Six-way race for high school district board

This story originally was printed by the Daily Post on Oct. 7. Don’t miss local news stories that affect you. Pick up the Post in the mornings and 1,000 Mid-Peninsula locations.

By Braden Cartwright
Daily Post Staff Writer

Each of the candidates for the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District brings a different background and focus to the table. In a six-way race for three seats, there’s an incumbent who has volunteered with schools for 40 years.

There’s also a Boys and Girls club director who works with high school students going to college, a community volunteer with a high-achieving daughter and a special needs son, and an alumnus whose kid is attending the same school she graduated from nearly 40 years ago.

Only one of the candidates, Carrol Titus-Zambre, didn’t respond to a questionnaire from the Post. Both the Mountain View Voice and the Los Altos Town Crier have both published articles alleging that she lied to their reporters about being endorsed by Superintendent Nellie Meyer.

The school district is in charge of Mountain View High School and Los Altos High School and has about 4,400 students enrolled. The district also includes an adult school and Alta Vista High School, an alternative high school program with up to 150 students. Its annual budget is $118 million.

The district is unique because two elementary school districts feed into it. Many of the candidates said they want to make the transition from eighth to ninth grade better for students, especially those who are struggling.

The district is one of the highest paying school districts in the state. Teachers start with a salary of $97,092 plus benefits, and they can make up to 183,467 if they stick around.

Board member Debbie Torok is retiring after 12 years, and Fiona Walter is retiring after eight years. That leaves Sanjay Dave, who is six years into his tenure, and Phile Faillace, who was elected in 1996.

Esmerelda Ortiz
Age: 34

Occupation: Programs director at Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula Money raised: $2,560 in donations and $1,025 in loans Ortiz said she has a lot of experience working with high school students going to college, particularly those who are in the first generation to go to college. She said she is bilingual, which will help her outreach to Spanish-speaking families.

Ortiz doesn’t have any kids, but her husband is a teacher at Mountain View High School. He works on English language development and is involved with Advancement via Individual Determination, or AVID, a college preparation program that helps poor and Latino students.

Ortiz has worked for the Boys and Girls Club for 12 years. She said the position informs her about the current needs of high school and college students, which is especially important as colleges take a look at their admission policies.

Catherine Vonnegut
Age: 70

Occupation: Retired software engineer, former volunteer EMT Money raised: less than $2,000 Vonnegut is the only incumbent in the race, and she is currently the board president. She said she would provide stability for the district as two other board members retire.

Vonnegut has more than 40 years of involvement with local schools, going back to her time as a computer volunteer in the 1970s at the old Mountain View High School, which was downtown.

Vonnegut has a lot of experience with PTAs, school site councils and school board committees – too many to list here.

Vonnegut said her top accomplishments were handling the pandemic, hiring Superintendent Nellie Meyer, getting new stadium lights installed at both schools, piloting an ethnic studies class, adding wellness services and adding alternative education options.

Thida Cornes
Age: 53 Occupation: Community volunteer

Monday raised: $8,258 in donations and $4,000 in loans Cornes said she wants to reduce class sizes – rather than the 38 that one AP Spanish class has.

“This is unacceptable. I will reduce class size to the promised size of 20,” she said. “This helps all students, especially underrepresented students whom teachers tell me are less likely to raise their hand if the class is too big,” she said. Cornes wants to improve transparency by posting letters to the board online, sending out emails when meetings are coming up, and giving postcards to neighbors when physical changes are planned to a school. Cornes said she has nonprogressive dystonia, which causes her to jerk or move around or stumble over words. She has a service dog that assists her.

Cornes said her daughter was denied a transfer to Mountain View High School to be with her friends. She now goes to Notre Dame High School, and her son is at Kehillah Jewish High School to get his special education needs met. “I want all students to be able to attend MVLA if they wish and have their needs met,” Cornes said.

Jacquie Tanner
Age: 55

Occupation: Retired production materials planner for Tesla Money raised: $3,000 in loans Tanner wants to better prepare students going from middle to high school, because she also struggled with the transition.

“Transitioning into Los Altos High School was traumatic, a real culture shock to me,” she said. “There was nothing that felt familiar.” School sports allowed her to find herself and open up, she said.

But the high school district needs to improve communication with districts feeding into it, she said.

Tanner said her other priorities are to prepare for enrollment growth, show fiscal responsibility and give students a “full tool-box of skills” before they graduate.

Tanner has dyslexia. Before she was in kindergarten at Theuerkauf Elementary School, board members set up programs to train teachers on how to spot signs of dyslexia. Teachers diagnosed her and taught her methods to compensate for it, and she said she is forever grateful.

Erick Mark
Age: 60

Occupation: Retired computer consultant Money raised: Less than $2,000 Mark wants to focus on more than academics. He said he has seen firsthand that students are struggling with mental health.

“I want to be part of a team analyzing root causes, and then work with the administration and staff to develop policies, measures, curriculum changes that can proactively mitigate some of the stresses,” he said.

Mark also said he wants to help students become better global citizens.

That means continuing to improve the ethnic students program.

He also wants students to learn “real world” skills that would help them become more digitally savvy, culturally aware, and socially, fiscally and environmentally responsible. For example, students should be taught how to better navigate social media, he said.

Mark said students who are struggling need to be identified before they get to high school. By fifth grade, teachers should know who needs help, he said.

The high school district could work with middle schools on college readiness, and career technical education would also help, he said.

Mark has three children who all attended Mountain View High School, and his youngest is a senior this year.