This November, voters in several north county and west valley cities will decide who will lead the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. Six candidates are vying for three seats on the district's board of trustees. The election marks only the second contested race in the last decade.
The Foothill-De Anza district serves 64,000 students each year and encompasses Mountain View, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Stanford and parts of Saratoga and San Jose.
The district has an unrestricted general fund budget of $204 million for operations and a total budget of $322 million. Foothill-De Anza has only recently gotten back in the black, having run a budget deficit from the start of the 2008 recession until the 2014-15 school year.
Following deep budget cuts, the district is still on the road to recovery, and some big problems remain today. Candidates agree that deep decreases in enrollment, which began in the 2008-09 school year and never rebounded, need to be addressed by the new board. At its peak, the district had 38,000 full-time equivalent students attending Foothill and De Anza colleges, but that number has since dropped to about 31,900 students.
The district is also wrapping up construction with the $490 million Measure C bond, which voters approved in 2006. Final projects include a $41.5 million education center at the former Onizuka Air Force Station on Moffett Field, as well as a $20 million district office.
Education: associate's degree, De Anza College; bachelor's degree, political science, University of California, Los Angeles
City of residence: Cupertino
Occupation: education policy adviser and senior district representative
Patrick Ahrens is a former De Anza College student who couldn't stay away from the district for long. After launching a fast-moving career in politics and landing himself a senior staffing job for California State Assemblyman Evan Low, Ahrens decided in April to throw his hat in the ring for the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees.
At 27, Ahrens is the youngest candidate in the field by far, and he vows to bring "new energy" to the district by addressing the problems that students face. As a former student trustee, Ahrens says he has the experience he needs to make the right decisions as a board member. His background is also bolstered by his work in California's state capitol, out of which he said he better understands how statewide decisions affect community college districts.
Ahrens was the first in his family to go to college, and he credits De Anza with giving him the springboard to succeed in his career. He says his recent De Anza experience makes him acutely aware of what it's like to juggle the high cost of textbooks and classes while working part-time to stay afloat in Silicon Valley.
Ahrens said he believes the district needs to find "new and innovative" ways to support students in trying economic times. If elected, one of his major goals would be to provide students tuition-free enrollment for their first semester. The West Valley-Mission Community College District already has a similar offer, he said, and it would be a good fit for Foothill-De Anza as well.
Although Ahrens cites the achievement gap as a big problem that needs to be addressed, he said the district can't do it alone. He suggests that Foothill-De Anza could partner with local high schools to make sure all students, including low-income and minority students, are ready for college when they graduate. Summer semester classes for incoming Foothill and De Anza freshman could go a long way towards helping ill-prepared students, he said.
Campus safety also tops Ahrens' list of priorities, including improved responses to emergency calls and campus-police escorts for students who feel unsafe walking to their vehicle at night.
Ahrens believes that the district is "very well run," but the board needs to refocus its energy on reducing the financial burden on students whenever possible. Textbooks can cost students hundreds of dollars each semester, and Ahrens said faculty members on sabbatical used to help out by creating free, online textbooks. This practice ended in recent years, and Ahrens said it would be a big priority for him to bring it back.
As a student trustee, Ahrens was part of a successful student-led effort to adopt the district's Eco Pass program, which grants all students free bus and light rail passes with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. He also helped launch a textbook rental program.
Education: bachelor's degree, political science, California State University, Northridge; law degree, Santa Clara University, School of Law
City of residence: Mountain View
The sole incumbent in the race, Laura Casas, who also goes by Laura Casas Frier, believes that her institutional knowledge and background on the board will be essential in running the Foothill-De Anza Community College District over the next four years. Two of her colleagues, Betsy Bechtel and Joan Barram, decided not to run for re-election. After serving for 10 years on the board, Casas said she has the know-how to maintain stability and that she has learned how to be an effective board member.
Casas said she believes community colleges play an important role in giving everyone an opportunity to participate in higher education. If re-elected, she said she will push for a balanced budget without making any compromises. The district must maintain high-quality academic programs even as the district's enrollment declines, she said.
In her view, an important part of staying financially solvent is making sure the district can meet the future pension security and medical-liability contract obligations it has with current and retired employees. Casas said she would also advocate for student services that would eliminate the achievement gap and aid in course transfer and completion rates.
During the recession, Casas said, statewide decisions led to an enrollment, and by extension funding, decline for the community college district. Because the state no longer provides funding for students who take the same class more than once, Casas believes many of the community members who enjoy taking classes like tennis or painting were lost. As a member of the California Community College Trustees, Casas has fought to introduce legislation that brings at least some of the funding back.
Casas has built a record as a stalwart advocate for education and social justice outside of the Board of Trustees. She co-founded a 35-bed transitional home called Harbor Community, aimed at helping battered women and children, and has chaired the Adelante Higher Education Conference to encourage underrepresented high school girls to go to college. She currently serves as a board member of ALearn, a Santa Clara-based college preparatory program for low-income, Latino and immigrant students in middle and high school.
Age: declined to state
Education: associate's degree, political science, Santa Monica College; bachelor's degree, political science, University of California at Berkeley; law degree, University of California, Berkeley; Institute for Educational Management, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Harvard Negotiation Project, Program of Instruction for Lawyers, Harvard Law School
City of residence: Los Altos
Occupation: Member, Foothill-De Anza Foundation board
For more than four decades, Peter Landsberger has been deeply involved in higher education throughout the state, serving in roles ranging from teacher to chancellor. Now Landsberger seeks to carry his experience over to the Foothill-De Anza board, where he says he'll be able to improve both Foothill and De Anza colleges and make sure everyone in the community can receive a quality and affordable education.
Landsberger's experience with the district goes back to 1978, when he was selected to be the district's first general counsel. He served as vice chancellor for the district for three years and later worked as a faculty member and the dean of business and the computer systems division at De Anza. He served seven years as the president of the College of San Mateo, and then moved to southern California to serve as senior vice chancellor and vice chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. He worked for three years as a special trustee for Compton Community College District.
Community colleges, Landsberger said, offer affordable education that is "essential to building a society that is fair and an economy that is prosperous."
Over the next four years, Landsberger believes, it's critical for the board to maintain or increase enrollment in order to earn all of the state revenue available for Foothill-De Anza. Currently, enrollment is trending downward, which Landsberger believes is a serious problem that can lead to financial instability. He said he has tackled dwindling enrollment before, and would be able to deal with any "structural" problems in the district that could be hindering enrollment growth.
Landsberger said the current board has done a "commendable" job leading the district in recent years but is opening itself up to instability with two longtime incumbents stepping down this year. He believes even one problematic or weak board member can cause big problems, which he said happens all too often in other school districts in the area.
If elected, Landsberger vowed to make the transition from high school into college as seamless as possible, and said it's important to foster a close relationship with local high schools in order to eliminate or minimize any hurdles students face during the switch.
In addition to offering the right classes and quality teachers, Landsberger said the district also has an obligation to provide stronger career counseling, financial aid, library services and tutoring -- services he hopes to boost as a board member.
Over the last two years, Landsberger has served as a member of the Foothill-De Anza Foundation, where he has worked to promote the district and raise funds for scholarships, stipends for internships, and vouchers for school supplies and textbooks. He says his work on the foundation has helped usher in new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs and support services for low-income and minority students through the Extended Opportunity Program.
Education: bachelor's degree, industrial administration, Carnegie Mellon University; master's degree, mechanical engineering, Stanford University
City of residence: Cupertino
Orrin Mahoney, a longtime resident and active volunteer in Cupertino, believes his combined decades of experience as a manager at Hewlett-Packard and as an elected official makes him a prime candidate for the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees.
Mahoney, now retired, spent 35 years in managerial positions at HP, where he learned the "importance of solid strategic and financial planning," he said. After retiring, he served on the planning commission and City Council in Cupertino, including two terms as mayor, in 2009 and 2013.
Mahoney said strong fiscal management, aging infrastructure and the region's high cost of living are the top three issues facing the community college district. He said the school district is in need of "other funding options," including a possible parcel tax. When the district put a $69 parcel tax on the ballot in 2010, it failed to gain the two-thirds majority required to pass.
He was critical of the current board's approval of a $24 million renovation of De Anza's Flint Center for the Performing Arts parking garage, primarily driven by a need to upgrade the four-level garage for earthquake safety. The board had considered demolishing the aging garage and building a new one, but ultimately opted for the less expensive option of retrofitting. Proposals were also brought to the board for constructing a transit center to help address student and staff parking needs.
While a "necessary project," Mahoney said that "more time could have been spent on the future role of the Flint Center space and what an integrated plan would look like for the combined site."
And like most academic institutions in Silicon Valley, both K-12 and higher education, the Foothill-De Anza district must find ways to mitigate the impact of a rising cost of living on its ability to attract and retain high-quality professors and staff, Mahoney said.
If elected, Mahoney said he hopes to establish "stronger" relationships with the district's feeder schools, city governments and high-tech companies to build meaningful partnerships, his campaign website states.
He has been an active supporter of the community college district, particularly De Anza, for many years. He is a 14-year member of the De Anza Commission, which works to promote the community college within the community and to "engage in projects, activities and fundraising in support of educational excellence for students," the commission's website reads. He has served as the group's co-chair for the last three years and for the past five years has led a major fundraising event for the community college, he said. The De Anza Commission has also advocated for partnerships with the City of Cupertino, he noted, and helped with the district's last parcel tax campaign.
For the past three years, Mahoney has worked on various fundraising activities through his role on the Foothill-De Anza Foundation Board. The foundation's "key initiative" this year was on social equity, Mahoney noted, with a focus on programs that support low-income students, veterans, exposure to STEM and student engagement.
Mahoney also served on two bond oversight committees for the Cupertino Union School District, where his four daughters attended school.
In 2005, he was named Cupertino's "citizen of the year."
Education: bachelor's degree, chemistry with biology emphasis, San Jose State University
City of residence: Los Altos Hills
Eric Rosenthal spent 13 years observing the inner workings of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District as a supervisor of Foothill College's Student Success Center, now called Online Student Services. Rosenthal was one of the founders of the center in 2001, which offered a "one-stop shop" computer lab for students to get help applying for financial aid, enrolling in classes and other services, Rosenthal said.
He said he also helped the district set up its database with CCCApply, the statewide online admission application center for California Community Colleges.
In his time as a Foothill employee, Rosenthal said he "found many issues that needed to be addressed," prompting him to run for a seat on the board.
Cybersecurity is high on Rosenthal's list of key issues. He is most critical of a 2014 board vote to create an additional database with students' and employees' log-in information -- a database he believes is "easily shareable with little or no security." If elected, he said he would push for an open-session discussion of the "merits or faults" of such a separate database.
Also concerned about lax sharing of student data with external organizations, he wants to "stop unauthorized access to student accounts" and would "impose strict rules on when a student's data can be used," including requiring an opt-out option and a notification or permission system for students.
Another top priority for Rosenthal is helping Foothill and De Anza increase enrollment. The colleges should work to promote themselves more online and also provide better support and guidance for interested students from admission through registration and attendance, he said. More collaboration between departments that currently operate like islands, Rosenthal said, could help better support students.
The two colleges could also attract more students by giving their online courses, which are less expensive to mount than traditional courses, more visibility, Rosenthal said.
"We can use our renowned locations in Silicon Valley to market nationally and internationally our online classes," he said.Rosenthal also proposed replicating at Foothill and De Anza a program in place at other California community colleges that provides a tuition-free semester to qualifying local high school students. Long Beach Community College, for example, covers one semester for local students who enroll in the fall immediately after their high school graduation.
A third issue is facilities upgrades and safety. As a board member, Rosenthal would work to closely monitor construction projects "to ensure the contractors adhere to their contract, finish on time, and produce a safe learning and working environment."
Among the six candidates, Rosenthal is the only one to have raised less than the cap required to file a campaign finance statement. Rosenthal wrote in an email that he expects to receive "very little (in) donations."
Rosenthal also worked as a grant supervisor in Foothill's Office of Economic Development and served on various committees, including on safety and hiring. As a longtime neighbor of the campus, the Los Altos Hills resident said he has volunteered in various activities over the years, including with Foothill Music Theatre.
Education: associate degree in business, West Valley Community College; bachelor's degree, business administration, minor in Asian studies and political science, San Jose State University
City of residence: Cupertino
Occupation: Cupertino City Council member
Gilbert Wong, the first in an immigrant family to attend college, describes himself as a passionate "education advocate."
He graduated from Los Gatos High School and went on to West Valley Community College, then San Jose State University. He later became an active community volunteer, from serving on his daughter's school site council to the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce's board of directors to the city's planning commission.
Wong was first elected to the Cupertino City Council in 2007 and again in 2011. In his second term, he became the first American-born Chinese resident to serve as mayor of Cupertino, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
Wong sees the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees as a natural next step in his public service, and he views equity and access as one of the top three issues facing the district. He's concerned that declining state dollars and a tight budget means the district is "making tough choices to cut classes" that affect students' abilities to graduate in two years, find the classes they need and repeat courses if necessary.
As Cupertino mayor, he met quarterly with local school leadership -- Cupertino's school board president, superintendent and De Anza College president -- to strengthen ties and talk about common issues, such as traffic. He said he valued these regular collaborative meetings as a "healthy" way to "create a sense of open communication and transparency."
If elected, Wong said he would also continue already aggressive marketing efforts underway to attract more full-time students to the community colleges.
Another top issue facing Foothill-De Anza is retaining part-time teachers and striking a balance between the community colleges' full-time and part-time faculty, Wong said.
"Part-time teachers do not have the full-time benefits of full-time faculty, which causes an inequity in our system," he said. "However, we need to be nimble and flexible as enrollment is going down but could also increase in a short period of time."
He said he would direct the district to start conversations with the schools' part-time teachers during contract negotiations and to "provide assistance programs for these teachers until they have an opportunity for tenure."
Wong is critical of the current board's process and ultimate decision to retrofit De Anza's Flint Center parking garage. He called the district's hiring of a consultant to develop four plans for a public-private partnership feasibility study, looking at concepts from housing to retail to more classrooms, a "waste of taxpayer money."
"The main goal of Foothill-De Anza is to provide students with an education and not to be in the business of retail/housing," he said.
Wong "strongly felt" that the district should have pursued a transit center for the campus by partnering with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Agency, the city of Cupertino and Caltrans. A transit center with ample public-transportation options could help to mitigate traffic and make De Anza a more attractive option to students, faculty and staff.
Wong also serves on the De Anza Commission and volunteers with the college's Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute.