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SCUSD Candidates Forum: Down-With-the-Establishment Revolution vs. Progressive Education

One thing about Santa Clara Unified politics: they’re multi-dimensional lessons in political science. This year’s election is about keeping a revolution alive or restoring stable progressive governance, made clear at Oct. 2’s Santa Clara Unified school board Candidates Forum.

First, the PoliSci lesson.

Revolutions aren’t just about radical change. Purging the old order, easy-to-grasp slogans, ideological purity at any cost, and reminders to continue the revolution are also key.


An educational civil war has been going on for 40 years, and the revolutionaries want to turn back the pedagogic clock to 1914 (or 1814). They call it “back to basics” – teacher-directed education, rote learning, 3Rs.

Little explaining is needed, because most over 40 and many immigrants were educated this way. Plus, if one day students are in small groups “discovering” multiplication’s principles, and the next they’re reciting the multiplication tables, change registers easily.

The opposition, progressives, aim to prepare students for a world where learning how to learn is as important as what you learn. So curriculum is dynamic, learning is more collaborative, hands-on, and integrated – for example, preparing future engineers to clearly explain the business advantages of their designs to the non-technical people who write the checks.

Equally important is continued operational stability; gradual change that’s not as easy to pinpoint. The public needs to be educated as well as students, because these methods can’t be encapsulated in one word like “3Rs.”

This conflict has been playing out in SCUSD for most of the last decade, with “More Millikins” as the local shorthand for demands for radical change. The board majority – Trustees Ina Bendis, Christine Koltermann, Michele Ryan and Christopher Stampolis – is open about its revolutionary agenda.

With many candidates, little attention, and only more votes than anyone else needed to win, school board elections make easy targets. All that’s needed is an organized voting block that can reliably garner 25 to 30 percent of the vote – in 2010 one SCUSD candidate won with 19 percent. One such group is Santa Clara Plays Fair, which coalesced over opposition to the 49ers stadium, and now focuses on what they say is the undue influence of “special interests” in Santa Clara politics.

Bendis’ 2006 election, a campaign managed by Stampolis (an old political hand as well as the defendant in two recent harassment complaints), marked a turning point. In 2010, Koltermann was elected (with Stampolis’ strong support), and in 2012, Stampolis and Ryan were elected.

The results? Since 2006 the district has had four superintendents, all top-level management staff has left, along with many principals and teachers. Experienced employees have been attacked with unproven accusations, repeated classroom observations, inquisitorial questioning at board meetings and via email, and outright threats.

Board meetings stall with requests for definitions, statistics, legal clarifications, and procedural objections. Although the board has no strategic plan, hours are consumed by micro-managerial discussions of one-off operational changes.

To the revolutionaries, these are positive results, something that was made clear in the Oct. 2 Candidates Forum.

Koltermann – a Stanford Ph.D. in paleo-climatic geology and part-time science teacher at Magnolia Charter School, running for a second term – opened the Forum with the case for staying the revolutionary course.

“When I ran for school board five years ago, I met a family that had pulled their child out of Santa Clara public schools to homeschool because the district wasn’t meeting their needs. When I met that family again, they’re back in the district in the new STEM program at Cabrillo because of the improvements made to the district. It turns out there are more than 800 other families shut out of programs they want.”

(The STEM program was initiated and is entirely funded and managed by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, a private organization funded with corporate money.)

For Koltermann, top priorities are “making sure we follow the strategic plan” – although there isn’t one – and “addressing parent demand” by reducing waiting lists. This is presumably for Millikin Basics, where more than 700 parents are looking to place their children; that some people have their names on both Millikin and Washington Open (whose educational philosophy completely opposite to Millikin’s 3Rs,) opens this reported demand to question.

“I want us to have a stronger core curriculum to meet everyone’s needs,” Koltermann continued. “My children [went through] elementary school not being taught phonics. We had to pay thousands of dollars in tutoring outside of the district. That’s the primary reason I ran for the board. No parent should ever have to pay money for basics for their children that should be provided by the district. I’m pleased to say we’ve got the administrative staff in place … to make the changes we need.”ncumbent Bendis, a retired pulmonologist running for a third term – describing herself as “the best qualified candidate,” with “four advanced degrees” including an M.D. and Ph.D. in molecular biology – started with a rapid-fire stream of invective.

“Tonight you may hear a lot about how terribly our district has suffered from change during the eight years that I’ve served on the board. Yes, change is difficult and often painful. Yet the changes we experienced were needed to get us on the road to rigor, achievement, and accountability.

“When I first took office eight years ago, nepotism and cronyism in hiring were our district’s norm. Racism and prejudice were rampant. Highly compensated administrators sent their children to private schools that required mastery of basic math skills and emphasized punctuation, spelling, grammar, and sophisticated vocabulary.

“But our students were encouraged to use calculators rather than mastering basic math skills, because as former administrators and principals said, ‘not all kids are good at rote memorization.’ Rather than ensure they learned proper grammar, spelling and punctuation, they [students] graduated writing hardly anything at all. Administrators and teachers were not held accountable for students’ poor achievement.” (Bendis’ children never attended Santa Clara Unified schools).

Bendis’ subsequent answers largely continued this idea. Her priorities are a “culture of achievement, of rigor, of high expectations, of accountability.” Staff turnover was a matter of “people who didn’t want to held accountable have left.”

Common Core was another avenue for criticism. “I find it sad with the outstanding curriculum that California had since 1998, that California … decided to adopt Common Core,” said Bendis. “The district administration who left … planned for every student to take the same course.”

Challenger Michael Helms is another Stanford Ph.D. and a part-time engineering instructor at San Jose State. He endorsed Bendis’ views, saying, “Over the past four years there’s been a transformational change in this district and some people don’t want to get with the program.”

Helms spent about half of his time repeating the questions, preceded by a variant of “That’s a wonderful question.” Many of his answers came down to “getting more for our money.” One important priority he said, was “customer satisfaction. Are the parents happy?” he asked. “Many students are on wait lists because programs are full.” His view on Common Core was, “Who’s paying for this?”

Predictably, their opponents approached the discussion quite differently.

“We need a collaborative board that puts students first,” said challenger Jodi Muirhead, a software engineer and substitute teacher who voluntarily organized the district science fair during the years it was cut from the budget, finding private sources of funding. (Bendis sued Muirhead over her ballot statement saying she was the Science Fair Chair. The result – costing Muirhead $9,000 in legal fees – was her agreement to add the word “volunteer.”)

Concerning priorities, Muirhead began with, “It’s very important that our students have every opportunity to become successful members of our community. They need a top-notch education and that involves working together. It means that our board members need to work together, we need to work with our staff, we need to support our administrators, who [have] the great ideas about educating students.”

Muirhead played off Bendis’ comments about Common Core, saying, “I’m not sad, I’m excited. I’ve been in classrooms where teachers are teaching in these ways. It [Common Core] recognizes that students learn in different ways. It lets us go deeper into subjects.” Teacher training, she said, is key to implementation.

The most important thing required for a board member is “you have to listen,” said incumbent Andrew Ratermann, who’s been on the board 10 years. Since selling a successful business, he makes community service his full-time job. He’s currently on the board of six Santa Clara community organizations, and is known for his ability to build consensus and cooperation, including the agreement securing the Agnews property for new schools.

The path to academic excellence requires “clear strategic direction from the top,” and “creating a collaborative environment,” Ratermann said. “We have a huge pool of talent in our staff and our community.” Governance is “a people business. You have to inspire trust. You need to be a good listener, and sometimes that’s hard to do. And you need to work together as a team. You only have power as a group.”

“We’re early adopters on Common Core,” he said, “But we had setback when we had personnel leave.” It’s important to remember, he added, “The board [members] aren’t the ones implementing it. The teachers have to implement it. If we find aspects of Common Core that don’t work well, we can step in, in an advocacy role.”

Former board member of the Santa Clara Schools Foundation, and current Business Development Director for San Jose Jazz, challenger Noelani Sallings is an expert fundraiser with a huge network. The election, she said, “is about all the work it will take to move collaboratively into the 21st century.”

“We need to make sure that our students are college and career ready,” she said about her priorities. “Common Core is about learning in the best way for each student,” and it’s important for everyone to be involved.

“I have a deep concern about how the current board sees its role,” she also said. “Our role as a board is to hire the Superintendent and set the vision. It’s not to micromanage. It’s to focus on the vision and let the teachers who work with students every day control how they implement that vision.”

Art and music is also a priority for Sallings, as well as for Ratermann, who noted that the arts foster collaboration and teamwork.

“Studies show that students who study music perform better academically and socially. We can’t just drill academics into their brains,” Sallings said. “The next Tesla motors … that can’t be done if you’re just focused on drilling academics.”

Watch the entire Forum at


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