Santa Clara County Board of Education incumbent Grace Mah and challenger Melissa Baten Caswell are running for Trustee Area 1, which represents the Palo Alto Unified, Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos Union High school districts and a portion of the Sunnyvale and Fremont Union High School districts.
Both are Palo Alto residents and longtime schools volunteers. Mah has served 13 years on the county board and is seeking her fourth term. Baten Caswell is nearing the end of her third term on the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education.
The election comes amid heightened tensions on the county board, driven by differing opinions on charter schools as well as the controversial, split-vote censoring of Trustee Joseph Di Salvo for alleged gender discrimination. (Mah and two other board members cast the minority opposition votes.)
Campaign contributions in this race further underscore the charter school divide, with Mah receiving significant support from pro-charter organizations and Baten Caswell receiving large amounts from vocal critics of Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, whose next renewal will come before the board in 2022.
The county board is made up of seven members who represent 31 school districts across the county. Trustees oversee the superintendent, Mary Ann Dewan, and a $308 million budget. The board authorizes charter schools, of which there are currently 21 in Santa Clara County.
The county Office of Education functions as a regional service provider for school districts and also provides direct services to students through special education programs, alternative schools, Head Start and State Preschool programs and migrant education.
Read profiles of the two candidates.
Melissa Baten Caswell
Melissa Baten Caswell, who's nearing the end of 13 years on the Palo Alto school board, is running for the county board seat on a contrasting campaign philosophy: changing the status quo.
If elected, Baten Caswell wants to end a culture of siloed school districts across the county, improve governance on the board and empower the county Office of Education to be a valued resource that districts look to for leadership and guidance.
"This seems like a unique opportunity to get in and make a difference when people really need change," Baten Caswell said. "I believe that we need change in order to get change. It's not going to happen doing the same thing over and over again."
Baten Caswell, a Palo Alto resident, former business manager and longtime schools volunteer, has been heavily involved in public education for years. She was first elected to the Palo Alto board in 2007, serving through more than a decade of upheaval, leadership turnover and major educational shifts — on-the-ground experience she said not many other county board trustees have. She is involved with several statewide school organizations, including Schools for Sound Finance, the California Association of Suburban School Districts, the California School Boards Association and Santa Clara County School Boards Association (where she served as vice president and president).
Baten Caswell said she's noticed a growing willingness to think differently about public education, particularly during the unprecedented disruption brought on by the coronavirus. But the county Office of Education, she said, hasn't met that challenge.
"Many county offices across the state are the beacon for their county. If you have a problem, you go to the county office. If you need information, you go to the county office," she said. "When you list out the best county offices in the state, ours doesn't come up — but it could."
If elected, she said she'd press for an evaluation of what the county's top needs are; focusing on too many initiatives at once has weakened its effectiveness. When she was first elected to the Palo Alto school board, she focused on reinvigorating the district's strategic plan by persuading the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to help the district develop a new document and new process with stronger community input. She pointed to this as valuable experience she would bring to the county school board.
The county Office of Education should create systems to help school districts to work together more and share best practices, especially during a pandemic, she said, such as creating a process for the county Office of Education to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) and Wi-Fi hotspots and distribute them to districts.
Despite the fact that the county board does not have oversight of school districts, Baten Caswell thinks the body should take a more proactive rather than hands-off leadership role. The board should be a "fulcrum for best practices," such as offering professional development or a countywide distance-learning option during school closures.
Baten Caswell's campaign has raised about $140,000 to date, according to campaign finance filings, including nearly $50,000 from donors who have publicly opposed or criticized Bullis Charter School in Los Altos. The Los Altos School District and Bullis have been embroiled in controversy for years, from a facilities lawsuit to the district's accusation of the charter school last year of "longstanding discrimination" and a request that the county Board of Education take formal action to prevent Bullis from giving priority enrollment to students residing in the wealthiest enclave within the school district's boundaries.
Sangeeth Peruri, a former Los Altos school board member, and Steve Brown, a member of a group called "Unintended Consequences" that was critical of Bullis, each gave $10,000 to Baten Caswell's campaign. Alison Biggs, a Los Altos School District parent who claims Bullis has practices that dissuade parents of special education students from applying, gave $3,000.
Two current Los Altos School District board members also made financial contributions: Jessica Speiser ($1,500) and Vladimir Ivanovic ($1,000).
Baten Caswell said she's "not sure why" Bullis critics are supporting her campaign. But, she observed, "20 years of a schism in a community is not OK."
"You can't have a community that's divided that way," she said. "You can't take down a school," but the county has to "take responsibility" for schools it oversees.
"Clearly they haven't seen anything change in 13 years with the current board member," she added. "So I'm another person running."
She said she would advocate for bringing both sides together to talk through the issues in a spirit that is not polarized.
In evaluating any charter school application, Baten Caswell said she would "make sure that agreements that are made serve the whole community — all the students in the community. The outcomes for all the kids in the community should be better as a result."
Both Baten Caswell and her opponent pointed to charter schools as a source of friction and division among county board members. Baten Caswell said the board has been too singularly focused on charter schools.
"I think there's been a history of 'us versus them' on the board of those for charters and those not for charters," she said. "When that becomes the only thing, you're not focused on what the mission is."
Other notable donors to Baten Caswell's campaign include former State Board of Education President and Stanford University Michael Kirst ($200), current Palo Alto trustee Jennifer DiBrienza ($500), former Palo Alto trustees Terry Godfrey ($250) and Heidi Emberling ($100), Palo Alto City Councilwoman Alison Cormack ($500), Sunnyvale trustee Reid Myers ($100) and Sunnyvale City Councilmember Gustav Larsson ($200).
Several unions also contributed to her campaign: Plumbers, Steamfitters & Refrigeration Fitters Local 393 Political Action Fund ($1,000); the Cement Mason's Local 400 Political Action Committee ($250); and Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local No. 104 ($1,000).
Baten Caswell has spent about $121,000 to date, including about $52,000 paid to Whitehurst Mosher Campaign Strategy & Media, an Oakland campaign management company. Her campaign's ending cash balance as of Sept. 19 is about $17,800.
Baten Caswell currently runs her own business, providing marketing strategy, corporate positioning and program development services to a variety of companies.
Grace Mah is hopeful that her yearslong focus on fiscal responsibility, early education and equity will win her reelection to the Santa Clara County Board of Education.
Mah, a Palo Alto resident and former engineer, has served on the county board since 2007.
She's particularly proud of advocacy that resulted for the first time last year in Santa Clara County's creation of an annual budget focused on children and youth programs, which she said provided an opportunity to scrutinize where the county can and should invest more.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the county was set to spend approximately $859 million on children, youth and family programs and receive approximately $688 million in state, federal and other outside funding for a net cost to the county of approximately $170 million.
Taking state and federal funding into account, the actual dollars spent by the county on these programs is closer to 3% of its total budget, Mah said, while children make up 25% of the county's population.
"Why are they only getting 3% of the county budget?" she said. "That's where now the discussion can be focused (on)."
Mah serves on the county office's budget study committee and said she's used that position to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent effectively, including asking to review contracts with outside consultants and scrutinizing whether the county's replacement of laid-off classified employees with higher-paid directors and managers amounts to "position inflation."
In light of those layoffs, Mah voted against a raise for the county superintendent of schools this year.
"I wanted to address that and make sure that was really made public, especially with the superintendent's raise being in my opinion not an essential expense as compared to educators who were laid off," she said.
Mah has been endorsed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 and said she plans to continue pressing the superintendent about income inequities among unionized staff members.
Mah is the co-founder and former chair of the county's Strong Start initiative, a coalition of school districts, elected officials, nonprofits, businesses and other organizations working to expand access to high-quality early-learning opportunities for children ages 0 to 8 in Santa Clara County. She said she's hopeful the county is on the verge of offering universal preschool, with a pilot program underway in San Jose. Quality early education helps close the achievement gap, she said, and if reelected she plans to continue her advocacy in this area.
She was also involved in the Early Learning Master Plan, a collaborative 2017 document that evaluated the county's early childhood education system and provided next steps for addressing challenges.
Mah said she's comfortable with the board's historical hands-off approach to supporting the 31 school districts it serves. In terms of supporting schools as they navigate reopening, she sees the county Office of Education's primary role to publish and review reopening guidelines issued by the county and state.
"We're not directly involved with the school activities in that each school district is pretty autonomous. What we do is more general policies and programs," she said.
Mah voted in support of every charter school application or renewal that came to the county school board in 2019-20, according to the county. But when the board renewed Bullis' charter in a 5-2 vote in 2011, she voted against it. Mah was absent in 2016 when the board again renewed Bullils' charter for five years.
Mah said the board has become increasingly divided along pro- and anti-charter lines, causing "acrimony" among trustees.
"The majority believe that good charter schools should still continue. But we have some board members who are questioning staunchly and kind of antagonistically about some of the petitions," Mah said. "I don't think that's very professional."
Several pro-charter school organizations have contributed to Mah's campaign, according to finance reports, including Champions for Education PAC ($15,000), Santa Clara Charter Advocates for Great Public Schools ($10,000), Charter Public Schools PAC ($75,000), Preston Smith, CEO of Rocketship Public Schools ($1,000) and Cheye Calvo, chief growth and community engagement office for Rocketship Public Schools ($1,000). Rocketship operates several charter schools in Santa Clara County.
Charter Public Schools PAC also provided non-monetary contributions in the form of photo and consulting expenses, according to her campaign finance reports.
In 2007, Mah controversially petitioned to open a Mandarin immersion charter school in Palo Alto, which ultimately resulted in the 2008 launch of Ohlone Elementary School's Mandarin immersion program.
"It's not to say charter schools are the panacea and solution to everything," Mah said. But good charter schools bring in alternative programs that ideally spur innovation in the host school district as well, she said.
"I agree that the point of charter schools is not to decimate a local school district," she said. "One of the problems is if the school district doesn't change or doesn't advance they're going to keep losing students. They have to be nimble enough to adopt some of these newer practices or best practices in order to be competitive."
She advocated, however, for a limit on how much funding is attached to students who leave their neighborhood schools to attend charters.
"There should be some kind of floor that the school district can retain and get credit for keeping the local students who don't go to charter schools," she said.
Mah is seeking a fourth term on the county board. She voted against a proposal this summer to put a measure on the November ballot that would limit trustees to three terms, a process she said was rushed and lacked public input.
Mah has been active in the local campaign against teen vaping, speaking at local county Board of Supervisors and city council meetings to advocate for ordinances banning the sales of flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes.
Mah's youngest son is a rising junior at Gunn High School. Her eldest son is a recent college graduate and Gunn alumnus.
Mah's campaign raised about $80,000 through Sept. 19, including $6,000 she loaned herself. Since the last reporting period closed on Sept. 19, she has received more than $100,000 from two charter PACs.
Di Salvo, who is also running for reelection, donated $250 to Mah's campaign.
As of Sept. 19, Mah had spent nearly $47,000, including $32,500 to Saguaro Strategies, a Berkeley media firm for Democratic campaigns, and had about $32,700 left in her campaign coffers.
View more of our 2020 election coverage here.