A longtime Mountain View Whisman School District employee is joining the race for the school board this November, vowing to bring a new perspective to the board that's closely in tune with the district's students, parents and staff.
Manny Velasco quietly joined the race for the school board during the extended filing period earlier this month, making him the fifth candidate vying for three seats up for reelection this year. Two of the incumbents, Tamara Wilson and Jose Gutierrez, did not file to run, guaranteeing leadership change during a critical time for local schools.
Velasco worked for 15 years in the school district, spending the first 10 as a special education instructional assistant with some of the district's neediest students. Though the job is challenging, doesn't pay well and has a high burnout rate, Velasco said he enjoyed helping students with moderate to severe disabilities.
More recently, Velasco served as the district's School Linked Services coordinator, a county-funded job aimed at getting more parents and families engaged in local schools and linking underserved students to community services. He headed programs designed to help mostly Spanish-speaking families learn to navigate the U.S. public education system and be stronger advocates for their children.
Near the end of his tenure at the school district, Velasco also led classified staff as the local California School Employees Association (CSEA) president.
Velasco said he had been considering a run for the school board for years, and that he believes he could bring an important perspective to the board. He grew up mostly in Mountain View but spent his fourth grade studying in a rural, low-income school in Mexico, and said he had many of the same experiences of students arriving in Mountain View Whisman from other countries. He lives a block away from Castro Elementary and worked with the students at Castro and Graham Middle School for years, and said it's not always easy for families to acclimatize to the new environment.
"A lot of these students who come from other places have mental health issues or are just adapting to a whole new culture," Velasco said. "We need to make sure that we're helping them through that transition -- not just the language, not just the school but the cultural transition."
As students get older, Velasco said, they can articulate some of the challenges they've faced: being stuck in detention centers or crossing the border in dire situations, with a feeling that they can't express themselves because no one is listening or understands.
The timing to run for the school board is right, Velasco said, in part because he is no longer working for the district and won't have to worry about recusing himself. He recently quit to start up his own business -- a barbershop -- in Mountain View. It opened in January and was almost immediately shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It's been bad luck and has taken a toll, he said, but he's optimistic that the virus will clear up soon.
"It's definitely been trying times, but it looks like things are starting to maybe move in the right direction with this virus, so we'll see how we can adapt and be safe," he said.
As a school board member, Velasco said he would work to improve the district's English Language Development (ELD) program and get more kids speaking fluent English at an earlier age. He said his experience also put him in close contact with all employees, ranging from teachers and instructional assistants to janitors and front office staff, which would be an asset when making decision as a trustee.
A total of five candidates are seeking a spot on the school board this year. School board member Laura Blakely is running for reelection for a second term on the board, along with four challengers: Crittenden parent Patrick Neschleba; parent and former school principal Laura Ramirez Berman; and former school board member Chris Chiang.