and Vonnegut said the district should acknowledge that with a financial commitment to mental health services.
"Continual access to counselors and methods to identify students in need, and training for teachers, can help students," Vonnegut said. "On-site counselors and partnerships with mental health agencies are already providing some services and probably need expanding."
Vonnegut said she's not sold on the idea of building field lights at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, at least not yet. Community feedback to date shows neighbors are already concerned about the use of pool lighting and sound systems at the campuses, along with the car and pedestrian traffic that comes with nighttime school events, and that more needs to be done to show nearby residents a clear plan to mitigate the effects of stadium lights.
"Communication is key about what may happen, and to get feedback on procedures or plans," she said.
Vonnegut said her top three priorities as a school board member would be adoption of an academic curriculum that addresses the "competition" that students face, the health and safety of students -- particularly for mental health -- and preparing students, teachers and administrators for rapidly changing technology.
Occupation: Retired engineer, former substitute teacher
Education: B.A. in astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley; M.S. in scientific instrumentation at the University of California at Santa Barbara; secondary teaching credential in science and math at San Jose State University.
Years in the district: 31
After serving a turbulent four years on the Mountain View Whisman School District's board of trustees, during which he was formally censured for his unprofessional conduct, Steven Nelson said his experience in governance will allow him to hit the ground running as an effective legislator for the high school district. He describes himself as a "change agent" who could shake things up at the district leadership level and focus on fiscal responsibility.
Although his career mostly consists of 30 years as an engineer, he touts five years of classroom experience as a substitute teacher, and he has had children attending the high school district from 2003 through this year.
Nelson has been vocal for years about responsible use of state funds for "targeted" students, which include students still learning English, low-income students and foster youth. He said this money should be clearly separated from general population programs and used to create smaller class sizes and math-focused summer school for all incoming ninth-grade students performing below grade level. He also advocates for individual tutoring to be available to families of targeted students when requested.
Although attracting and retaining teachers is a major concern for most school districts in the Bay Area, Nelson argues Mountain View-Los Altos doesn't share the same problems as other school districts -- the generous salary schedule for tenured employees is enough to entice high quality staff, and the district can afford to winnow down new hires through what he calls a "highly controlled and competitive tenure process." Still, Nelson said as a trustee he would support teacher housing ideas aimed at newer teachers on the lower rungs of the district's pay scale.
Nelson said he believes field lights won't be a big issue if the district comes at the proposal the right way, including neighborhood residents in adopting a "good neighbor policy" along the lines of what's required under the state's environmental impact laws. This includes noise, off-site parking, traffic and light pollution.
"From what I heard directly from the superintendent, the administration takes this very seriously now, and most of the current board does (as well)," Nelson said.
Nelson said the recent legislative landscape in California shows lawmakers and the governor alike have put a strong emphasis on improving access to youth mental health services, and the district needs to be ready to apply for any grants or funding that may become available. He said the district also needs to keep a close eye on survey data so the board can make policy changes based on the mental health needs of students. Breaking that information down by demographics could also shed more light on the problem.
Nelson's top priorities, if elected, would be to support fiscal policies that prioritize student achievement, better communication with the community and ensuring that "excellence of instruction" is a top priority for all teachers, administrators and staff.
Occupation: Incumbent, software engineer
Education: B.A. in computer science, college not provided
Years in the district: 24
Debbie Torok is one of the longest-serving trustees currently on the board, running unopposed in the 2010 election and in 2014 retaining her seat in one of the district's rare contested elections. During her tenure, Torok said the district got the ball rolling on school construction, narrowing the achievement gap and promoting "wellness" initiatives, and she wants to stick around to shepherd all three to completion.
"I believe my eight years of board experience ... will enable me to provide valuable continuity and historical perspective as we move forward," Torok said.
Torok said addressing the achievement gap is an ongoing effort, and that the district is "continuously" looking to improve performance among all students. She believes the district's ongoing Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) gives residents a clear blueprint for how district administrators plan to tackle the achievement gap and improve academic performance across all demographics, and that it holds board members like herself accountable for how to best leverage the district's resources.
Torok points to the district's recent effort to provide Chromebooks and internet access to all students, particularly the Chromebook loaner program for families of modest means, as an important milestone for supporting economically disadvantaged students.
Although teachers in the area struggle with the high cost of living, Torok said the district's generous compensation and ongoing funding for teachers to take part in workshops, conferences and professional development has helped the district attract and retain top teaching staff. She describes teacher housing proposals as a "difficult discussion" that's on her radar, and said she plans to attend an upcoming teacher housing "town hall" discussion to hear more ideas.
On the controversial topic of field lights, Torok said she needs to be convinced that adding lights would provide a substantial academic and extracurricular benefit for the district's students. Proponents say it adds badly needed field time for a growing student body and could be key to shifting to a later school start time.
"We need to develop a more detailed understanding of the potential benefits of lights, relative to needs they are intended to address," she said.
Lights or not, Torok said it's become "evident" during the debate that the district needs to do a better job communicating with residents near the campus and mitigate light, noise and other negative effects on the neighboring single-family homes if it decides to install field lights.
As a member of the district Wellness Committee, Torok said she is always on the lookout for better mental health programs that could be provided by the district. Under her watch, the district has put together what's described as a three-tiered plan to help students with varying levels of needs, from universal mental health education to frequent outpatient services available on campus. The new homework policy, aimed at reducing academic anxiety and lowering overall workloads, was also adopted while Torok served as a board member.
If re-elected, Torok said she would prioritize the mental health and well-being of students and staff; emphasize challenges created by social media, including bullying and sharing of inappropriate content; and narrow the achievement gap across the board through programs that "identify" student needs quickly and include families.
Occupation: Incumbent, engineer and tech editor
Education: B.S. in mechanical engineering and M.S. in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University
Years in the district: 24
Whether it's on campus or on the campaign trail, Fiona Walter has been a familiar face in the local education scene going back 15 years. Serving on PTA boards, oversight committees and taking lead roles on so many measures it begins to look like alphabet soup, Walter said she has the depth and breadth of knowledge to continue to serve as a Mountain View-Los Altos trustee for the next four years.
And while she largely approves of the district's performance since she was voted into office in 2014, Walter said there's certainly room to improve. Test scores need to show the district is serving all students, and there needs to be a support network for students at risk of falling behind. She said the district also needs to be engaged and conscientious of Mountain View's major plans for residential growth, and ensure new facilities are built with the future in mind.
Walter said the district must be "absolutely sure" that all students who walk onto campus are given the chance to grow academically during their four years in high school, pointing to a series of initiatives that she believes will close the "opportunity" gap, and by extension, the achievement gap. This includes expansion of the college-readiness AVID program; courses and summer programs designed to give a boost to students in math; and an emphasis on getting more parents involved in their student's academics through the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) program.
Despite having some of the best-paid teachers in the state, Walter said she understands many teachers are struggling with the cost of living in the area. She said she values creative ways to curb the problem, particularly Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian's idea of building teacher housing in Palo Alto. Walter said tenured teachers deserve opportunities to grow through a mix of "professional development, advanced certifications, and ongoing best practices for our students."
On field lights, Walter said the district should take measures to reduce the impact on those living closest to the fields, but argues there are a lot of potential benefits if students could extend field use into the evening. Student athletes wouldn't have to leave class so early -- losing between 30 minutes to an hour of class time for each game -- and moving the school's start time later in the morning means students would further rely on lights for later practice and game times.
"I support the development of a use agreement that takes into account the concerns of neighbors while providing the district with both athletic and academic benefits for our students now and into the future," she said.
Walter commends the district for placing what she calls an "enormous" effort on student and staff mental health during her time on the board, including homework policies aimed at easing stress and academic anxiety, and the hiring of a total of seven full-time therapists for the district's schools. She said the board's decision to include student wellness centers in the future Measure E construction plans will "further augment" these efforts.
If re-elected, Walter said her top priorities would be construction of new facilities and preparing for enrollment growth, cost-conscious decisions for a growing student body and support for students struggling with academics and mental health.