The Los Altos School District, one of the top-performing districts in the Bay Area, has an education model focused on small neighborhood schools and an emphasis on safe routes for children to walk and bike to class.
Along with the sterling reputation, however, the school district has faced a series of challenges in recent years, including an unorthodox and expensive real estate deal for a new campus in Mountain View that has divided the community. And the district's long-standing feud with Bullis Charter School -- which quieted down under an agreement set to expire next year -- has threatened to resurface as mediated negotiations fell apart in the spring.
Both incumbents Vladimir Ivanovic and Bryan Johnson are seeking re-election this year to see through the plans they helped set in motion. The two challengers in the race are Vaishali "Shali" Sirkay and Ying Liu, both of whom are parents with children in the district. Board member Sangeeth Peruri, who opted not to run for re-election, holds the third of the three seats up for election on Nov. 6.
All the candidates agree that building consensus and finding common ground between the Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School is the best path forward for the greater district community, noting that the weak lines of communication between the two parties need fixing. Three of the candidates said they strongly believe buying land for a new school is the best use of the district's $150 million in Measure N funds, while Liu has reservations about any land acquisition that would consume all of the bond funds, leaving nothing for existing campuses.
Candidates have varying views about how the new 10th school site, if purchased, would best be used as a new elementary school.
All four candidates acknowledged that teaching staff have difficulty paying for the high cost of living on the district's salary schedule, and generally agreed that teachers should get paid as well as they can while maintaining fiscal stability. Johnson and Sirkay said they would back teacher housing efforts, including a recent proposal by county Supervisor Joe Simitian to build teacher housing in Palo Alto; Liu said she would support partnerships that provide teachers with commuter bus services, low-cost rental housing or flexible hours to ease the difficulty getting to and from work.
Occupation: Retired software engineer, homemaker
Education: B.S. and M.S. in computer science from Stanford University
Years in the district: 12
Bryan Johnson is a fairly new addition to the board of trustees, in 2016 taking over for former board member Tamara Logan, who resigned partway through her term. A Santa Rita parent who spends a great deal of time in the world of civic engagement, Johnson has sought to make himself an easy-to-reach community liaison for the board, with "office hours" and numerous opportunities to talk to local residents.
On the academic side, he said he supported efforts to increase teacher collaboration and instructional support staff, and helped initiate a summer school program aimed at "targeted" instruction for underserved students. Johnson said he believes his community engagement and role in partnering with the city of Mountain View to address enrollment growth are clear signs that he's the right choice to continue leading the school district for a full, four-year term.
Johnson said he believes the district has done its due diligence finding the right site for a new school, and that the slow and methodical process may pay off -- through a partnership with Mountain View, $150 million in bond funds is going to be effectively leveraged into $250 million in funding to buy land and build a new campus in the northern end of the school district.
Johnson describes the location as an the right place for a campus, which he believes will serve Mountain View residents.
"This will not only provide important community facilities and open space to the surrounding neighborhood, it will ensure that the district will have the capacity to serve the children who will live in the thousands of new apartments that will be built in that area over the next couple of decades," Johnson said.
Similar to his approach during recent school board discussions, Johnson reaffirmed that he wasn't prepared to make a decision on how to use the new school. In general, he said his decision would seek to "minimize negative impacts" to educational programs and surrounding neighborhoods, and that he and fellow trustees must grapple with the potential drawback that a neighborhood school would concentrate most of the district's low-income and English learner students on one campus.
Johnson pointed out that Bullis Charter School has shown an interest in serving low-income families in the neighboring Mountain View Whisman School District, and looks forward to discussing whether the charter school would be willing to further that goal by serving socio-economically disadvantaged students from the San Antonio area on the new campus.
While recent news has shown the relationship between the school district and Bullis Charter School is threatening to unravel, Johnson said he has made a concerted effort to bring both parties together over the last two years and would intend to continue that work if re-elected. He is currently among the small group of people tasked with negotiating a new facilities agreement with the charter school.
"I look forward both to better understanding the BCS vision for how they fit into LASD, and to working collaboratively to find a long-term facilities solution that will benefit both of our educational programs and all of our school communities," he said.
Top priorities for Johnson include seeing the 10th site acquisition to completion, boosting education programs with instructional support for teachers and supplemental summer school academics, and strengthening the district's financial position in a way that braces for an eventual economic downturn.
Occupation: Mother, former senior director at Apple
Education: B.E. in industrial management and trade; MBA from Michigan State University
Years in the district: 4 years
Ying Liu, a parent of children attending Bullis Charter School, refers to herself as a candidate with the open-mindedness and collaborative spirit required to bring the Los Altos School District community together during divisive times. She said she's not an insider with the charter school or LASD leadership, and has spent her years in the district -- and lately on the campaign trail -- talking to hundreds of parents about the best path forward for the district.
Liu describes herself as a strong advocate for public education and feels strongly that both the charter school and district-run schools in Los Altos are exceptional, picking the former because of the allure of a Madarin language program for her children. She believes her experience as a Chinese teacher in upstate New York, followed by an oversight role at Apple for procurement and facility projects, puts her in a good position to lead the school district.
Liu said she appreciates the massive amount of work that has gone into the district's facilities planning, including how to spend the Measure N bond money, but she worries that the school board took too narrow of an approach to the problem by focusing solely on land acquisition. By not exploring and fleshing out details of the alternatives, she said the school district set the stage for a deeply divisive debate over how to best spend the bond funds, which threatens to continue a feud between the district and the charter school that goes back 15 years.
She said the possibility of alternatives -- upgrading existing school sites instead of buying new real estate -- looks even more appealing now, given that enrollment has declined by hundreds of students in recent years.
If the district does move forward on a San Antonio school, which she said she could be amenable to if the purchase price is "reasonable" and offset by financial support from the city of Mountain View, she would prefer using the site for a neighborhood school. The area already has just under 700 students, a number that is expected to grow, and it would unite the neighborhood and give it a stronger sense of community.
"It is a golden opportunity to demonstrate that our district can support all children," Liu said.
Although the area has a majority of the district's low-income and non-English speaking families, Liu argues that's hardly a strike against a neighborhood school -- the children will be motivated to thrive and succeed academically if given the right resources, and she "sincerely doubts" that the families would be unwilling or unable to contribute funding and volunteer at the school.
As a trustee, Liu said she would be effectively bridge communications between the charter school and the district, which could be done through frequent one-on-one meetings with board members, parent representatives and "thought leaders" from both. She said focusing on the facts, setting clear goals and analyzing pros and cons should be central to the ongoing debates about charter school facilities, enrollment growth and other major issues.
If elected, Liu said her priorities would include preparing children to "excel as global citizens," in part through curriculum development focused on STEM, arts, foreign language and social studies, and that she would bridge the district's communities in order to tackle "difficult problems" facing the community. She said she would also seek to spend Meausure N money wisely, and make sure the bond funds benefit every school.
Vaishali "Shali" Sirkay
Occupation: Community relations specialist
Education: M.P.H. in community health and development from the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, B.A. in anthropology from Barnard College
Years in the district: 11
Vaishali Sirkay, better known as Shali, has immersed herself in community organizations and school campaign efforts in both Mountain View and Los Altos in recent years. She's carrying out concurrent roles on the board of directors for the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC), the Los Altos Community Coalition and the Los Altos School District's Citizen Advisory Committee on Finance, and has a seat on the steering committee for Los Altos Forward.
Calling herself a community builder with a rich history serving local schools, Sirkay said she believes she has honed a leadership style ideal for serving on the school board, focused on collaboration and bringing diverse groups together towards a common goal. Her prominent roles on the campaigns to pass Measure N and the Measure GG parcel tax involved rallying both district and charter school families behind a common cause, which backs her resume as a consensus builder.
Those skills, along with strong networking in the community, would be a solid asset on the board of trustees, she said.
It's been a long process figuring out how to spend Measure N bond money, but Sirkay said she believes the school district's slow and deliberate approach to spending $150 million has shown trustees are "excellent stewards" of public funds. Instead of buying "subpar" parcels out the gate and building a school on an expedited timeline, she said trustees instead searched for the best option and put together a plan with the city of Mountain View that will stretch the bond funds to the fullest extent. Her views are mostly consistent with the consensus among current school board members.
"We simply cannot look at easy fixes that will get us through the next three to five years," she said. "Let's look at the next 10, 15, 20 years."
Sirkay said she acknowledges the traffic and safety risks of students crossing El Camino Real, but stopped short of advocating for a specific site use at a future school in Mountain View. She said the school could be occupied by either a neighborhood school or Bullis Charter, and she hopes that -- if Bullis is placed at the site -- that the charter school would choose to give priority enrollment to families in the area.
Disputes between the school district and the charter school over facilities -- along with planning for future growth -- require a good working relationship that goes both ways, Sirkay said. She believes the recent face-to-face meetings between board members from both sides are a good step in the right direction, and that she would seek to understand what issues are "most critical" to charter school families.
"Both sides need to understand each other's motivations in order to move forward together," she said.
If elected, Sirkay said her top goals would be to support teachers so they can continue to provide a high quality education; address enrollment growth that focuses on long-term needs and a permanent home for Bullis; and embracing a "community-based" approach to supporting education goals of children and families.
Occupation: Retired software and computer engineer, manager and "marketeer"
Education: B.S. in computer science from Union College; M.S. in computer engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Years in the district: 9
Board member Vladimir Ivanovic, a Gardner Bullis parent, cut his teeth on school district governance by carefully monitoring the district's financial health for two years before joining the school board in 2014. At the time, he vowed to solve the district's long-running problem of having no school in Mountain View's San Antonio area, while also putting the district on track with a stable, long-term financial plan.
Ivanovic's four-year term involved working to reach the first goal, and the district appears closer than ever to finally having a school in the area. The second goal is an ongoing challenge, given the limits on state funding and the lower rate of revenue growth relative to neighboring districts, but Ivanovic said he's happy to see so much interest by prospective teachers to join the Los Altos School District.
"We still get many applicants who specifically want to work in the Los Altos School District," he said. "This is proof that despite severe budget constraints, LASD is a great place to work. I want to make sure that continues to be true."
Despite criticisms about the planning and use of Measure N funds, Ivanovic said the district has an indisputable track record of being transparent and seeking public input over the last six years. Study groups, forums, discussion groups and online surveys all played into the decisions being considered today, he said, many of which were open to the public.
Where the district fell short, Ivanovic said, was convincing a "minority" of district residents that it makes no sense to develop specific plans for constructing a new school on land that the district doesn't even own yet.
"LASD will not be able to accommodate the students coming out of new developments in the North of El Camino area without a new school site," he said. "A 10th school site in NEC is our last best hope of buying a suitably large parcel at a very low cost."
Ivanovic's preference is to open a school in the San Antonio neighborhood that serves the families living in the traditionally underserved area, but he said he needs to keep an open mind and consider the "educational outcomes" of the decision and how it would affect all students in the district. He has argued for putting the brakes on a decision at least until the land has been purchased.
The relationship between the district and the charter school requires a lot of trust-building, which Ivanovic described as tenuous and risks being "destroyed with just one ill-conceived action or comment." Still, Ivanovic said the expiring five-year agreement and shared campaigning and interest in the Measure N bond and Measure GG parcel tax show signs that both groups can build trust.
"I have made some specific proposals to the BCS leadership on how to collaborate and cooperate, and they are evaluating them seriously," Ivanovic said.
Among his top priorities, Ivanovic said he wants to improve the district's curriculum and teaching practices; buy the 10th school site and ensure safe routes to school around Egan; and establish high-quality after-school programs for students seeking remedial and accelerated instruction.