With a new school year and an upcoming election this November, changes in the school board may be on the horizon with two new school board trustee candidates running in addition to incumbent candidate Leff Brown, all of whom share similar visions of better board transparency and higher academic achievement for the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District.
The new board of trustee candidates include Chrissa Gillies, a Rohnert Park parent and grandmother who advocates for transparency and increased communication and Joe Cimino, another RP parent who also wants better collaboration and school infrastructure.
The incumbent candidate, Leff Brown, who has been a part of the Rohnert Park education community since the late 70s and has served as a trustee this past year also envisions a district with higher academic achievement for all students and a focus on making sure students from all backgrounds and needs have an equal chance to succeed.
All three candidates may share similar goals for the district; however, each one has slight variations for their campaign platform, providing local voters and parents a rounded-out ballot come Election Day.
Gillies, a passionate advocate for school board accountability and school safety, says she was inspired to run for the seat after seeing the low test scores in student academic achievement.
“The first thing is, we really have to take a look at our academic achievement, the WASC report numbers are not good and a majority of school sites are either below or just met expectations in English, comprehension and math,” Gillies explained.
Gillies admits that test scores are not the be all, or end all for academic excellence; however, she would like to see what is causing the low scores — “it cannot be all test anxiety,” she said.
Yet for her, the biggest concern is collaboration and transparency, which she says is vital to not only her, but parents and students as well.
“I do not think we have high academic standards for our students through transparency and collaboration, there’s not enough conversation that goes on and there is a very small group of people that make decisions and it leaves out a majority of stakeholders and the population,” Gillies said. “We need a change and the public is entitled to transparent information.”
An alleged instance of lack of transparency occurred earlier this year regarding school safety when the district did not post the Comprehensive Safety Plan until after the required March 1 deadline. Students had voiced in a March Community Voice article that they didn’t quite know what to do in the event of an emergency such as an active shooter.
Topics like these lit Gillies’ fire to run.
If elected, Gillies would like to see increased district enrollment, test scores, collaboration and the retention of new teachers.
“My goal is bringing them back and finding out how we can again be proud of the schools we have when we have parents pulling their kids out when they are not getting the help that is required under the law and to give students a fair and equal education,” Gillies exclaimed.
Joe Cimino, also a parent echoed Giles’ thoughts to an extent, but wants to also focus on improving school infrastructure, such as updating school fire alarms.
“One thing I have noticed is that there is a lot of funding for schools but not a lot of that money seems to be going to infrastructure,” the parent of two and a newcomer to politics said.
Cimino said one school seems to have an old fire alarm, which poses a safety concern.
He is also advocating for teachers being provided with basic supplies such as Kleenex and pens, noting that teachers shouldn’t have to worry about dipping into their own funds for basic supplies.
However, like Gillies, one of Cimino’s biggest priority is special education.
“My wife works with a non - profit so I am pretty familiar (with special needs requirements) and I feel like parents shouldn’t have to fight to get the right resources and care for their child. I don’t know all of the ins and out of it, but I think we need to provide more care,” Cimino said.
When asked if the task of running for an elected seat is daunting, he answered with a resounding “yes,” but also said he is up for a challenge.
“Politics makes me uncomfortable. I am open to hearing different viewpoints and everything, but this is a much bigger deal than I thought it was,” he said.
Then why run? Cimino said his kids are his number one drive and motivation in running for the trustee seat.
“I have two kids, my son just started fourth grade and my daughter is about to start school and I wanted to get more involved. I don’t want a bad school district for kids, I want an awesome one,” Cimino said.
If chosen for the seat, Cimino says he hopes to make the community more confident in the school board and to help people be on the same page instead of being divided.
“I think I can bring confidence. I know there has been a big dissection (in views) and I know a lot of people have left the district, but I think I can help the board get on the same page — the attention needs to be on the kids and some people I think have their own agenda,” Cimino explained.
Leff Brown said he has similar goals in mind and cited higher academic achievement, working with the community to build up school safety and improving special education as part of his goal.
“I want to ensure that student achievement is achieved for all students as it is important to the foundation of a child and right now it is not a level that I would like to see it at,” Brown said.
In regard to putting to bed some school safety concerns, Brown says he would like to see that accomplished by working closer with the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety and the community in watching for potential threats.
“There are a lot of ways to approach it, school metal detectors, increased police… but I think a lot of these school shootings are our state’s lack of support for mental health and the lack of resources you need to support that,” Brown said of the prickly issue.
While this isn’t Brown’s first ballgame as a trustee he said school trustees and trustee candidates should all share the same quality — putting children and their education first.
When asked if he thinks the district and current board of trustees is doing a good job of that he mentioned that there is room for improvement.
“We have been focused on bond issues and facilities, which is good, but for instance, Thomas Page has new, top of the line furniture and features, but it is also the lowest performing school,” Brown said, alluding to where board priorities should be shifted too.
Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District Superintendent Robert Haley, said he hopes the next trustee, whomever that may be, has clear priorities with the children of the district in mind.
“It is my hope that the trustees on the board and those elected to the board are prepared to work towards developing a unity of purpose, which is a common focus, overarching goals and the values and beliefs governance team members share about children. We need trustees who can transcend their individual differences to fulfill a greater purpose of putting students first in the community,” Haley said.
And while Haley said he couldn’t take a position in supporting the individuals running, it does seem that these three candidates do have the students’ best interest at heart.
“People are going to make changes and I want to make sure people are making good choices for my kids and other kids’ education,” Cimino said.
This year’s local elections will take place Tuesday, Nov. 6.