Candidates vying for seats on the Santa Clara County Board of Education shared their priorities Thursday with a packed house.
More than 500 students, parents and elected officials turned out for a candidate forum hosted by nonprofit Rocketship Public Schools, a charter school system within the county. Candidates addressed issues ranging from mental health support in schools to the importance of working with underserved communities.
The Santa Clara County Office of Education oversees more than 30 school districts, providing academic programs as well as monitoring schools’ academic progress and finances. The board of education includes seven members representing different parts of the county.
Four candidates are running for two open seats on the board of education. Three out of the four candidates were present including Maimona Afzal Berta, Magdalena Carrasco and Natalie Prcevski. Raeena Lari was absent. Incumbent Tara Sreekrishnan also participated. She is running unopposed in November to retain her seat.
Families should have their voices represented as schools go beyond the classroom to become community hubs, said Yesenia Fernandez, co-chair of the event and Rocketship parent volunteer. Board of education leadership is especially crucial for charter schools, whose charters are renewed and approved by board members.
“Everything starts with education,” Fernandez told San José Spotlight. “I really hope that in the next four years the people that sit on this board really consider what it is our students actually need.”
Franklin-McKinley School District board member Maimona Afzal Berta and District 5 San Jose City Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, who terms out in December, are both competing for the Area 6 seat. The seat is currently held by Peter Ortiz, who is running for the city council seat in District 5. Area 6 is based in East San Jose and includes Alum Rock Union School District, Franklin-McKinley School District, Mt. Pleasant School District and parts of East Side Union High School District and San Jose Unified School District.
Berta said her priorities include multiple pathways to college and career readiness, early education and ensuring equal access to resources and programs such as child care. A recent report revealed that free, public child care would enable more than 7,000 Santa Clara County households, especially low-income families, to afford basic needs without aid.
“We have a unique position to make sure that we are providing top quality, excellent, equitable academic policies for everyone to learn,” Berta said.
Carrasco said her focus is on connecting students to mental health resources and families to early education and other tools.
“I want to make sure that our families and our children have opportunities so that they can go ahead and decide what they want to do with their future,” Carrasco said.
Charter School Foundation Secretary Natalie Prcevski is facing off against Santa Clara County Health Advisory Commissioner Raeena Lari for the Area 7 seat, which includes Evergreen School District, Morgan Hill Unified School District, Gilroy Unified School District and parts of Oak Grove School District and East Side Union High School District. Claudia Rossi currently holds the seat and will not run for reelection after an unsuccessful bid for the District 1 Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors seat in June.
Lari declined to participate in the forum.
Prcevski said her priorities are addressing student mental health, building stronger relationships between schools and communities and closing the academic achievement gap. State and county efforts have pushed for expanded access to early education for children younger than age 5.
“I’m running because I want to propel academic achievement for all students across the county and across all levels of learners,” Prcevski said.
Incumbent Tara Sreekrishnan represents Area 2, including Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District, Cupertino Union School District, Lakeside Joint Union School District, Loma Prieta Joint Union School District, Los Gatos Union School District and Saratoga Union School District. The area also includes parts of Santa Clara Unified School District.
Sreekrishnan said her continued goals include early education and student mental health. The county is also focusing on expanding climate change education and environmental literacy, she said.
Policymaking in education
Candidates were asked how they would prioritize education over politics, which has become a hot button issue this election cycle. They were questioned about academic policies pertaining to charter school renewals and school funding.
All the candidates said families should have decision-making power over where their children attend school. The women also agreed board reviews for charter school renewals and funding should be evaluated with the same standards as traditional public schools.
On the issue of what should be prioritized, Berta said her focus is equity-based and includes organizing at the community level to address issues like the digital divide. In the Silicon Valley, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed disparities in how many students struggled to access digital resources like WiFi and devices for online learning.
“We have the potential to continue to center ourselves around issues of equity that are actually impacting our children, our students, and our community, but it does take that cross collaboration,” Berta said.
Separating politics from education includes partnerships between schools and underserved communities like East San Jose, Carrasco said.
“A district that has been underserved, not for decades but for generations—it has led to poverty, it has led to under-resourced families who are desperate to get out of the cycle. We have to do better,” Carrasco said.
Prcevski said policymaking requires innovative ideas and ensuring families’ voices are heard.
“It’s important that the board at the county level is balanced and it’s made up of folks that come from diverse backgrounds, that come from diverse professions and include parents of students that are in the system today,” Prcevski said.
Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.