Two Palo Altans vie for county school-board seat | News | Palo Alto Online |


Two Palo Altans vie for county school-board seat

Incumbent runs for third term against parent-volunteer

UPDATE: The League of Women Voters of Palo Alto will host a candidate forum for this race on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at the Los Altos Public Library, 13 S. San Antonio Road.

Palo Alto residents Grace Mah and Sheena Chin are running for Mah's seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education this November, both confirmed to the Weekly.

Mah has served on the county school board for almost a decade, overseeing Area 1, which includes the Palo Alto Unified, Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High school districts, a majority of the Sunnyvale School District and corresponding portions of Fremont Union High School district. A longtime schools volunteer locally, Mah was first elected in 2007, and is now seeking a third term on the board. (There are no term limits.) Mah has two sons in the Palo Alto school district, one a current middle-schooler and the other a recent Gunn High School graduate.

Chin, the parent of three current children in the Palo Alto school district, is also a longtime community volunteer. She said she offers voters a fresh perspective, and hopes to be elected to the county school board in order to improve early education and better support underserved minority students in Santa Clara County, she said in an interview with the Weekly.

Mah herself has focused on early education during her time on the board. If re-elected, she hopes to continue the work she does as chair of the county's Strong Start initiative, a coalition of school districts (including Palo Alto Unified), elected officials, nonprofits, businesses and other organizations working to expand access to high-quality early-learning opportunities for children age 0 to 8 in Santa Clara County, she told the Weekly. The coalition, which launched in 2012, works to raise awareness about the "need for preschool for our kids," goes to Sacramento with a lobbyist to push early-education legislation and is starting now to work with local city governments as well, Mah said.

Getting more students into high-quality preschool means less special-education referrals down the line, fewer students dropping out of school or entering the juvenile justice system and not starting school behind their peers, Mah said. It also makes good fiscal sense, she said, pointing to research that shows for every dollar spent on quality early-education programs, between $7 and $16 is saved in future healthcare, social services and public safety costs.

The Santa Clara County Office of Education itself is the largest early-learning provider in the county, offering a variety of programs for young children, families and districts, including Head Start, a federal program that provides free preschool to eligible children; Early Start, which serves children with disabilities; and state-funded preschool programs.

Mah said that Head Start has space for only about half of the children in Santa Clara County who are eligible for the program, which has an income eligibility level of about $23,000 per year for a family of four.

Even in more affluent communities like Palo Alto, preschools have long waitlists, and it's difficult for families to assess the quality of some programs. Mah said the county board is hoping to make a new child-care and preschool rating system more widely used than it is now in order to increase transparency and accountability, and help parents find the best early-education option for their child.

Another priority for Mah is the county board's work to close the achievement gap. The board is looking now at revising a goal set in 2010 to completely eliminate the county's achievement gap by 2020, she said, but efforts made in recent years -- around preschool access, professional development, parent engagement and charter schools -- are helping, Mah said.

Mah is a strong proponent for charter schools, of which there are now more than 60 across the county, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Education. She was at the center of a controversial effort to bring an elementary Mandarin-immersion program to Palo Alto Unified, and launched a charter-school petition in 2007 after the school board initially voted down her bid for the program. In 2008, she was successful, and Mandarin immersion has been a popular choice program at Ohlone Elementary School ever since. (It also expanded to Jordan Middle School this past school year.)

In 2007, the county board voted 5-1 to appoint Mah to fill a vacancy created by Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Evers, who resigned to become an assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration.

The following year she was elected to a full four-year term with 71 percent of the vote. She was re-elected in 2012 with 66.76 percent.

Professionally, Mah has 18 years of experience in the high-tech industry. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering and applied science from the California Institute of Technology and a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Mah has also served as a board member at the Palo Alto Family YMCA, a parent volunteer at Hoover and Ohlone elementary schools and co-chair for fundraising at Partners in Education (PiE). This past school year, she served on the district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), along with Chin.

Mah said that despite being on the board for close to a decade, she feels "I'm now hitting my stride." She's always planned to run for a third term, she said.

Mah's opponent points to her length of service as a reason for a new face on the board.

If elected, Chin will bring "new energy, new vision, new direction to the county board of education," she told the Weekly. She described herself as a skilled communicator who is passionate about community and education.

Chin, a native of Taiwan, holds bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism. A longtime TV reporter and host, she first came to the United States in the 1990s to conduct research for a book on digital broadcasting and interviewing management at media outlets like NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox, she said. In 2000, she published her book, "The Digital Revolution in TV Industry" and moved to the U.S.

Since moving to Palo Alto in 2007, Chin spent many years traveling throughout the Bay Area to read to children, mostly at libraries, and created a YouTube learning channel dedicated to sharing stories with children. She also volunteered in local libraries, helping to organize activities for children around events like Halloween and Chinese New Year, she said.

Chin joined the city's Library Advisory Commission in 2013 and was elected as the group's chair twice, in 2014 and 2015. She just stepped down from that post at the end of June.

As an immigrant, Chin said she was unfamiliar with the American school system when her children started school in Palo Alto. She decided to volunteer to learn more. In the 2014-15 school year, she served on the school district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) task force, and then on the enrollment-management committee in 2015-16.

Chin has set her sights on the county school board because she "want(s) to help more students" -- particularly those who have less resources than most in Palo Alto.

Chin's campaign priorities are to increase quality preschool programs; "study complex issues that hamper students' achievement;" focus on early identification and intervention; and generate more mentoring and tutoring options for students, her official statement reads.

She also hopes to engage more people in the county school board's work. She said when she started telling people that she planned to run, "most people said, 'What is the county Board of Education?'"

As a former journalist whose "specialty" is communication, she would work to bring a level of visibility to the board's work that the incumbent has not been able to, she said.

"Ten years is a long period of time. I think the incumbent's contributions are really under many, many peoples expectations," Chin said. "I think it's time to make (a) change. It's time to have new ideas."


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What is it worth to you?


4 people like this
Posted by Voter
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Well, I'll be honest I'm not really sure what the county school board does either. It sounds good on paper but falls pretty short if you contact them about any of their supposed domain.

I suggest people watch the in-person debate. They should be posted online. There's no way you can tell the candidates for positions like these from what's on paper. Last time, it was really clear that Ma was the only reasonable candidate. I want to hear what the opponent has to say this time. Please take the time to listen to them speak for themselves.

13 people like this
Posted by Barron Park parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 18, 2016 at 4:44 pm

I think people need to observe term limits. Nothing against Grace Mah but running for a 3rd term doesn't seem right. (This comment also applies to Melissa Baten-Caswell who is running for a 3rd term on the Palo Alto Unified School Board.)

Give other people a chance to take a fresh view.

8 people like this
Posted by County SELPA Problems
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 18, 2016 at 10:48 pm

County SELPA Problems is a registered user.

Does she run the County SELPA? That is the organization controlling Special Education, and PAUSD is opaque about it. How do parents find out about County schools and programs for disabled? PAUSD tells parents no programs exist. County SELPA manuals require reporting events like restraining disabled children and losing disabled children or allowing them to run away from school campuses, but PAUSD seldom reports it. It is difficult to get PAUSD to tell parents what forms are required or who to tell if you fear a child was unsafe at school, and even harder to get PAUSD to report when it happened. Communication from the County is poor to non-existent.

17 people like this
Posted by Kay
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2016 at 7:16 am

Give give other people a chance. Two terms is enough. Melissa Baten Caswell has had enough time on the board of education as well. Two terms is sufficient time to make an impact and get things done.

9 people like this
Posted by iCare
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 23, 2016 at 8:37 am

I have similar opinion to some comments above. What does the county board do for area 1? Why do people not know its existence? Lack of accomplishment? Mah was in the position since 2007. It’s almost a decade. I would be very interested to know the contributions that Mah has brought to the community for the past almost 10 years. I wonder what is the point of giving Mah another 4 more years.

6 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2016 at 10:23 pm

The main thing I want to know when it comes to the County board of education is where the candidate stands on charters. Mah got herself appointed by a pro-charter board when she rammed through MI at Ohlone using a charter threat.

The board can force a charter on a district that's turned down an application. In recent years, the county BoE has been very pro-charter.

So, I'd like to know Chin's stance on charters.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident 12
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 17, 2016 at 10:30 pm

Resident 12 is a registered user.

Grace Mah was partly responsible for the debacle that was/is Bullis in the Los Altos School District. Boy was that divisive, pitting neighbor vs neighbor, charges of elitism, etc. We really don't want a charter in PAUSD, or charter advocates on the board. I don't see how Chin can be worse than Mah in that regard. But, good question.

Like this comment
Posted by County School Board
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 18, 2016 at 2:43 pm

County School Board is a registered user.

@iCare - Agree, I would like to see Palo Alto Weekly report on the County of Santa Clara school board election. It seems to have a lot of effect on PAUSD. The PAUSD Board and Superintendent cite the County school Board as reasons for doing things.

Who donates money to which County Board candidates? What impact does it have on our local school District? We know SELPA is supposedly run out of the County. But who is in charge of it? Are SELPA officials voted in, or do paid school District employees automatically run it and make their own rules? PAUSD's Board was (only recently) told by Holly Wade the SELPA manual is what she is using as PAUSD's policy and procedure manual and she should not produce a District manual because she thinks the Selpa manual should be used, we don't know what this SELPA entity does, who is on it, and what a vote cast for a school Board candidate does for it.

The County School Board web site is not very imformative, especially for disability related items. Aside from the SELPA and Charter Schools (from above posts), what else does County School Board control? What money does it give to PAUSD, and who controls it? What do our votes mean?

2 people like this
Posted by County Boards
a resident of Los Altos
on Oct 18, 2016 at 3:33 pm

There are 5 SELPA's in Santa Clara County, each serving different areas. But a SELPA doesn't operate Special Education. It's just a mechanism for distributing funding. A school district like Palo Alto could elect to have the county run special ed in its district, and then the county would get the funding from the SELPA for that school district. The school district would still need to pay additional costs to the county. Most school districts run special ed themselves. Some of them contract with the county for certain specific special education services. The county board oversees the superintendent and the county staff, but they are still charged with operating according to state law. Mainly county's have special ed divisions to help the smaller districts and to offer services that optional benefit multiple districts, but these district still have to pay for the service.

So PAUSD has its own massive special ed program and is full independent of any county programs supervised by the board. That doesn't mean that all members of the county board don't need to supervise all the programs of the county. It just means it's unlikely to affect PAUSD.

The same thing is true for charter schools. The state has laws allowing parents to form charters. If a school board unjustly rejects a valid formation, then it goes to the county board. If the county board starts rejecting them all without cause, they will end up getting approved by the state board of education. The county board can't duck charters by just bouncing all the petitions.

7 people like this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 18, 2016 at 6:42 pm

I don't agree that "we" don't want charters in PAUSD. If Larry Ellison wanted to build another DTech here, there would be lines a mile long to get in. You can't even get into a tour there if you don't log in within seconds of their posting availability. Imagine havng kids with great schooling but more independence, agency, and less stress, and not having to deal with the interpersonal meanness and nastiness from the district office. Addng a physical charter would mean finally the district would have to improve.

And by the way, Palo Alto has charters - they're county charters. The sky hasn't fallen.

Ma only got to the charter "threat" after trying to work with the district for five years. She showed an overabundance of patience in the face of five years of the usual wild goose chases the district surely put them through to avoid doing anything. The only way you get anything done here is through leverage, and Grace Mah showed a lot of courage to be the lightning rod for everyone else. I supported the program, not the methods, until I got to know a little more about how this place works. Then I was in awe.

1 person likes this
Posted by County School Board
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 18, 2016 at 9:06 pm

County School Board is a registered user.

Santa Clara County Board of Education Candidate Statements:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by County School Board
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 18, 2016 at 9:23 pm

County School Board is a registered user.

According to County School Board's video "Who We Are":
Web Link

County School Board has fiscal oversight over all school Districts, appeals for expulsions (which needs more oversight in PAUSD because is all under the power of a single employee), charter schools, transfers, and ensures compliance with State and Federal mandates/regulations. This has not gone so well in PAUSD in the last years given the legal problems. Fiscal oversight may be okay, but did not help prevent the deficit.

Video also says it provides Fiscal and Administrative Support and services. How can we know if the County will offer them more cheaply than our District? District administrators have opposed using County services in favor of more PAUSD hiring. There are criticisms of swelling clerical ranks in PAUSD Administration.

Video says they provide direct special education services, but it is very difficult to find out any information about their programs.

PAUSD keeps SELPA information hidden, only releasing what supports what they want, then citing a SELPA policy as if it were a requirement. PAUSD does not tell parents how to get the whole picture, how to contact the SELPA, if it has any enforcement power, etc. For example PAUSD does not complete all emergency SELPA incident reports of violent and dangerous behaviors and child contact with School Resource Officers (police officers) and there was nothing families can do about it.

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