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Manhattan Beach: Meet Your School Board Candidates

Oct 02, 2020 08:53AM ● By Jeanne Fratello
On November 3, Manhattan Beach residents will choose two out of four candidates for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District's school board. DigMB asked the candidates for their positions on several key questions. Below are the candidates' answers, ordered alphabetically by last name.

Question: What distinguishes you as a candidate, and why are you asking people to vote for you?

Jason Boxer: A strong board needs diversity of experience. I am the only candidate in this race who has dedicated their professional career to public education. Historically, our School Board has been comprised of some of the most hardworking, exemplary members of our local parent-teacher associations and education foundations, and I am running to complement their admirable work with a distinct and necessary perspective: that of a professional educator. My work in the classroom, fluency with technology, and adept communication skills provide MBUSD with exactly that. A board member does not act alone however; I am running to bring my track record of coalition building to our school district. I have earned a breadth of cross-partisan endorsements throughout this campaign, including outgoing board member Bill Fournell, former Mayor Amy Howorth, a number of the teachers in our district, and even a share of our current students. Our current board does not have any former teachers on it, and it will be losing its sole MBUSD alumnus this November. As a product of our schools turned educator, I provide a set of experiences and skills that will complement whomever else wins the other open seat. I’m looking forward to that collaboration.

Mike Brunick:  First, a bit about me:
  • Local:  I grew up in Manhattan Beach, am a third-generation MB resident and I attended Manhattan Beach public schools (Pennekamp, Manhattan Beach Intermediate and Mira Costa).  My mom - and her two sisters - also attended Manhattan Beach public schools.

  • Parent:  I have three kids - a preschooler, a 2nd-grader and a 4th-grader - that all attend Manhattan Beach public schools, and will be third-generation Mira Costa graduates

  • Husband:  My wife is a 5th-grade teacher at Meadows Elementary (four years in the district), and strong public schools are incredibly important to us 

  • Professional:  I have had a career in Media and Technology spanning over 20 years, and have a view into the skills and qualities our kids will need to succeed in the marketplace

  • Coach:  I coach several youth sports and believe strongly in the development of the whole child

  • Volunteer:  I believe in giving back to our community, and I currently sit on the Board of Directors for the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation (serving on the Annual Appeal Strategy, Advocacy and Social Inclusion Grant committees) and the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce Legislative Action Committee; I was also on the Executive Committee for the Measure MB ballot initiative

Our Opportunity: I believe we have a collective opportunity to take advantage of our current situation and step into a true leadership position in the evolution of our educational practices and programs.  This step will not only benefit our students and our community, but society as a whole. There are three core themes to what I believe our opportunity to be:  Accountability, Revenue and Innovation.

For Accountability, we will engage our entire ecosystem.  The task of learning is never complete, and we must embrace feedback and improvement mechanisms with both rigor and enthusiasm.  We also need involvement across all of our constituent groups, from students to parents, teachers to administration, as well as our educational partners and the broader community.  Great ideas can come from anywhere!

In terms of Revenue, we will create solutions that are local, long-term and sustainable.  We have to address our funding challenges, and we have to do it by focusing on what we can directly control first.  We cannot be dependent on the State of California or on MBEF to address any budget shortfalls - we need to develop long-term, sustainable programs that begin locally and leverage the power of our community to invest in the continued excellence of our Manhattan Beach schools.

When it comes to Innovation, we will evolve our educational model.  In order to maximize both our efficiency and our impact, we can take advantage of and use technology to both augment the delivery of our educational practices and capture the data necessary to assess outcomes.  We also need a nimble and adaptable operational model, which will be critical to navigating the realities of the education system over the next several years.

These three core themes will only reach their potential if we deliver them with a renewed focus on improving Communication and Collaboration.  Our communication must get clearer, more frequent and be used to bring us together so we can work collectively to advance our schools.  Collaboration and teamwork foster the best ideas, and by tapping into the power of our entire community we will ensure the continued excellence of our students.

Heather de Roos: My son will be in MBUSD during my entire term; as such, I am personally invested in the success of our schools. I have also been a homeowner in Manhattan Beach for 16 years. I will bring this knowledge and personal investment to my decision making. Our school district needs leadership with experience. I bring experience from both the public and private sectors. I have proudly held several leadership positions in the district for the past decade including President of the MB PTA Council representing all seven schools, Grand View PTA President and Manhattan Beach Education Foundation Board Member. My professional experience in corporate HR for 20 years and an MBA has trained me to understand and mediate the needs of multiple constituents, as well as provide responsible oversight to budgets and spending. I commit that being a member of the MBUSD School Board will be my full-time job, so I can successfully represent our interests in the schools.

Cathey Graves: I have EXPERIENCE! The Manhattan Beach Unified School Board is at a critical juncture. We are losing nearly 20 years experience on the school board. I can fill that gap. I worked as a CPA and an attorney for 18 years. For 17 years, I have been a parent and leader in our schools, at the District level, and at Pennekamp, MBMS and Mira Costa. I understand school funding, from lobbying in Sacramento, raising funds for MBEF and PTA, to rallying community support for Measure MB. I have worked on pandemic issues including safe reopening of athletics and student isolation. I acknowledge equity and racism issues, and have worked to develop the District’s Culture of Care. This experience provides me with a broad understanding of our schools and will allow me to hit the ground running as a MBUSD trustee.

I am INDEPENDENT! For 17 years, I have experienced and appreciated the value of the amazing programs and teachers we have in MBUSD. From academics, to athletics, to the arts, and extracurricular programming, I have a deep understanding of the opportunities we offer, because my children took advantage of those opportunities. I know how important these programs and teachers are to our children, and will work to preserve them without any conflict of interest.

I am PASSIONATE! My experience in the District energizes me to continue the work to make MBUSD the best it can be. My youngest child will be exiting the District next June, allowing me to give my undivided attention to the challenges facing MBUSD. Many of my friends and their children are still in the District. I want our schools to thrive not only so my son can have a fabulous senior year, but so my neighbors and their children can experience the unique educational experience we offer in MBUSD. 

Question: What are some additional actions/steps that the district should take to help the many students (and families) who are struggling with distance learning challenges during the COVID-19 shutdown?

Jason Boxer: Families in Manhattan Beach - like families all over the country - are struggling right now. Parents are shouldering the burden of their children’s education more than ever before. Students are being asked to study with the same tenacity that we always expect, but without the in-person support of their teachers and peers. Educators accustomed to pulling from decades of experience running a classroom must leap into an entirely new teaching environment. It is the school board’s job to help teachers adapt, to help students find social-emotional stability, and to alleviate the pressure our parents are under. These three stakeholders have wildly diversified needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach to distance learning will fail them.
There are many immediate steps we can take. We must be asking these groups what they need from us then respond as nimbly and flexibly as possible.

Parents whose children receive special education services have voiced an urgent need for a return to in-person instruction, and I believe the board should work with expediency to provide this safely. Students in need of community should be allowed to return to in-person athletics programming as soon as we can achieve this without endangering our community. Teachers - whose noble and selfless work we all have come to depend on - should be driving the conversation of what reopening our schools will look like, as their safety and security should be one of our highest priorities. We need to examine how other districts have approached this dilemma, and we need to be ready to go back to school once our county determines it is safe for the entire learning community.

Mike Brunick: First and foremost, I would like to see both the Board and the Administration do whatever we can to accelerate our plans to get kids and teachers back to school safely.  Our families and our community are STRUGGLING.  Learning loss is real.  Social emotional decline is real.  Behavior regression is real.  These factors are affecting our kids in even the best of circumstances, and they are only compounded for our high-needs student populations, where distance education is simply not viable.

Second, we need to be more proactive.  I realize we are in the midst of a global pandemic, but we are not demonstrating the sense of urgency and forward-thinking planning that we are seeing from other neighboring districts, and that our community expects.  MBUSD should be a leader, and not a follower, in developing processes, procedures and plans for getting back to school.  As we move to new phases of the State or County reopening plan, we should be ready to execute our plans, not be entering the planning stages.

Finally, we need to be more transparent.  There is a lot of work going on, and has been for several months.  The vast majority of people, however, are in the dark on where we are, what is happening now and what is next.  Our task-forces developed plans.  Our District evaluated and modified those plans.  Where are they now?  What had to be modified?  When is the next review?

For the sake of our entire community, we must do whatever it takes to collectively execute on our plans so we can begin what will undoubtedly be a long road back to normalcy.  Let's do it collaboratively, let's do it thoughtfully, but let's do it QUICKLY.

Heather de Roos: We need to show a greater sense of urgency in our approach to how to safely return to school. The most pressing concern is for High Needs students in our district. To address their immediate needs, as well as plan for subsequent groups to return, I would form a “Return to School” small ad hoc team. This team would meet daily to determine what is needed to return our children to school as quickly as possible and would provide weekly updates to parents. This team would be tasked to do the following: bi-monthly surveying of parents and staff to identify ongoing issues, outreach to families who have left the school district to update them on activities and encourage their return next year, provide monthly teacher town halls, and parent education/workshops on how to best support students in distance learning.

Cathey Graves: My primary concern is to reopen schools as soon as possible, while following all State and County guidelines.  In person school is critical for our children to not only maximize their learning, but also for their social and emotional wellbeing.  During this interim, we must make virtual learning a win situation for our students.  In order to successfully deliver distance learning, it is critical that the District and MBUSD families form a partnership.  The key is communication.  I propose sending a survey to all families, by school, for input on what is working, assistance that is needed and improvements that can be made.  This will enable us to focus on the areas our students are struggling in, and make necessary changes.  Teachers should clearly outline expectations for students and provide regular check-ins to assess both academic and emotional wellbeing. 

Teachers, students, and parents should work together to ensure each student is receiving as much support as possible, especially for those who find distance learning the most challenging.  They should encourage parents to reach out with concerns, and make sure families are aware of additional resources including South Bay Families Connected and BCHD.  Virtual offices have been set up and office staff must respond to parents’ concerns in a timely manner and with compassion.  Coinciding with these efforts, the District must keep families informed of all developments as we move towards the goal of in person school.  The District should publish a checklist and indicate on a regular basis the requirements that have been met and what is outstanding.  We must build trust and it is critical that we work together to achieve the best possible learning environment for our children.

Question: How should the Manhattan Beach schools approach issues of equity and diversity that have taken center stage in the past several months?

Jason Boxer: Manhattan Beach is uniquely situated to lead on this issue. When the question is asked - how might a suburban, well-resourced, and predominantly white school district contribute to the movement to end racial injustice - I sincerely believe that the answer can be “Look to Manhattan Beach.” We are a community of compassionate, generous, and highly-educated people, and we are up to this challenge. I believe the first step is to seek out the guidance of those who are closest to the pain and injustices of racism. We should look to the solutions offered by UCLA’s Center X, a program designed to help local high schools develop inclusion-focused curriculum tailored specifically for their community. We should follow the direction of Diversify Our Narrative, a national, youth-led initiative that seeks to implement one text written by a person of color in each high school grade level’s required reading list. We should teach our history to our students - our entire unbiased history, even if it's difficult. That is how we grow.

With that in mind, there is no room for shame in our schools, and people should never be scolded for a history they were never taught. I hope we can all agree that there are important things to learn about Manhattan Beach, it is just one way to better prepare our students for the world outside of the South Bay when they go off to college. In taking these steps, we can show the world that we are capable of rising above the bitter partisanship that has prevented equality in our country for decades. I think we are ready to respond to this moment with compassion, and that we can lead in matters of equity and diversity in our schools by calling people in, as opposed to calling them out.

Mike Brunick: This is another one of our greatest opportunities - to harness the social consciousness and community conversation to move us forward.  We need to support our students and families, as they are the source of many of our greatest ideas.  Pop the Bubble was borne out of our families, and is something that is helping drive incredible awareness and involvement in our community.

We must also instill these as priorities on our campuses and in our classrooms.  Continuing our emphasis on Social Emotional Wellness will be an important component of our growth, but we must also emphasize Diversity and Inclusion initiatives within our curriculum.  I think the Board has done a good job of developing a framework for how that can be incorporated, but now we must move it into action.  We also have to ensure that we are gathering data along the way to make sure that the steps we are taking are having an impact on our students, and are incorporating feedback to improve.  There are so many lessons that can be learned from fostering an inclusive and collaborative environment, and I believe those are lessons that extend well beyond the classroom.

Heather de Roos: I would form a Board Led Committee of Community Members, Admin, Parents, Teachers, Students and Experts (as needed) to discuss approaches, form a strategy and action plan and communicate that plan to the public. I would also encourage this Committee to coordinate with experts and other leaders on this topic in California and beyond. There are many opportunities for our schools to grow in this area, and we need to engage a wide variety of voices and thought leaders in a collaborative and transparent process for the betterment of our students.

Cathey Graves: MBUSD should address issues of equity and diversity with openness and compassion and in a manner appropriate to each  grade level. We are fortunate that MBUSD has created a foundation for these discussions over the last 5 years with its Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum. Schools have been working hard to create a Culture of Care.

While I was District Advisory Council president, I worked to create a District Social Emotional Learning Committee, charged with sharing best practices to develop SEL programming K-12. In 2018, MBUSD adopted the Mind Up curriculum for K-5. MBUSD followed in 2019 with 2nd Step. Through 5-minute lessons each day, children are taught how to understand their emotions. At the same time Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) was instituted in all grades, the District passed its Inclusion Commitment and developed a visual SEL framework, encouraging children to develop positive relationships and show empathy to others. The School Board adopted a Board Goal to “continue to develop a climate of care in all MBUSD schools.” It is hoped these efforts will engender empathy in our students and provide a common language to join the conversation on issues of equity, diversity, social justice and inclusion.

As a result of these efforts, the discussions have begun. As VP of Health and Wellness at Mira Costa, I supported first day assemblies last year regarding diversity and consent issues. I also worked with the Costachella Board to bring diverse programming to Costa, including highlighting the clubs at Costa that support diversity. There is more work to do and I look forward to continuing these efforts as a MB School Board trustee.  

Question: As MBUSD faces ongoing budget challenges, what are some long-range plans you would propose to address budget stability and fiscal responsibility?

Jason Boxer: In approaching long-range plans, we must recognize that our budget challenges are the result of systemic issues around education funding statewide. California is home to the fifth-largest economy in the entire world - larger than that of most countries - but we currently hover around 39th in the nation in per-pupil funding. This is unacceptable. Led by our school board, our community must continue to advocate for more education funding from Sacramento. I have worked hard during this campaign to build relationships with local elected officials, including State Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi. If elected, I plan to work collaboratively with them to develop a legislative strategy that will increase state financing of public school districts across California. I plan to take an active role within the California School Board Association, an integral player in California politics dedicated to improving the education that all Californians receive.

From Ojai to Centinela Valley to Santa Clarita, I have already built relationships with school boards across California with the express purpose of uniting under the cause of reforming state education funding. Alongside these long-range plans, however, I will also pursue a rigorous course of action meant to address the immediate crises that face us. I will look to grow our district enrollment by examining the reasons why we continue to lose students to private schools. I will further monetize our district’s evergreen assets, like field space and other rentable facilities we’ve built through bonds. In collaboration with the community and my fellow board members, I will take a microscope to our current budget and seek out every opportunity for penny-stretching. I refuse to accept a 39th-in-the-nation status quo, and I will throw myself into rectifying it at a local and state-wide level.

Mike Brunick: We have to start facing our systemic budget challenges, and we have to start facing them now.  We need to reevaluate some of our cost structures and ensure we are getting the most out of the money we are spending.  We have slashed several areas over the past few years, but there is still opportunity to refine and optimize.  We also have an ongoing problem with implementation.  We have shown it with decisions we have made across multiple categories, including priorities, programs, curriculum and technology.  We have to do better with seeing things through - because failed implementation costs money - and that begins with a renewed focus on operational excellence.

Cost-cutting alone will only get us so far, however.  To accomplish our goals and strengthen our overall programs, I strongly believe we need to be pursuing additional revenue-generating opportunities for the District.  We have Pre-School and After-School/EDP programs that operate at-capacity and with long wait lists - that means we have pent-up demand.  We have opportunities to pursue directed-giving programs, special grants, and public-private partnerships to a much larger extent than we have traditionally.  We will also have to update our strategy regarding the Parcel Tax, as that will sunset in a couple of years, and we will have to determine if we are looking for an extension, an increase, or both.  Our success with all of the above initiatives will help determine that path.

Heather de Roos: First, we need to define what “great schools” look like for us, for now and in the next four years. We then need to give the community an understanding of what we are required by the law to fund as a public school district and what our community wants us to fund to continue to be a top tier district. We know our current level of funding is not sufficient to meet what our community desires. Once we define our goals, we need to explore a combination of alternative methods of funding from the City, County and State, additional MBEF and PTA funding, grant funding and possibly another local parcel tax to replace our current MB Parcel Tax. We also need to balance that fundraising with a tight control of our spending. We need to be aspirational yet work within our means.

Cathey Graves: Our most important job as a MBUSD trustee is to act as a responsible steward of the budget. Throughout my 17 years in the District, I have seen class size, libraries, PE, music, and counseling services impacted, as well as teachers pink slipped. I am not content to allow this to continue. My initial focus will be to evaluate whether we have managed our budget responsibly. This year we have projected expenditures of $83 million dollars. Of this amount, 85% are personnel costs and benefits, which are negotiated. We need to examine the remaining 15%, use the expertise of the District Financial Advisory Committee and MBEF’s new District Strategy Sub-committee, to identify places to reduce costs. We need to evaluate  how to provide services with little or no cost by partnering with local colleges and agencies.  

At the same time, I will continue efforts to explore additional sources of revenue. I will push for education funding on the state and national levels. More importantly, I will examine consistent local revenue streams. I will thoroughly evaluate the current parcel tax and its positive impact on our schools.  I will work with the City to negotiate Shared Use agreements, and examine sharing in any increased sales or utility taxes.  My goal will be for our students to continue to receive the high quality education standard of Manhattan Beach.

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