All four candidates support development of the vacant former Flood School campus in Menlo Park into affordable housing for teachers and staffers. The Flood School site has become a cornerstone of a political fight around Menlo Park's Measure V, a ballot measure that would prevent multifamily housing development on the Flood School site without a general election vote. There has been heavy debate over a proposal by the district to build 90 units of affordable housing for teachers at the vacant campus, which is located in an area zoned for single-family homes and would be directly impacted by the measure. The district is looking to lease the site to develop for staff housing.
All four candidates shared their views on the district in response to this news organization's candidate questionnaire, which asked them about issues ranging from the district's finances to declining enrollment and more.
Mele Latu, 31, works in development and was appointed to the school board in 2020. She previously ran unsuccessfully for the board shortly before her appointment.
Latu, who holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Johnson & Wales University, has lived in the district for more than two decades. She has over 10 years of experience working in East Palo Alto. She was previously a program coordinator for One East Palo Alto for over four years, according to her LinkedIn profile.
"I've spent my life learning and working alongside East Palo Alto leaders like the late Dr. Faye McNair-Knox, Uncle Bob Hoover, Dr. Omowale Satterwhite, MamaDee Uhila, and more to build a better East Palo Alto," she said. "I've learned about community building and leaning into our community to build up future leaders. As I grew up in this community and tapped into local programs I realized the importance of education and building an environment that supports the whole child. I love that Ravenswood has made adjustments to meet our families where they are and to build a district that our children and families deserve."
She credits the current board with negotiating and implementing one of the biggest pay increases for teachers in the district to date (10% last school year).
Latu said her top three priorities, if elected, are improving the educational ecosystem within the district, "financial-proofing" the district and expanding the district's early childhood development programs to serve children 6 months and older.
She supports developing the Flood School site, which she says will bring more affordable housing to the region.
The district was one of the latest in the region to drop its mask mandate. Case counts in East Palo Alto also were higher than the rest of San Mateo County during much of the pandemic. Latu said that the school board made the right decision during a time that was appropriate for the district.
The declining enrollment rate is a major concern, and the district is proactively working to improve enrollment, which has been lost to families moving out of the area or switching to charter schools, she said.
According to Superintendent Gina Sudaria, the district is actively recruiting families through outreach, community meetings, advertisements and family workshops.
Manuel R. Lopez
Manuel R. Lopez, 34, is an aerospace engineer at Palo Alto-based Teal Drones who has lived in the district for nine years. This is his first time running for the school board.
Lopez was raised in Bogota, Colombia. He moved to the Bay Area to study at Stanford University, where he earned master's and doctoral degrees in the aeronautics and astronautics department. He has a 2-year-old daughter and is concerned that public school options in the area are not very competitive.
"My family and I enjoy the relative proximity to superb parks, recreational centers, libraries and Stanford," he said. "I am very grateful that my mom, who speaks Spanish exclusively and lives near me, can form friendships with neighbors and be understood at shops around her. Based on conversations with teachers, parents and administrators at the district's schools, I feel very fortunate that everyone involved in our children's education genuinely cares for their well-being and is eager to improve continuously."
He said Ravenswood's standardized test results do not currently reflect district teachers' dedicated work.
"We do need to measure how we, as parents, teachers and voters, are preparing our children to become future leaders and effective contributors," he said. "As a board member, I can direct efforts toward finding ways to track our children's academic success in a more meaningful way, so we can hold ourselves accountable for consistent and continual improvement for all children."
Lopez has three priorities for the district, if elected:
• Pay teachers competitively by raising starting salaries from $60,000 to $75,000.
• Foster extracurricular programs for high ambition students, for example: math, chess, arts, music clubs that participate in state, national and international organizations or competitions.
• Promote parent engagement and integration: "I am sure many parents want to get engaged in fundraising and volunteering efforts. Upwards of 75% of the children of our district are considered English learners. ... We need to ensure that parents are aware of what would make their children competitive college applicants. As a first generation immigrant myself, I know this information is just not easy to come by in languages other than English."
Of the Flood School site, he said: "The more we can do to provide options for them to live close to where they support our children, the better."
In terms of the enrollment decline, Lopez wishes that the district wasn't facing the problem of figuring out what to do with the schools it had to close. He would like to see more outreach to attract new parents to the district.
He'd like the school board to implement measurable metrics to track progress on strategic priorities.
"The board has shown it is very compassionate, culturally aware, and knows how to run schools," he said. "They have executed an impressive financial turnaround and are making the right calls to keep a balanced budget in the face of slowly declining student enrollment. They convinced voters to pitch in to improve facilities and increase educators' salaries, and the funds are being handled transparently and responsibly."
Laura Nunez, 32, is a teacher at East Palo Alto Academy and a former school board candidate. She ran in 2018 with Tamara Sobomehin and lost by fewer than 50 votes. She also applied for the appointment when Stephanie Fitch left; Mele Latu was ultimately appointed.
She is a Ravenswood Education Foundation board member. Her family moved to East Palo Alto in 1997 and she only lived elsewhere during her college years. She graduated from Ravenswood schools and Eastside College Preparatory School. She holds a bachelor's degree from Stanford University and a master's degree from Notre Dame de Namur University.
"My entire life has been a radius of five to 10 miles from East Palo Alto," she said. "My entire family is invested in this community. ... We love this community and its rich mix of cultures. We have worked toward making a better future for ourselves, our community and now, my own daughters."
She is running on the Ready Set Ravenswood slate because she believes the candidates are the most qualified, noting they collectively have 40 years of experience working in education, 57 years working in the community and say they have touched over 20,000 students' lives.
She would like the board to work with staff to make sure that students are being taught at grade level and that the district has plans for students who might not be at grade level yet.
Nunez said it's unacceptable that the district has been trying to work with the city of Menlo Park and the residents in that area to come to an agreement about the Flood School campus, but once they are close to an agreement, something else comes up.
"The Flood School site is district property," she said. "Some district staff drive two hours each way to work, this is not sustainable. When the district surveyed the staff, there was a huge demand for district housing, and affordable housing is needed in this area."
She credits the board with hiring Superintendent Gina Sudaria and maintaining a strong rapport with the Ravenswood Teachers Association.
"The 10% raise for teachers was long overdue. With this raise, the district was able to bring the teacher salaries from the worst paid in the county to above average," she said.
She noted that the Ravenswood Education Foundation has provided bridge financing to make sure that the district can pay for this raise for the next three to five years.
In regard to decreased enrollment, Nunez said that in the past, schools were not educating students as well as they should have.
"The current administration is doing a fantastic job changing that and making sure that the students are ready for the next phase," she said. "It makes sense that in the past, families preferred to send their students to charter schools. I look forward to being part of the team that changes that trend. Ravenswood is doing great things, and once the community sees the excellence that is happening in Ravenswood schools, they will want to send their children to RCSD."
Her previous work with nonprofits includes StreetCode Academy, the Boys and Girls Club and EPA.net.
Tamara Sobomehin was elected to the school board in 2018. She has volunteered and worked in the Ravenswood community for over 20 years.
Sobomehin, chief education officer for StreetCode Academy, an East Palo Alto nonprofit that offers free courses in coding, entrepreneurship and design, has lived in the Ravenswood district for seven years. She has four children, in preschool through high school, and is currently working toward her doctorate in education from Stanford University. She holds a master's degree in education from University of Texas at Arlington and a bachelor's degree from Stanford.
"I was born and raised in a community very similar to Ravenswood," she said. "I was the first in my family to graduate college. I've experienced the naysayers and the deficit politics. Yet through it all, I've experienced the power that care, creativity and connection can yield over any circumstance. That is what I want to continue to bring to Ravenswood. This is my home and this is life work for me."
Her three goals, if reelected, would be fostering transdisciplinary education, using valid tools to assess students based on personal academic and social needs of students and encouraging joyful learning.
She would like to push for the board to more intentionally design school systems that recognize and align with the distributed nature of learning and intelligence.
Of the development of the Flood School site for affordable housing, Sobomehin said: "Affordable housing empowers social sustainability by creating opportunities to support the retention, stabilization and well-being of teachers, staff and others wishing to live in the local area. Exploring this opportunity is exciting as it is an example of how our society's agencies and systems can work together to share resources and create healthy, thriving communities."
She said declining enrollment has been a "significant challenge" for the district. Rising costs of living, lack of affordable housing and additional options for enrollment through free and tuition-based private schools, charter schools and the Tinsley transfer program, which requires Peninsula school districts to accept transfers of some minority students from the Ravenswood district into their districts each year, have all contributed to the enrollment dip.
"However, we are starting to see enrollment in the district stabilize and we have established a fiscally solvent budget with a healthy reserve," she said. "We are offering specialized academic programs to support our current students as well as students across the broader community, and we have spurred the return and re-enrollment of some of the families who previously left our district as a result."
Candidate website: readysetravenswood.org.
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