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Alameda County, CA February 7, 2012 Election
Smart Voter

Answers to Questions posed by Piedmont Post

By Sarah Pearson

Candidate for Board of Education Member; City of Piedmont

This information is provided by the candidate
Every week since December, the Piedmont Post has asked the candidates to respond to questions. Below are my responses.

I am running for School Board because I care about our schools and am interested in these questions. If you would like to discuss or share your thoughts with me, please email me at

1. What is your range of experience as a volunteer for Piedmont schools? What committees have you taken part in? When?

Since moving to Piedmont 11 years ago, I've demonstrated my commitment to our schools at multiple levels. I have:

  • led the Piedmont Middle School Parent Club (as VP & President) 2009-present, currently the PMS liaison to the Wellness Center
  • held numerous positions on the Wildwood Parent Club Board, 2004-present, including but not limited to Kindergarten Rep, Diversity Rep, currently 5th grade Rep
  • Co-chaired the School Parcel Tax campaign in 2009
  • served on the District Budget Advisory Committee, 2008-present
  • raised money for Piedmont Schools with the Giving Campaign (2010-11) and Spring Fling (2009, 2010)
  • facilitated for the Piedmont Parents Network, 2009-present
  • helped start the Wellness Center, on Steering Committee, 2004-present
  • participated in Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee, 2003-present
  • organized Cultures Week for the Elementary Schools, 2007-2009
  • participated in discussions about curriculum and "Shaping Our Future" for the schools, 2004-present
  • assisted twice a month in Wildwood library, 2004-present
  • volunteered extensively in the classroom, 2003-present

2. What kinds of programs would you like to restore if the Giving Campaign and parent clubs continue to produce the same levels of funding for the district as they did in 2010-11? E.g., would you restore elementary library hours, increase resource time, buy back furlough days, etc?

It is important to put this question into context + overall we are still dealing with an overriding problem of insufficient state funding, and the amount the district receives from the state is less and less every year. It looks like the state is going to give us $300,000-$600,000 less revenue than promised in January. However, the district was prepared for this and thus the educational program will not be affected this year.

The budget was balanced through a combination of the school parcel taxes, which provides nearly 1/3 of the district operating budget, and through reserves. The "emergency" parcel tax that represents $1M in funding will expire in 2011-12, and reserves will be drawn down to minimum levels in 2012-13.

The only reason we are able to consider "buying back" programs is because of the extraordinary levels of fundraising, beyond what was anticipated in the budget.

An argument could be made for saving any surplus, to be used later when the school Parcel Tax expires and reserves have been drawn down. However, I believe that the children should reap some tangible benefits immediately, as well saving for tough times ahead. This approach inspires the community's generous donors to continue their high level of contributions.

At the superintendent's request, this topic has been discussed extensively by Parent Clubs, the Budget Advisory Committee, faculty and staff. My sense is that the best use of funds would be to "buy back" furlough days, as this benefits all children and school employees and automatically increases library, resource time, and other support programs. Also, furlough days are one-time expenditures so don't increase the spending footprint.

Hopefully parents and the broader community will continue to support the schools with dollars as well as the many other ways they contribute their time and expertise.

3. How do you plan to create opportunities for public input?

As a school board member, I will actively engage the community so I can understand the perspectives of all the constituent groups. The public is invited to participate in School Board meetings, Budget Advisory Committee and Site Council meetings. However, I understand that busy schedules often prevent residents from attending meetings. When there is a need for extensive public input on an issue, I would propose a series of study sessions. We could also run online surveys to get input from constituents. Another option is to publish questions in the Piedmont Post and have people send their responses to a designated email address. I will always consider various points of view, and welcome phone calls, emails and letters from residents.

In addition to receiving input, it is important that the School Board communicate clearly with residents. I believe that the School Board should provide the public with a rationale for the decision-making process on controversial issues.

One of my goals is to clearly articulate the role of the School Board, and to clarify which decisions are made at the school level. For issues that are site-specific, I will actively encourage residents to provide input through parent clubs, support groups and individual site councils. I will encourage parent clubs and site councils to host study sessions around key issues.

I will listen to all voices, carefully weigh the pros and cons, and make my decisions based on what's best for children, while considering the implications for the entire community.

4. Do you think PUSD should change its capacity policies and add more students? What are some of the ways it can do so?

Piedmont schools are at capacity, or very close to it, already. The PUSD Enrollment Capacity Guidelines state that PUSD "strives to meet the needs of each student and believes that lower class sizes are desirable for providing a high quality educational program." For general education, the three elementary schools strive for a ratio of 20 students per teacher (20:1) in grades K-3, 25:1 in grades 4-5. At PMS and PHS, the goal is 26:1.

However, due to diminishing State funding and an effort to continue to provide the same course offerings, class sizes have increased K-12. Currently many are operating over the capacity guidelines. The only way to increase capacity is to increase class size or add classrooms. Classrooms are all being used in the elementary schools and at PHS.

It is unlikely that increased enrollment would enhance the current course offerings, and there is no financial advantage for increasing capacity. Piedmont receives approximately $5,000 from the state for every student (and that amount has been decreasing every year). But the average cost to educate a student in the district is approximately $11,000. Once a student is admitted, s/he would have the right to stay.

Before initiating any change in our capacity policies, we should conduct a thorough study of the long-term implications. We should ensure that any change would be in the best interest of the educational program and could be executed consistently and fairly.

5. What are some of the ways PUSD can improve its program to keep up with other high performing districts?

PUSD is at the forefront in many ways. Our children test well, parent participation is high, and community support of education is exceptional. This year a new evaluation plan, piloted by all Piedmont teachers, has been praised by the California Teachers Association as "groundbreaking." To support efforts at continuous improvement, we need to keep open minds and think critically about ways to provide better educational opportunities for our students.

To be the best that we can be, we should identify priorities and focus on core values that will bring the greatest possible, longest-lasting improvement for teaching and learning. In December of 2009 I participated in the Shaping Our Futures workshop that elicited a vision for our schools along 6 major themes:
1. Supporting Academic Excellence
2. Maximizing Individual Potential
3. Developing Resilience
4. Promoting Program Adaptability
5. Cultivating a Global Citizenry
6. Building K-12 Community

In the next term, I hope the school board will develop a strategic plan to implement this vision. An integral part of that process will be to draw upon the experiences other high performing districts for "best educational practices" and to review the latest research on innovation in education.

We need to nurture civility and trust so that we can have constructive dialogue. Talking together and listening to each other will be crucial to developing and implementing a successful strategic plan.

In these days of limited resources, we will need to make difficult choices. With clear priorities, goals, metrics, initiatives, and a motivated teaching staff we should be able to make our great schools even better.

6. The City of Piedmont and Piedmont School District have been working for more than a year to create an equitable replacement fund for artificial turf fields. The City and School District co-operatively have decided that participants in all sports programs + city-sponsored, school-sponsored and youth sports organizations + should pay a fee (surcharge) to cover the cost of maintenance (such as the resurfacing of the city-owned tennis courts), and ultimately the replacement of artificial turf fields, which generally have a life span of about 8-10 years. A. Do you support such a concept? B. Should such a system include all participants and sports programs for children in grades K-12, or are there exceptions?

I do support the concept of creating a fund to replace fields and other athletic facilities. We invest a lot to build these facilities, and it is vital that we plan adequately for their maintenance and eventual replacement. The School Board and City Council need to work together to create a plan that is fair to all parties.

I think it makes sense for all participants in sports groups -- whether they be school, city or private - to contribute towards this fund. Having the broadest possible base for the fund will ensure that the surcharge will be as low as possible. As a parent of three active school aged children, I know that costs to participate in sports and rec programs already often seem high, but it does seem fair to ask current users to contribute towards the upkeep and eventual replacement of these facilities.

Scholarships should be made available in cases where there is a financial hardship, especially for school sports, as no student should be excluded from participation from school activities based on ability to contribute.

7. For many years the City and School District have granted one another use of their facilities on a no-fee basis. In addition, the City's Recreation Department for more than two decades has operated the Middle School sports program initiated by a request by the school district. A. Do you believe the mutual no-fee use of facilities should continue? B. If fees are imposed, do you believe they should be reciprocal? Such fees might include:* City use of school-owned school facilities (Witter Field, 2 gyms at middle school, High school gym) * School use of city-owned facilities (Rec and Park tennis courts, Beach Field, Coaches Field, community pool)

Piedmont has thrived from the cooperative relationship between the city and the school district. The Facilities Use Agreement has been a perfect example. Past reviews have shown that there is approximately equal usage of facilities. I am interested in learning more about the argument to have the district and the city charge each other, but I believe that for the most part the current arrangement has been mutually beneficial.

I am currently on a city-school committee that is examining the middle school sports program and it has been a pleasure to learn more about the thoughtful approach the recreation department takes to providing middle school sports. All middle school students are encouraged to participate, regardless of ability or experience, and everyone gets playtime. Programs emphasize teamwork, effort and enjoyment.

Mark Delventhal and John Morrison created this Rec Center/middle school partnership after Prop 13 passed (in 1979) because Piedmont Middle School no longer had funds to provide sports for 6-8th graders. Its continued success rests on the ability of city and school leaders to continue to work well together.

One of my strengths is getting along with people and encouraging people to express and respect differences of opinion. I believe that my ability to bring people together will serve me well on the school board. I hope I might help restore civility and a sense of community to our town. I am pleased to have the endorsement of every member of the current city council as well as eight former mayors and ten former school board members who still live in Piedmont.

8. Most previous questions have focused on the specific issues facing the City Council and School Board. It would be helpful for residents to know what sort of candidate could best contribute to solving these issues. As an elected official, what steps would you take to work with your colleagues and the community to provide leadership on a range of issues before you?

Good relations are essential in Piedmont. The best outcomes result from everyone working together. This is a time when we need people who can get along and get things done.

As a trained facilitator for the Piedmont Parents Network, I am approachable and accessible, a good listener and genuinely interested in hearing all points of view. Creating a climate of trust and earning the confidence of our community and our colleagues is vital for success. I have had the privilege of working with many of Piedmont's administrators, teachers, parents and residents of all ages. I believe that I have earned their trust as a person who is not afraid to ask questions and take on controversial issues, but who can do so with civility, courtesy and an open mind.

As a pediatrician and child advocate, I am passionate about education and deeply committed to helping our schools provide the highest quality experience for every child. I am highly motivated to research and study "best practices" at other schools and within our own, and to find innovative ways to continue to improve Piedmont's educational program within budget constraints.

With my own children in elementary, middle and high school during the next term, I will have a broad view and a solid understanding of school issues at all levels. I am well positioned to understand how school board decisions will affect the classroom. I am connected to parents throughout the city and well positioned to bring the concerns of a wide range of residents to the school board.

9. At the recent League of Women Voters Candidates Forum, most candidates expressed confidence that the City and School District will move forward in a positive way financially and otherwise. A. How does the suit filed by Friends of Moraga Canyon impact the community's ability to move forward? While the lawsuit is welcomed by some neighbors, others worry about the impact on children if Piedmont cannot provide adequate field space. What will the lawsuit mean for Piedmont's strong youth sports tradition? B. Should the city worry that residents may not continue to dig deep for parcel taxes and donations if the assumption is that their efforts to improve the community will be stymied by lawsuits?

A. The legal costs of the suit will be paid by the Piedmont Recreational Facilities Organization (PRFO). This private group of residents is funding the Blair Park project so local children will not be turned away from sports due to lack of field space.

Piedmont citizens agree that it is vital to provide excellent opportunities for children in athletics, music and the arts, and not just in academics. As a pediatrician, I am interested in the social, emotional and physical health of children. I am committed to supporting sports and a broad range of non-academic programs, to allow each child to reach his or her full potential.

B. This lawsuit is directed towards the City of Piedmont, not the School Board. There is no reason to believe that it would affect the overall attitude towards donating to the schools.

As Co-Chair of the 2009 School Parcel Tax campaign and current member of the Giving Campaign Committee, I can attest to the extensive planning that goes into setting the level of the tax and the parent "ask". These committees actively seek feedback to ensure they have broad community support.

I feel so fortunate to live in this generous community that values education and continues to support our schools. The overwhelming majority of citizens are committed to keeping our schools strong -- not only to support property values, but also to maintain a strong community. Piedmonters understand that this cannot be done without the Parcel Tax and private contributions.

10. What do you think the school district can do to better incorporate technology in the classroom?

Because we have limited resources, we need to find more efficient ways to provide the highest quality education. Smart use of technology can provide a cost-effective way to enhance our teaching and provide differentiated instruction. It's critical that our use of technology supports our educational goals, and that we reinforce it with ongoing teacher training and support.

There are many ways that technology can add depth to our educational program. The PMS teacher librarians currently use free presentation software applications to help students to express their knowledge in new and different ways. They are arranging a "Skype Author Visit" and envision other interactive sessions with outside specialists. The possibilities are endless: in world language, students could communicate with native speakers using video chat; in science or math, lectures could be viewed as homework and class time could be saved for labs and application of concepts.

Perhaps the best use of technology is to provide differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is the practice of modifying and adapting instruction to meet the learning needs of individual students. Technology can help teachers identify and develop areas where students have difficulty, or areas of particular strength. Students using electronic textbooks could be reading chapters with different levels of detail. Online lectures and other instructional tools can be used to help kids progress faster, or go back and review areas of concern.

To ensure online safety, safeguards can be put in place to ensure that students have access only to specific websites at school, and that any websites they create can only be viewed by people within the district.

11. What are the strengths and weaknesses of PUSD's foreign language program? What can be done to strengthen the weaknesses?

The strength of Piedmont's World Language program is that we offer instruction in Spanish, French and Mandarin (including AP in all three). This sets us apart from many other public schools. The weakness is that the Piedmont schools do not offer world language instruction until the middle of 7th grade. Some students take Mandarin, French, or Spanish through the independent Piedmont Language School, which provides instruction for a fee for students K-6.

This year the PUSD Curriculum Forum is focusing on World Language with a K-12 perspective. Students, parents, teachers, administrators and board members are examining the current program to determine what is working, what needs improvement, and what could be added. The PMS Site Council is conducting surveys to gather information about how languages are taught in other middle schools.

I am very interested in learning about the "best practices" in other districts, especially those that offer language instruction at the elementary level. In addition, I support the new teacher evaluation program, which will ensure that language teachers are continually improving and updating their skills, bringing the best and most dynamic practices to their teaching.

The teaching and learning of World Languages is a complex issue, especially in a small district with limited resources. I strongly encourage the public to get involved by attending the Curriculum Forum meetings. Now is the time to enter the discussion, as it is early in the process of exploring how best to deliver world languages to our students.

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