Bo-Stin board night takes on the issues

10/10/2018

The four candidates running for three seats on the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District’s board of trustees answered hard-hitting questions during a candidates' forum last Tuesday night, with topics ranging from budgeting to affordable housing for teachers to how the board can address students feeling unsafe at school.

But the candidates, including three long-standing incumbents who have spent a majority of their lives in Bolinas and one ambitious newcomer who moved to Stinson Beach in January with his three young kids, rose to the occasion. 

Jennie Pfeiffer, a former woodshop instructor who has seen two generations of family members through the schools, is running against Bolinas natives Nate Siedman, a practicing lawyer and father in town; Steve Marcotte, also a father and a former San Francisco paramedic who now volunteers with the Bolinas Fire Department; and Steve O’Neal, a Bay Area resident who relocated to Stinson from travels abroad and has held a variety of self-employed jobs, including in real estate. 

Three members of the League of Women Voters, which hosted the evening, sat with the candidates, relaying questions from an audience of around 30.

“Tell us about a time when you compromised, and about an issue on which you would never compromise,” urged the first question from the audience.

Ms. Pfeiffer, a trustee since 2006, said she would not compromise when it came to listening to students. “I am behind students having a voice, speaking their truth, being able to say when they feel unsafe,” she said. She added that the board was working on the discipline policy in order to help students “find their power and be able to not only learn but to have the language for sticking up for themselves when they go out in the world.”

Mr. Siedman, the current board president running for his third term, said compromise was an important part of the job. He described how he had acquiesced in March over how much money to put away in the district’s capital improvement fund for future facility upgrades. Though in favor of a more conservative amount than the $500,000 recommended by the district’s business manager, he ultimately voted in favor of the transfer.

Mr. Marcotte, who is running for his fourth term, said he also compromised on the capital improvement fund (he had proposed transferring $600,000). He said he would not compromise when presented with “an issue that isn’t directly related to the school board, that doesn’t have to do with educating children.” In March, Mr. Marcotte was the sole board member who opposed the district signing a gun-control resolution. He abstained from that vote.

Mr. O’Neal, without experience on the board to illustrate his moral compass, seconded Ms. Pfeiffer’s comments, adding, “I wouldn’t compromise on community inclusion—everyone has to be included.”

A variety of questions centered on how candidates would support teaching staff, including with ongoing retirement and health care, despite projected increased costs.

Mr. Siedman said teacher salaries in the district are in the upper range for Marin and that salaries and benefits account for 85 percent of the school’s budget. Despite the school’s hefty budget of $4.4 million, it is operating in a deficit, however, with spending this year estimated at $4.46 million.

Mr. Siedman said that as teachers retired, the school might not have the luxury of replacing them with full-time positions; instead, they might hire some contractors as a way to save money. “We have, by most measures, over staffed here,” he explained.

All four candidates acknowledged the strain that a lack of affordable housing puts on teachers.

“This is an issue that is bigger than this school and grander than the capabilities of this board,” Mr. Siedman said. Mr. O’Neal expressed more hope, however. He has been informally collaborating with the local community land trust and the school’s housing committee and has drafted a list of the different avenues the school could take in regard to housing. Building on the school property was the most cost-effective and practical, he said.

Mr. O’Neal, who has diligently attended board meetings since he moved to the area in January, also linked housing to his greatest concern: a shrinking population. “I feel the community is in a crisis… and I don’t feel that there has been enough focus on that from the board,” he said.

In response to a question about how the board would attract talented teaching staff, the incumbents said through good pay and a beautiful location.

Yet Mr. O’Neal was critical of the board’s hiring process, and harkened back to the spring, when the district was faced with finding a new principal in a process he felt was too rushed.

“This was a really crucial moment for the school,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned about salary or benefits; I was most concerned about the vision I was laying for the educator. It is a small, unique school where an educator can make this their opus.”

The conversation also touched on school climate. Some questions read, “What can the board do to resolve the problems of student bullying and disrespect?” “What issues contribute to students not feeling safe, and what steps would you take to restore the feeling of safety and well-being, and address the practicalities of the feeling?”

Mr. Marcotte said he had no idea what led to students feeling unsafe, but suggested it could be “tests, nutrition at home, home stability, intrapersonal fights, [and] for the older ages, boyfriend-girlfriend emotions, hormones.” He called the administration “fantastic” and deferred to teachers to take action to address any problems.

Mr. O’Neal opined that feeling unsafe could stem from not feeling understood. He placed emphasis on looking to the staff “to see how they are handling the experience and how they are creating an environment and space where the students feel safe.” Teacher training could be helpful, he said, for “as we age and mature, learning how to understand ourselves and others and children is never-ending work.”

Ms. Pfieffer suggested that students themselves should be consulted, and she advocated for a student council and a parent-teacher association.

Mr. Siedman said he was grateful that threats to physical safety were not the primary issue, but acknowledged concerns about emotional safety.

A survey last spring on school climate for parents, staff and students, he said, had revealed a discrepancy between the staff’s and parents' sense of emotional safety and that of the students. One-hundred percent of parents said they had a positive sense of social-emotional security, compared to 44 percent of school personnel and 25 percent of students.

Focusing on “restorative practices” over punitive steps, continuing the district’s social-emotional learning program and increasing training for teachers were all things Mr. Siedman said could help remedy this.

One audience member asked candidates what specific skills they would bring to the board to support the school’s mission. Ms. Pfeiffer said she brought many years of problem solving, Mr. Siedman said he brings respect and said his skills as a lawyer help him to be an effective moderator. Mr. Marcotte highlighted being fair and a good listener, and Mr. O’Neal said he brings high expectations.

“I like doing things deeply and thoroughly and really getting involved in what I am working on,” he said. “I’m tireless and tenacious. I trust my intuition and have an analytical mind: I let the intuition guide me, but I also like to go back and fact-check.”

On a practical note, the candidates addressed the Quesada building, a 1966 structure that is inadequate for a variety of priorities the board identified in its strategic plan, including as a space for indoor physical education, rainy day lunches, assemblies, performances and storage related to those activities. The board has said a bond measure would help the school renovate the building, though the school’s last proposal, from 2014, failed to gain the necessary 55 percent of votes.

Candidates had mixed feelings about the building. Ms. Pfeiffer said she thought flooding from the increased likelihood of large storm events should be taken seriously and that another spot, possibly on the Big Mesa, should be considered for a new building that might be used by the whole community.

Mr. Seidman scoffed at the idea that the district should make the decision based on climate change projections, and expressed wholehearted support for replacing the building with a gym or performing arts center.

“I’ve driven a bulldozer through that building so many times in my mind,” Mr. Marcotte said.

But Mr. O’Neal was “more interested in creating a notably good experience for our students. With a shrinking student population, I think only the most vital facility upgrades should be considered.”

Referencing the library where everyone was sitting comfortably, he said, “This seems like an adequate space to hold meetings.”