Four vie for three seats at Bo-Stin

08/29/2018

The race for three seats on the Bolinas-Stinson School board will have four candidates this fall: 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. 

The candidates include former district woodshop instructor Jennie Pfeiffer, who has had two generations of family members attend the schools, will run 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, the Bay Area resident who relocated to Stinson from travels abroad and has held a variety of self-employed jobs, including in real estate.  

Though the district has not yet settled on a date, it plans to hold a debate night this fall for the candidates to describe their platforms and answer questions from the public. Topics will likely include spending—expenditures last year exceeded revenues, though there is a hefty reserve—and funding for facility improvements such as the renovation of the school’s multi-purpose Quesada building and the possible construction of a gym and pool at that site or elsewhere.

Candidates also listed Spanish curriculum as a priority, and some highlighted the idea of bringing more homeschooled children into classes. One unanimous goal was to participate in efforts to address the town’s dearth of affordable housing as a way to combat waning enrollment. 

To varying degrees of intensity, all of the candidates described excitement about turning over a new leaf at the board level. Last school year, this newspaper reported complaints from members of the school community—including teachers, staff, board members, parents and students—about the administration’s discipline policy and about inadequate lines of communication between stakeholders.

Mr. Siedman, looking beyond specific measures for the upcoming year, discussed his overarching goal for education in the district. He said he not only hopes to encourage students to be critical thinkers, but also to help them “build character.” 

“Character is not just intrapersonal understanding, empathy, but also a civic responsibility,” said Mr. Siedman, who spends 60 percent of his time on in-town casework and the remainder fielding state requests for low-income plaintiffs across the Bay Area. “It is understanding that you have a duty to your community, to your political community at both the local and the national level, as well as apolitically to the people that you maybe disagree with, that you live with.” He sees the school teaching this responsibility through experiential learning and field trips outside of Bolinas.  

Addressing last year’s controversies, he gave a shout-out to Principal Michelle Stephens, whom the district hired this summer following the resignation of Jason Richardson. “A new principal is a fresh start, as I think of it,” Mr. Siedman said. “I’m excited to see how Michelle approaches the school; as far as I hear, she has started with a lot of enthusiasm. I’m always optimistic at the beginning of a new school year.” If re-elected, Mr. Siedman, who has a fourth grader in the district and a six-month-old at home, will start his third term. 

Running for a fourth term is Mr. Marcotte, who joined the board when his kids, now graduates from the district, were younger. He views his ongoing participation as a civic duty. “I get a sense of satisfaction knowing that I am helping the community in such a vital role: teaching kids,” he said. “I really see the school as an institution that needs to be taken care of.” 

An easy liaison with the fire department, Mr. Marcotte is currently preparing a first aid course for the school’s staff. Like Mr. Siedman, he was optimistic about the new principal hire, whom he said seemed like “a good fit.”

Ms. Pfeiffer is also involved in many aspects of the community. She previously served on the board of the Bolinas Community Land Trust and the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, and she still serves as a trustee for the Resource Recovery Center. A member of the school board since 2006, the year after she retired as a woodshop teacher after an 18-year run, she has held a variety of other teaching roles within the district and beyond.

Among the candidates, Ms. Pfeiffer has had the longest relationship with the school. Both her children and one grandchild are graduates, and another grandchild is currently in the 4-year-old program. “There are many things that have changed in the world over time, but the biggest change I have seen at the district is the drop in enrollment,” she said. The number of students now hovers around 100, but was closer to 250 when she started teaching in the district. 

One priority stands out above the rest for her: school climate. That was a topic of great concern last year, when one longtime teacher memorably announced that he was “out of tools” to address the level of misbehavior. Last spring, an eighth grader made an emotional presentation to the board on a range of concerns, and said she felt unsafe at school. The board is now revising the discipline policy. 

“We are moving along really well in finding more opportunities to communicate between students, staff, parents and administration—we are working really hard on that,” Ms. Pfeiffer said. “I want us to get away from looking at concentrating on bullies, and instead concentrate on giving students the skills they need to not be victims of harassment.” 

She emphasized, “I want every child to know how to speak clearly, write clearly, and say what they feel without feeling threatened. I want them to have the tools to express themselves—to be empowered.”    

Continuing to encourage feedback from students and from everyone else in the community, she said, was the key.

Mr. O’Neal, who has dutifully attended board meetings since he arrived in the area, also spoke of the need for a sea change. He views his campaign, if not his election, as a way to incite change on the board and increase parent involvement and better communication between board members and other stakeholders.

He has been particularly involved in the community land trust in recent months. Although the lack of affordable housing is a problem much bigger than the district, he believes it is the school board’s job to tackle it, as it is so interconnected to decreasing enrollment. “That issue isn’t discussed enough at board meetings, and I think that that is our job: to create an amazing experience for the kids,” he said. “Yes, some people can’t find housing and leave, but also, without enough kids, people who do live here choose not to send their kids to the school because there aren’t enough peers.”

In his words, as a trustee he would “embrace and expand everything that is already there as opposed to change it—to amplify everyone’s energy.”