Should Silicon Valley school boards have term limits?
East Side Union High School District Trustee J. Manuel Herrera speaks to students at the Latino Role Model conference at Overfelt High School. Herrera has been a school board member since 1990. Photo courtesy of J. Manuel Herrera.

    Most Santa Clara County school districts do not impose term limits, which has enabled some board members to remain in office for decades.

    This lack of term limits means boards that never change can become unresponsive to the communities they serve, experts said. But board members themselves said maintaining historical knowledge can provide decadeslong leadership that makes a difference.

    Pedro Nava, Santa Clara University director of educational leadership, said the debate over term limits is tied to community engagement. Having no term limits means new voices have less of a chance to be on the board, he added. It could also mean residents are less motivated to participate in meetings and education processes.

    “Our school boards historically tend to favor folks who are older, who are professionals, who are retired,” Nava told San José Spotlight. “We essentially don’t end up getting a school board that represents (and gets) people in community spaces.”

    Santa Clara County Office of Education Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan said term limits are rare in the region’s school districts. School boards or residents can propose limits, although that’s subject to voter approval, she said. Across the nation, the down ballot seats are facing wider scrutiny as education issues face rising political polarization. A new state bill could place contribution limits on school board campaigns for the first time.

    J. Manuel Herrera is an East Side Union High School District board member with a tenure spanning more than three decades, starting in 1990 . He said it’s not a question of how long trustees serve, but how much they’re able to do. His district enrolls more than 21,000 students in 19 high schools and adult education programs.

    “Longevity is only one factor… It depends on what an individual board member brings to the process,” Herrera told San José Spotlight. “I’ve been able to offer more over time and to refine my understanding of how the systems work locally.”

    Herrera said his institutional knowledge means he’s able to understand the history behind the district’s decisions. He said his experience paid off during the 2016-17 school year when the district’s negotiations with the teacher’s union stalled. Herrera said his report on fiscal decisions throughout the years contributed to understanding on both sides and a new contract.

    Herrera is the longest serving member in the district, with board member Van Le serving more than 12 years, Pattie Cortese roughly eight years and Lorena Chavez and Bryan Do in their fifth and third years, respectively.

    Franklin-McKinley School District board member George Sanchez, who has served since 1993, said long tenures mean board members can spend decades improving critical programs on issues such as academic achievement and English language development. The district enrolls more than 9,200 students at 16 schools and five charter schools.

    Sanchez sits on a board with several new members. Besides board member Rudy Rodriguez who took office in 2010, three of five members are less than one year into their terms.

    “We’re the ones who have been here the longest of all, so we can have a better sense in terms of the programs in place and what has to be done to improve,” Sanchez told San José Spotlight.

    The pluses and minuses

    Santa Clara Unified School District board member Andrew Ratermann said while term limits can allow challengers to win elections against incumbents, high turnover can also mean school boards become political pit stops.

    “The advantages of a term limit are those new fresh faces that come in, the people with new ideas, new energy levels,” Ratermann said. “Unfortunately, there’s a fair number of people that use the school board as a stepping stone to move forward (politically).”

    On the flipside, Ratermann, who’s served since 2004, said no term limits means he was able to follow the yearslong process of opening three new schools in his district. The district serves more than 15,000 students across more than 30 campuses.

    Rodriguez, the Franklin-Mckinley School District board member, said long-term school board members underscore how much time is actually needed to create change.

    “When I first got elected to the board, I was all energetic and ambitious to make things happen right away,” Rodriguez told San José Spotlight. “I came onto the board thinking that I could have an immediate impact.”

    Rodriguez said he’s still working on the problems he hoped to address when he came into office in 2010, including the academic achievement gap among Latino students.

    Nava said districts can work to highlight the importance of school boards, while encouraging more student engagement and activism. Education leaders should also make meetings accessible and train more residents on education policymaking, he added.

    “Thinking about ways where we can increase democratic participation might be a better place to invest,” he said. “We oftentimes underestimate the capacity that young people have to to understand what a high quality education is.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

    Comment Policy (updated 11/1/2021): We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by administrators.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.