This November 6th election, five candidates are vying for three expiring Emery School Board seats vacated by elected member Donn Lee Merriam and appointed members Bailey Langner and Brynnda Collins.
Collins, the only incumbent, along with Susan Donaldson, Sarah Nguyen, Katy Brown and former councilmember Ken Bukowski all filed campaign statements to run for these seats prior to the August 10th deadline. Elected candidates will join Cruz Vargas and Barbara Inch who were both elected in 2016 and have two years left on their terms.
Elected candidates will be entrusted to work with our Superintendent to provide leadership and oversight for the district that reflects our community’s values and standards. The EUSD faces considerable challenges including fiscal constraints, lagging student performance and employee retention.
The E’ville Eye provided candidates the below 20 questions that cover a broad range of topics relevant to our city and our district. They were given a week to reply and asked to keep their responses to 250 words. Ken Bukowski opted to not participate in this questionnaire.
Emery USD School Board Candidate Questionnaire: Parent/Tax Accountant Katy Brown
1. Tell us about your professional background and how these skills might transfer to being on the school board.
I am a nonprofit tax accountant at a CPA firm headquartered in the East Bay, so I advise nonprofit organizations throughout our community on tax compliance and governance issues, such as board composition, fiduciary duty, policies, etc. While a public school board is a little different, I’m very familiar with how boards should operate and I think I could bring expertise to the board in both a financial and a governance capacity. I work with many private nonprofit schools in our area, so I have seen many boards grapple with issues similar to those faced by EUSD, including fundraising and development, operating on tight budgets, etc., and I have seen many different ideas and solutions to address them. And prior to this, I worked in public university administration for several years, and then at a private university, where I gained experience with curriculum development and academic assessment.
2. Do you have any school age children and if so, would you have any reservations about enrolling them in the EUSD?
Yes, our daughter went to Anna Yates for K-4 and now she is back for 7th grade. We took her out the year of the move to ECCL. We couldn’t get the principal or the superintendent to call us back when we tried to schedule a meeting, we had concerns about teenage Rec employees being used as substitute teachers in the classroom, and we could clearly see that construction on the school was not complete. We home schooled her for 5th grade, then tried a charter school in Berkeley for 6th grade. Neither of these options was sustainable, so we are back at Anna Yates for 7th grade. Rather than complain, I am running for School Board to try to address the things that we didn’t like about our experience at the school so that everyone in our community can benefit.
3. Ultimately, what factors made you decide to run for school board and list your top-5 priorities for the district should you be elected,
I know that many parents in our neighborhood are frustrated that we only have one option for public school, and it is not ranked well and is generally not a school of first choice. We are a small community, and I think we should have an excellent school like those in other smaller districts in the East Bay. Funding has to be a top priority, and we have to get creative with how we pursue it. I would support the creation of an Education Fund that would be responsible for fundraising and corporate sponsorships. I would like to review our current financials in detail and make sure that our spending is aligned with our goals. Teacher retention would be a major focus for me as well, and I think being a teacher at ECCL should be one of the best teaching jobs available in the East Bay. That means providing the necessary resources for teachers to do their jobs, paying teachers well and making them feel appreciated at work, and engaging parents, administration, and the community to support them as the practitioners working with our kids every day.
4. Like many local school districts, Emery Unified has been running under an unsustainable budget deficit. How do you recommend we address this?
In addition to making sure we are spending our current funds according to our strategic goals, we have to be more creative with fundraising, and I think we can look to the private school community for ideas and examples. We should maximize the public funding available to us, and we should also find ways to raise funding from our community. Traditional fundraisers like selling holiday gift wrap to our students’ families or selling nachos and ice cream to students after school will not make a meaningful dent in the deficit, and I am uncomfortable relying on money from our students and families, many of whom qualify as low-income. We sit in the middle of great wealth, while our school and our residents can’t make ends meet. We need to engage our community to support our school.
5. There’s been some discussion at School Board meetings around a Parcel Tax measure as there is a correlation between funding and student achievement. Would you support a Parcel Tax as a way to improve enrichment programs and to close the deficit exacerbated by employee pension debt?
Yes, I think our Parcel Tax could be increased, as it’s currently pretty low compared to other neighboring districts. The timing for this ask to the community has to be right, though, and we have to be able to assure them that our current parcel tax funds are being used as promised. Our city has been very willing to support our previous parcel tax requests, and while I do not take new taxes lightly, our school is the backbone of our community, and we can’t skimp on supporting it.
6. How much of the success of a child’s education do you believe is the responsibility of the parent(s)/guardians and how can our district help busy parents monitor a child’s progress, address deficits early and get them actively involved in their children’s education?
Parent involvement fundamentally affects a student’s achievement, but we have to understand that many of our parents are tapped out just trying to pay the bills. For students whose parents can’t model learning behavior at home, the school community has to step in and provide those opportunities to our neighbors’ kids. Seeing that they have potential for the future can keep kids out of trouble and focused on their studies, especially for kids without a lot of parental involvement at home. For example, I would support an internship-type program for high school students that would expose them to a variety of careers and workplaces, both at companies our school’s parents work at and at companies in our city. I would be willing to participate in it myself to show students what it’s like to work at an accounting firm. Those who can give to others should do so, and those whose resources are exhausted should be able to rely on their community and neighbors to help.
7. How do you suggest we improve teacher and employee retention in our district?
The same way you would do it in any business – employees have to feel that their work is valued, that they are respected, and that they are treated fairly and transparently. A lot of this will come down to funding to hire enough staff, train and pay them well, and provide the resources they need to do their jobs. It will also be important to reward highly effective teachers and to replace those who aren’t meeting expectations so that teachers know their effort is meaningful. And the messaging from the district has to be that teachers are our greatest resource.
8. What metrics will you use to evaluate the effectiveness of new Superintendent Dr. Quiauna Scott (test scores, enrollment, teacher retention …)?
I will need to understand what goals and metrics the board has already set for Dr. Scott’s performance before I can suggest any changes, but it is important to have performance goals that are measurable. Increasing test scores, school ratings, teacher retention, and Emeryville resident enrollment would all be indicative of Dr. Scott’s effectiveness. However, especially as we have had significant executive level turnover in both Superintendent and Principals, we will need to develop more internal assessment tools, like measuring cohort growth and performance, rather than relying on external ratings and measurements to evaluate short-term results.
9. How much of our districts’ limited resources should we dedicate to closing the racial achievement gap?
There are some pretty low-cost early interventions we could implement, followed by ongoing efforts to minimize summer learning loss throughout our students’ K-12 experience. Summer reading or math challenges with meaningful prizes for students who achieve academic goals or a change to a more year-round school schedule could also make a significant impact. We could have more academic programming at the Rec for before-and-after school care, perhaps by adding instructional or academic enrichment staff. And at the high school level, hiring and retaining a faculty whose gender and racial demographics reflect that of the student body can improve older students’ performance. We can strive to hire directly from Emeryville and neighboring cities. Teachers should be included in a community-focused school.
10. Only about half of our student population actually live in Emeryville with a majority of the other half being district transfers from Oakland. Do you believe the percentage of Emeryville families should be higher and if so, how do you recommend we achieve this?
Yes, more Emeryville families should want to send their kids to our schools. The way to achieve that is to make it their first-choice school. The high school needs to be seen as a college-preparatory school with enrichment activities that are offered in other districts. One idea is to partner with neighboring districts to offer programs to our students that we can’t currently offer. Another idea is to work with our parents and community to offer internships, clubs, or other job-related training in their industries. By being innovative, we can come up with some creative ways to offer Emeryville students all of the opportunities they hope to get at other schools.
11. Some local parents seem reluctant to send their children to Emeryville Public Schools. Have you discussed this with any parents of younger children and what is your takeaway with what the reasons are?
What I’ve heard is that parents are okay with Anna Yates for K-5, but once their kids reach middle school and high school age, EUSD doesn’t provide enough opportunity for college preparation and admissions. Emery High’s reputation has improved with our new principal but is still growing, so parents who have heard about it sometimes believe that sending their kids there is jeopardizing their future. We have to change that.
12. Although this is beyond the district’s control, how can our local government improve the “Family Friendliness” of our city to keep school age families from leaving our district and improve continuity among residents (e.g. Housing, Cost of living, crime increases, quality of life issues …)?
Investing in the schools is one of the best ways to make Emeryville attractive to families, and having an excellent public education option at all grade levels is essential. School district quality is one of the biggest factors families consider when deciding where to live.
13. There are roughly 700 children of school age living in Emeryville and our school district has a capacity of roughly the same amount. Should increased enrollment be a goal of the district?
I’m open to hearing arguments, but probably not. ECCL doesn’t really have the capacity for more students, and increasing class sizes will not improve student success or teacher satisfaction. As our public school district, EUSD has the responsibility to serve Emeryville students to the best of our ability first, and then to fill out enrollment with interdistrict transfer students. Increasing enrollment will also increase costs, so I think we need to focus on efficiency and effectiveness with both money and delivery of services rather than just add more bodies.
14. Some officials see our city as a transient city and therefore have suggested we eliminate Emery High and become a K-8 only district. Do you agree with this suggestion?
I’ve lived here for 8 years, and I know many of my neighbors have lived in Emeryville for a long time. I don’t think Emeryville is a transient city, and I don’t think we want to treat it like one. We need to improve outcomes at the high school, not get rid of it. We can’t be a city for families if we don’t even have a public school.
15. Some officials have also suggested that we should merge our district with a neighboring city (either Berkeley or Oakland). What do you believe are the pros and cons of this and where do you align?
There are several examples of excellent small school districts in the East Bay, so I don’t think we need to merge with another district to have high quality schools. I have not yet seen details of any current proposals for a merger, but I understand that Berkeley has rejected this idea. And I would not want to be the small “problem” school in a larger district, when instead we could be a small, well-funded, highly desirable school (with some significant work). Pushing the problem off onto another district doesn’t solve anything for our kids who are currently attending school at ECCL – it’s up to us to take care of our school and we have to defend the jobs of our District’s current teachers.
16. Many district parents, primarily families of color, have suggested having a School Resource Officer to ensure our children grow up with positive associations with peace officers. What do you see as the Pros & Cons of this and where do you stand personally?
I think the police in Emeryville should know our students, should recognize them around town, and should develop positive relationships with our youth. I wish we had police officers who actually walked a beat in our neighborhoods, so we could all get to know them in a non-confrontational context. Having a School Resource Officer would be a great first step.
17. Do you have a personal stance on Charter Schools and can Public Schools coexist with them in our area?
Charter schools have their own problems, many very similar to the ones we have at EUSD, such as horrible teacher retention rates, funding deficits, and disinterested parents. We tried to contribute to the community at the charter school our daughter attended last year, and we found an equally disengaged school community. I would rather put my efforts into building up our public school because I think we can make it great, and it will benefit our neighbors and our community, especially those who can’t afford to try another school.
18. A prominent member of the political group “RULE” has routinely disrupted meetings and engaged in bullying tactics against members of the community and city staff. I hope you’ll agree that this degree of vitriol doesn’t belong anywhere near our children. Will you “lead by example” and stand up to bullying by refusing their endorsement and campaign contributions from RULE members unless they enforce a code of ethics among active members?
Unfortunately, I had a personal emergency the day of the RULE meeting with school board candidates, so I wasn’t able to meet the group. They are not endorsing me and have not contributed to my campaign. So without comment on that group, I will say that civility in public discourse is seriously lacking in American political culture today, and I find this incivility counterproductive and unintelligent. Even on a national scale, the things public figures are saying create a culture of “us vs. them” that dehumanizes the “other side.” There is no reason for people to be abusive to others, especially when we’re all trying to improve our community, and we should set an example for the kids growing up around us to show them that abusive public behavior is unacceptable.
19. Are you endorsed by our Teacher’s Association and provide your insights why you were or were not endorsed by them?
Yes, I am honored that the ETA has chosen to endorse me. I understand that a major factor in this decision was that my child attends school here, and that we left the school and have now come back, so I am truly personally invested in the school’s performance and future. I respect the teachers as professionals and want them to feel valued and invested in their jobs. It comes across when a teacher is unhappy and doesn’t want to be in the classroom, and I don’t want that for my kid or yours. Our teachers are our greatest asset at the school, and we all entrust them with the care and education of our kids each day.
20. How will your campaign be funded and list which politicians & PACs have donated or pledged to donate to your campaign. How will you ensure you will be free from external political influences in your decisions?
I have received contributions totaling less than $2,000 from the Emery Teachers Association and the California Teachers Association. I am not endorsed by any other groups, and I don’t expect any other contributions. I am also lucky to have the support of current Board Member Cruz Vargas, who encouraged me to offer my professional expertise to our community by running for School Board instead of joining a nonprofit board this fall, as I had planned to do. He has been a personal friend for many years, as our daughters have been in class together since Kindergarten. I have never run for elected office before and have no political aspirations aside from doing what I can to improve our schools. I’m an Emeryville resident and a parent first, and I really have nothing to gain personally by running for School Board. In all honesty, running a political campaign has been a little outside of my comfort zone, but it’s worth it because I care about our schools and the quality of education that my daughter and our local kids receive. I think I can help with my experience in education and nonprofits, and I can bring some new ideas that have worked for other schools here to EUSD. I would appreciate your vote on Nov 6!
I would love to hear from other parents – what do you like and what needs improvement at our schools? You can reach me at email@example.com.