By Kiara Kunnes and Sarah Westergren, Print and Online Editor-in-Chief
// As the election for an opening in the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) Governing Board comes to a close, Blueprint spoke with each of the four candidates, Paul Derksen, Christopher Severson, Nancy Kendzierski, and Bob Hockett, to discuss their campaign platforms. The board is responsible for setting the overriding policies of the district.
Lafayette residents can register to vote now (https://www.cocovote.us/acalanes-union-high-school-district/). Elections take place at Veterans Memorial Building in Lafayette on Nov. 6.
Below, you will find their transcripts, as well as the recordings of each candidate.
Transcripts (edited for length)
Blueprint: First off, I was just hoping you could tell me a little bit about your background in the education system and what you’ve been up to.
Derksen: So basically, I’ve spent the last 15 years or so volunteering at schools when my kids started in the public schools, and so I did a lot of PTA volunteer functions as treasurer, president, auction chair etc. I mean, you name it, and I’ve probably done it at some time.
Blueprint: What do you think is your primary platform or mission?
Derksen: Well it’s kind of funny, you know when people always ask about the platform for the school board. It’s always kind of interesting because it’s a nonpartisan position and there are five people on the board that basically have to work together to come to a consensus, and whatever personal opinions I have, that’s obviously going to drive some of my thinking, but it’s always about what’s best for the district as the whole and what’s best for the students and the families. So it’s kind of listening and hearing what’s going on and what’s playing here in the district and going from there.
Blueprint: So one of my questions was going to be what initiatives you plan to take, but it sounds like one of your goals is to be more nonpartisan. Could you just expand on that?
Derksen: Yeah. So the school board sets a strategic direction for the district, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that I would take any kind of initiatives, but there could be things that the school board as a whole directs the superintendent and the staff to look into, so, whatever things come up. I mean, I do hope if I get elected to be involved with the implementation of the new school calendar to make sure that it runs smoothly and that kind of thing, but I mean, it’s up to the school board to set a strategic direction. In my mind, what’s hard about being a board member is that you come in and you think you’re going to tackle some pet projects that you might have as a person, but that might not be necessarily effective for a school board. So like you kind of said, I’m open to hearing what’s going on and what are the important issues, and working within the team to figure out the best solution for the district.
Blueprint: And why should a voter choose you for the school board?
Derksen: Okay. So, you know, one of the things that came out of [the Contra Costa Television round table] is that there are essentially four qualified candidates. As one of the other candidates said, theoretically voters couldn’t go wrong with picking any three of them. And so how does someone really stand out? I think one thing I’m hoping is that one of the school board members that’s rolling off brought a little bit of financial background to the table, and I think with some of my background in my professional work and my volunteer work as treasurer dealing with the financial side, I’m kind of hoping to bring that to the table as one of the areas to stand out compared to the others.
Blueprint: Why are you running for the Acalanes School District Board this year?
Severson: I’m excited to help the high schools keep moving along, and for where we can to do even better. I was on the Orinda School Board four years ago, and so I worked with elementary schools, and that’s one of the feeder districts for the Acalanes district and we were able to do a lot of good stuff there, so I’m hoping to continue some of that good work on the Acalanes Board as well.
Blueprint: So you were President of the Orinda School Board District, correct?
Blueprint: So can you share some of your experiences over there? Like what were some of the issues you worked on and something you are particularly proud of over there?
Severson: Yeah, so a lot of what we work on is budgetary stuff because, again, one of the things the board is tasked with is looking over finances to make sure the finances are going well, so we worked a lot with that. Something I am proud of that we worked on there… One of the things that makes a school district great is the people there, and so a thing that we’re responsible for is helping to higher the superintendent and the principals and some other staff people. We were directly involved with that and I think we did a great job of bringing on some really good people to the Orinda School District. And when you have great people, things go much more smoothly than they would otherwise.
Blueprint: And if elected, what are student issues you want to focus on? I know student stress is a really big thing that the district is dealing with. Do you have a view on that or any other issues you want to focus on?
Severson: Yeah. So all the candidates get asked what their priorities are and my main priorities are first of all, which is what you already mentioned, student wellness. That’s the number one reason why I am running is to try and promote student wellness and make high schools here a little bit better place to be—less stress, more feeling safe, and things like that. And then other priorities, you know, are to maintain our great education because that is what we are charged to do, to educate our students, and third thing is again back to the money thing; making sure we’re spending our money wisely and not wasting it on things that aren’t helpful for the kids and the environment of the school, but making sure we spend our money on things that are really going to help out.
Blueprint: Ok and one of my last questions: Why do you think a voter should choose you for the school board?
Severson: Well, I am the only candidate that has kids in the school district right now. I am an emergency medicine physician, so I have a lot of training in health and wellness, and again, that’s really my own focus with my kids being involved in the Acalanes School District. And with my background, I think I can make a really good contribution to, and of course, the academics are important, but I think what’s more important is how our students are doing from a wellness and mental health standpoint.
Blueprint: So you mentioned earlier that you applied to become a member of the School Board. What originally made you want to apply?
Kendzierski: Well, I have been a very active parent volunteer for a number of years and have a number of friends who have been Board members. I think it’s the fact that my co-chair and the consultant on the parcel tax that I was working on for another district was going, ‘Nancy, you have to apply! Nancy, you have to apply!’. It’s a different job than being an advocate or volunteer, but I have worked with so many different districts as a result of my volunteer work that it seemed like a logical step, and I was interested in the kinds of governing structures and issues that are tackled at the governing board level. I thought it would be a good step and I was hoping I would bring a lot of contacts and experience in. You never know what it is going to be like until you do it. As much as you’ve been involved with schools, it’s different being on the board, but for me, it’s been a wonderful experience in no small part because of the people, the students, the faculty, and all of our staff. But also because you can look at various boards, we’ve had a very cohesive and highly functioning board, so from a personal perspective, it’s been a real joy to work with the other members and with the administration. Knowing that everyone’s attention is about making things right here and not about pursuing personal agendas has been really nice. Sometimes things happen that can make it difficult. We’ve been lucky so far. Luck does have some part of it, there are some challenges, but that’s what you sign up for—to see it through and hopefully, the decisions are the best for the community.
Blueprint: So I know you’ve already been in the heat of the school board. If elected, are there any initiatives you hope to implement besides the work that you’ve been doing?
Kendzierski: Well, the fact is that many of the things that we’ve done have just started. I guess I would say there’s an awful lot of work to be done on the things that we’ve done. Block schedule is by no means all the way through, the calendar shift is going to take place in the future, we’re just starting the discussion on homework related things, we’ve just introduced Wellness Centers in each of the schools, so we’re looking at that. So there are a number of things going on. Don’t forget the new standards, where we’ve introduced the common core, but the next generation of science standards are being implemented. So we’ve introduced two and we’re ready for our third, and as a result of that, there will probably be a review of graduation requirements. We did an earlier pass on that. Career technical education is an area and linked learning is an area that is constantly being reviewed because of trying to make sure all students have a path, but not every student is intending to go to a four-year university, but career technical is actually a combination. It’s not strictly related to whether you do or don’t, but that’s an area that I think you have to think very carefully about making sure we have something for everyone, that not everyone who’s doing what’s called the A to G UC requirements, but that it’s a constantly evolving thing with the legislature deciding whether that’s a thing at the high school level, at the community college level and the kinds of credentials. There are many things out there to be viewed. I don’t see it so much as ‘I want to do this or that’, but rather a continuation of the many initiatives. Hopefully, it’s driven by what the student needs are. On top of which, we need to make sure we stay fiscally stable because we’ll see with a new governor, whoever is elected, how the state is funding schools in ways that largely we don’t control.
Blueprint: And why are you running for re-election?
Kendzierski: Because I still have things to contribute. I think that with the number of initiatives we have going in the very early stages, it’s helpful to have someone with experience on the board. We already have two experienced members going off. It’s nice to have a mix, but I think it’s helpful to have some experience. I’m not burned out yet. So I think the experience will help and I guess I truly believe in public education. I truly believe it’s the cornerstone of what this country is, and not specifically the country, but what we should do to make sure a community is educated because that’s how we can learn and work together, hopefully. Nice if it was done in a civil manner. I really do believe in public education, so it’s really not hard to think about trying to put myself into, to basically run or volunteer.
Blueprint: Why should a potential voter choose you for the school board?
Kendzierski: Well hopefully because I am qualified, experienced and passionate. That’s my hope. I think that we’ve done a good job so far. I’d like to see it through, and hopefully, voters see it that way. I will say that personally, I think all the candidates are qualified. I think it’s a really good group, I know them all. But, I think I can do a good job, so I’m really hoping people will support me.
Blueprint: You’re on the governing board, correct?
Hockett: Right. So I just finished my first four-year term on the governing board. I was born and raised in Lafayette, I am a graduate of Acalanes, and I taught government history in high school for 33 years down in Southern California. When I retired, I moved back up here about ten years ago and four years ago I ran, and now I am running for re-election.
Blueprint: So what made you originally decide to run for the school board?
Hockett: Two basic reasons. Number one is being a high school teacher, I’ve also been interested in high school education because that’s what I was; that’s how I got into teaching. Second, I taught government and so I’ve always been interested in government, and over the years, I’ve really realized that local government is really more effective and more responsive to people’s concerns than in the national or state levels. I was elected to the city council down in Southern California, so I served a city council and so when I moved back up here, I still wanted to contribute to education in some way, so I thought Acalanes Union is a high school and of course a governing board, so the combination of my interest in government and my interest in high school education just seemed like a good fit and something that I could contribute to, and so that’s why I decided to run and here I am.
Blueprint: Can you share what some of your experiences have been over the past four years as a governing board member?
Hockett: One thing that’s different from the city council is that it is only education, which is nice, but an ongoing issue is a fiscal issue and it’ll always be an ongoing thing. It was a problem when I first started teaching. The decision to go to block schedule was kind of a year implementation before we actually went to it. There was quad discussion about that, students were unsure about what it was going to be about, teachers were kind of split in terms of pros and cons, and so that was a major issue for not only in terms of if we should do it or not, but also the year-long process of getting ready for it. The Academy issue was also part of that. At first, I thought this has the potential to be total chaos but it also has the potential to be a positive force. So that whole issue of how does Academy period work and how do we target the kids who need remedial help vs. the kids who are more or less on their own. So the issue of block schedule and Academy was an ongoing thing, but now I think we have it down pat. Challenge success is a program that stands for challenging the word success and is especially targeted towards the highly motivated student body, where we tend to really stress the academics, sports or co-curricular activity, lots of homework and are we over-stressing kids out? So there is a whole survey and the first one was done three years ago and one last year and a large percentage of our students district-wide report that they are not getting enough sleep, they are really stressed out, they are spending two and a half hours plus on homework every night, plus on weekends. So that’s always been a big issue with me. If you need to know about the Great Depression, you don’t need to read three books; one book is good enough. Are we overdoing it? So this is an ongoing issue. Right now we are doing a homework policy review because we are going to a new calendar next year and I was all for that. One of the big arguments was it’ll be a true two-week vacation, meaning a semester break and no homework and I was very adamant about that. The homework policy is a discussion right now. The challenge success is ongoing in terms of trying to challenge this notion of what is success and about that well being of our students. The Wellness Centers are another example of the reaction to that. These Wellness Centers are designed to help students and give them all the resources they need. The Challenge Success is going to be something that we look at every two years by sending out these surveys. I want students who are challenged, but that are healthy and that their health is good. If someone is getting five and a half hours of sleep to do their homework, someone is mad at me and so that will be an ongoing issue. Trying to raise more awareness about equity issues… that will be ongoing, and trying to make sure our programs are for all students. Under block schedule, we’ve had an increase in the number of students getting D’s and F’s last year. So does that mean some of our below C students are struggling from block schedule, or are not benefiting from Academy? In education, there’s never going to be a time where we say, ‘Oh, solved that problem and now we are moving on’. It’s always going to be a challenging issue and always kind of what we focus on.
Blueprint: So you mentioned wellness. Do you have any other major priorities that you are running on in this election?
Hockett: One issue that I am trying to focus on in particular is the teacher shortage in California, which is very major. Many school districts are still operating with long-term subs. Oakland started the year with 98 teacher vacancies and by the start of October, they were down 48, but these are still teacher vacancies that we don’t have because this is a popular place to teach because the kids are so motivated, the community is so supportive, and so most teachers that come here stay because it’s a great place to teach. It’s also a very expensive place to live and always has been, but now the surrounding areas are getting more expensive too and so you move to Oakland and commute but now Oakland is expensive so you have teachers and they’re pretty good, but are veterans, and so we’re going to be facing a teacher shortage. For the first time, the last couple of years, we’ve offered employment to teachers coming in and they’ve turned us down for other districts. That usually never happens but mainly for other reasons—for economics or for other districts, they have greater ability to say, ‘Well I know you’re going to teach history and we have a history opening’ where maybe here, we say, ‘Well, we know you want to teach history but right now we need English so maybe later on’. So that’s something I’m trying to focus on. We have a growing teacher shortage that’s going to hit us for the next few years and we need to prepare for it, and I’m a former teacher, but there’s nothing more important to a child’s education, other than the home of course, than the teachers, and that the most important determination of a student’s progress is the teachers the students have, so I’m really focusing on that, which others really aren’t.
Blueprint: Do you have any ideas on how to combat teacher shortages?
Hockett: Yeah. All you have to do is refer to a much more active recruit. These guys sit back and wait for people to come to us and now we need to get out there and recruit. You know, really go out and sell yourself. And one thing we’ve done in recent years: we’ve offered retired teachers five years of vision and dental plan if they let us know they’re retiring by Feb. 1, so that is a head start because we tend to now know. And of course, pay is important and working conditions. We have great working conditions. You know, you walk around here and it’s thirty students per class. Where I taught, it was 40 students per class and so these types of things and trying to keep on top of pay and financial issue, but also trying to keep our working condition in such that we’re a place you want to teach and keeping our beneficial salaries right at the top so we can be in that.