Q&A with School Board Candidates

Piedmont Patch asked candidates about their familiarity with financial issues, parcel tax exemptions, students' physical fitness and whether parent donations have reached their limit

Update: Sarah Pearson's replies were not included when this article was originally posted as they had not been received by our deadline. They were received subsequently, and the article has been updated to include them.

Piedmont Patch asked candidates for the Piedmont Unified School District Board of Education to respond briefly in writing to the four questions below. Candidates had about one week to submit answers. Their replies are below.

Five candidates are running for three school board seats: Nancy (Sunny) Bostrom, Jon Elliott, Sarah Pearson, Richard (Rick) Raushenbush and Andrea Swenson. Raushenbush is an incumbent seeking re-election. Two additional seats are open because incumbent June Monach is terming out and incumbent Martha Jones decided not to seek a second term.

The Piedmont Unified School District will face major financial challenges in the next few years. What, specifically, in your background qualifies you to deal with fiscal issues?

Sunny (Nancy) Bostrom:

I am a prudent financial manager with a world view. My decisions are based on a combination of the following elements: fiscal ramifications, imagination and ethical concerns.

Jon Elliott:

I've poured over every publicly available budget and employee contract since I became alarmed about fiscal trends in 2009, and have formulated questions, comments and recommendations which I've provided the School Board in emails and at Board meetings (up through and including this week's Board meeting).

My initial efforts led me to volunteer for the District's "Citizens Advisory Committee on Parcel Tax Measures B & E" when it was created, and I chaired it for two years until stepping aside to run for School Board. I've led the Committee in detailed reviews covering District revenue and expense trends over the past decade, participated in very interactive briefings by the Superintendent and current Board members, and coordinated the Committee's preparation of annual reports and recommendations to the Board.

I've also participated in other venues where the District offers much less detailed information to the community, including the "Budget Advisory Committee," school site councils, and parent clubs.

More generally, I studied public agency budgeting and finance as part of my graduate studies at Cal (which included a Master of Public Policy degree in 1980), and have worked in and around public agencies for 30 years. My work has often included reviews of agencies' operations, funding and budgeting.

Sarah Pearson:

Co-chairing the last school parcel tax campaign in 2008-2009 gave me a rich understanding of district needs. As an active member of the Budget Advisory Committee for the past four years  and President of the Middle School Parent Club last year, I am actively involved in discussions of school finances.

Rick Raushenbush:

Over my past four years on the Board of Education, I have demonstrated my qualifications to address fiscal issues through careful analysis of our revenues and expenses, assessment of risks, professional review of District contracts, and a willingness to make difficult decisions. As a Board, we have managed severe cuts of approximately 20% in State funding since 2008. Through additional community giving (parcel taxes and donations), cuts in employee compensation, and limited reduction in personnel, the District has sustained and improved its excellent educational program despite a significant loss of revenue.

As a Board member, I helped develop the District's efforts to educate employees and the community about the budget crisis, and set the District's negotiating positions with its employee groups. In Spring 2011, the Board approved agreements with all employees that continued furlough days, froze various stipends and, most importantly, capped the District's contributions to employees' health insurance benefits. These agreements reduced the District's projected budget by at least $3.9 million over the three school years from 2011 to 2014.

Andrea Swenson:

I have a strong foundation in economics. For 17 years, I helped large financial institutions invest in foreign exchange and domestic financial markets. For the past 15 years, I have been directly engaged in school budget and funding discussions during three tenures as parent club president for three different school sites and as a ten-year member of the School District Budget Advisory Committee. I understand first-hand the complexity and nuances of PUSD funding.

Would you support a full or partial exemption from the parcel tax for seniors citizens or lower-income families?

Sunny (Nancy) Bostrom:

Yes, I would support a full or partial exemption from the parcel tax for senior citizens or low income families. I believe that this question requires financial analysis based on the prudent accounting principles tempered by ethics and sensitivity.

In Piedmont, we have billionaires, we have almost 200 school-aged children living below the poverty line, and we have tiny houses of 700 square feet and houses with 37 rooms. At the same time, it is worth remembering that in the 1930s senior citizens made up the poorest segment of American society: now people over 65 make up the wealthiest segment, though often house rich and cash poor. These are just a few of the elements that would have to be factored into any debate regarding exemptions. It would be reckless to not prepare plans B, C, and D for when the day comes, and it may come soon, when the voters of Piedmont reject any additional parcel taxes.

Jon Elliott:

I do not support a blanket reduction or exemption based just on age. I do believe we need to look hard for fair and reasonable reductions for lower-income families -- and I expect that most of the Piedmont property owners who might benefit from such provisions would be retirees on fixed incomes. The existing Measure B parcel tax translates into $40-$60 per week for homeowners, which certainly is high enough to represent a hardship to lower-income families.  I've begun speaking about the need to consider the costs and benefits of adjustments when the next parcel tax is designed.

Sarah Pearson:

It is tempting to explore the idea of such an exemption, but in my opinion Piedmont thrives because everyone contributes. Because we are such a small community without other sources of revenue, we rely on the extraordinary generosity of all the citizens of Piedmont to keep the schools strong.

Rick Raushenbush:

Piedmont residents' willingness to pay parcel taxes for the school system is fundamental to the District's excellent academic program. Parcel taxes account for 32% of the District's 2011-12 General Fund Budget, and there is no other source that could replace them. I support the Board's Guiding Principles for Multi-Year Budget Development, which provide, among other things: "Over the long term, stabilize the local taxpayers’ share (percentage) of funding the District‘s budget by reducing the growth rate of local parcel taxes." In the short term, we are dealing with a 20% cut in State funding. Federal stimulus funds andthe Measure E emergency parcel tax, which filled some of the gap, are gone.

I would not support exempting homeowners 65 or older from the school parcel tax for several reasons.

1. Most of us benefited from a good public education paid for by other homeowners when we were young and, in my opinion, we have a moral obligation to pay for a good education for our community's children. An educated citizenry benefits us all.

2. A "senior exemption" would exempt a large percentage of homeowners from paying the parcel tax, either leaving the remaining homeowners to contribute the lost revenue or effectively forcing the District to lay off a significant number of employees and increase class sizes dramatically.

3. All of us benefit from the higher property values in Piedmont that result from the excellent schools here.

4. To the extent the request for an exemption is based on the possibility that older homeowners are less able to afford parcel taxes, age does not necessarily correlate with less wealth. If there are a significant number of homeowners in Piedmont unable to afford parcel taxes, I would prefer to address that directly through consideration of an exemption based on an inability to pay, to the extent allowed by law.

Andrea Swenson:

I fully support evaluating a full or partial low-income exemption for the next parcel tax.

Piedmont students performed well on the most recent statewide physical fitness tests, but not as well as the previous year. Girls, especially, show a marked drop in some fitness scores as they get older. Should the district address this, and if so, how?

Sunny (Nancy) Bostrom:

Yes, it is vital that the Piedmont School District address the issue of girls’ declining scores in the statewide physical fitness test. Girls, as they get older, to a larger extent than boys of the same age, tend to have self-esteem issues related to their appearance: weight, cosmetic surgery, and a constellation of female concerns which are enervating and distracting. I believe that discussing these factors openly and drawing upon the advice and experience of members of the community and experts will set us on the right path to addressing this important societal issue.

Jon Elliott:

I haven't seen these results, so I don't know enough to comment specifically. If results really are low and/or falling then I believe the District certainly should investigate them and search for practical ways to improve them.

Continuing support for school and club sports probably helps for the many students who participate. (Since I haven't seen the results alluded to in the question, I wonder if some of the apparent drop might result because more of the athletically-inclined girls are opting out of P.E. to pursue growing sports options, leaving the average results of the remaining P.E. students looking lower?) It also seems sensible to review curriculum and activities in traditional and dance P.E. to consider whether they provide enough cardiovascular, strength and flexibility activities to support fitness -- and to review P.E. and other courses to see if our students receive enough guidance in healthy nutrition.

Sarah Pearson:

The district should monitor trends over time. As a pediatrician, I give high priority to physical fitness as a critical part of overall wellness for children and adolescents. Fortunately, at a time when other schools are losing Physical Education due to budget cuts, Piedmont still offers P.E. through high school.

Rick Raushenbush:

Everyone should be concerned about the fitness of our nation's children. Most of Piedmont's students perform very well in statewide physical fitness tests. Specific results vary from year to year as the students tested change.

The District provides a physical education program that not only provides opportunities for exercise, but also education in the importance of exercise and good nutrition.The District has improved the foods offered to its students in an effort to improve nutrition and eating habits. The District also provides a wide range of sports activities and a majority of students participate in one or more sports by middle school and high school. Each student, and family, must also assume personal responsibility to maintain and increase one’s health and fitness.

Andrea Swenson:

A reliable balance of athletics and academics is important to most Piedmonters. Nearly 80% of PHS students are involved in one or more high school sports. We should note trends in fitness scores but I do not think it is necessary for the district to address anything less than a clear and discernible ongoing change in these scores.

Parent Clubs have pledged an additional $100 per student in donations to the district this year. Do you think the district has reached the limit in terms of what it can expect in parent contributions?

Sunny (Nancy) Bostrom:

It is possible that the generous donations to the Parent Clubs to the district have either reached the limit or soon will; however, I do not believe in a scarcity mind-set.

Other potential sources of funding could be explored such as the Parent Club activities of Beverly Hills High School where they sponsor an annual event welcoming ALL graduates and supporters of BHHS. We could consider an annual event where many of Piedmont High Schools 8,000-plus graduates who were graduated during the last half century can come to reconnect, network, and contribute to their high school. Some might choose to remember Piedmont High School in their final plans. Harvard does this. Piedmont can.

Jon Elliott:

I expect parent contributions to continue to grow - especially while we wait to see if and when state funding recovers. Parent support includes not just the no-strings money represented by the latest increase from $200 to $300 per student, but also a host of targeted contributions to programs, facilities and employees. These contributions include payments to preserve programs, payments to 'buy back' program pieces cut in recent years, and payments to enrich offerings and update technologies. Parents continue to step up when asked, and to take the initiative to find new ways to help.

Sarah Pearson:

Parents continue to be exceedingly generous, donating in record amounts to the Giving Campaign and other school fundraisers. Given the shrinking revenue from the state, our schools rely on a unique partnership of parents, community, and district staff all making sacrifices to keep our schools strong, I believe that parents will continue to contribute generously, provided that they know their donations are being spent wisely, and with the greatest possible impact.

Rick Raushenbush:

This year, the Parent Clubs agreed to increase their “direct per pupil” contribution to the District from $200 per student to $300 per student, which increased their total contribution to the District's General Fund to approximately $750,000 per year.

Please note that the total donations from parents, including Parents Clubs funding of certain personnel and programs, the Piedmont Education Foundation grants, and individuals' and organizations direct donations to specific programs, are much greater than the amount committed to the District. The District now "expects" and budgets for $1.55 million in such donations annually.

During this time of budgetary crisis, parents have dug deeper and deeper into their pockets to maintain Piedmont's educational program. I hope that we all will remain willing to do so until California is willing and able to increase its education funding from its current position of 49th in the nation.

Andrea Swenson:

For two years I was the Chairperson of THE GIVING CAMPAIGN, the largest and most critical fundraiser for Piedmont schools. From that experience I learned first-hand the enormous generosity of money and spirit our parent community invests in our schools. It is difficult to measure whether or not the district has reached the upper limit of that generosity. Anecdotally, I believe we are getting very close.


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