It’s a time of change for the Cabrillo Unified School District. The Coastside’s largest school system this year has a new superintendent and four new principals. School leaders will also begin deciding how to spend the $81 million approved by voters as part of the Measure S bond. Meanwhile, the school district must continue to brace for another expected round of state cuts coming next year.
The task of guiding the district is put in the hands of the five members of the CUSD Governing Board; two of those seats are up for election this November. In recent weeks, four Coastside residents have stepped forward as candidates for the school board.
Michael John Ahern
“What do I know best? I know education,” said school board candidate Michael John Ahern. “I’ve lived and breathed it.”
The 52-year-old teacher says his years in the classroom best qualify him for joining the Cabrillo school board, although he’s earned plenty of plaudits elsewhere. An accomplished country musician, he’s produced 10 albums and regularly performs at events and venues on the Coastside. He’s also coached high school golf, baseball and football. He was awarded a teaching fellowship and participated in a NASA program to foster K-12 science education.
But his work as a teacher also stands out. He has been honored as Teacher of the Year for the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, where he’s worked for the last 17 of his 27 years in education.
As a Coastside resident since 2002, he says he’s become interested in finding ways to bolster education in his community. He has previously performed at fundraisers for the Cabrillo Education Foundation, but he felt running for the school board was the next natural place to volunteer.
He has no specific changes he would seek to enact in Cabrillo schools, but he says he would listen to people to decide on the best course. His ultimate goal would be to protect local education in a time of rampant state cuts.
Charmion Donegan isn’t finished working for Cabrillo schools, despite putting in 27 years as the school district’s secretary.
Donegan, 65, has nothing but praise for the leadership shown by district officials, but she believes the school board could benefit from having someone who has experienced the inner workings of the district.
The El Granada resident points to her decades of recording board meetings, handling student records and being the first person parents would see when they entered the district office. In that time, she says she’s honed a talent for juggling public relations and the capabilities of school staff.
During those years, Donegan also became intimately acquainted with the receiving end of local education. She watched her two children move through 13 years of Coastside public education and helped with fundraising and school events. Now a grandmother, she watches as a new generation of her family begins at Farallone View Elementary this year.
Describing herself as a fiscal conservative, Donegan nonetheless raised concerns about the number of employees the school district has shed in recent years. She talked glowingly about the recently passed school bond, Measure S, as an opportunity to prevent staff cuts.
“I don’t look to change things, but I want to build on what we already have going on,” she said. “I support our current board, but I want my say in how they do things.”
She ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2010.
Describing herself as a political neophyte, 62-year-old Kate Livingston would employ one rule of thumb if forced to make cuts to school budgets.
“My mantra would be, keep it the furthest from the classroom,” she said. “But I don’t think anybody wants to ever make those kinds of decisions.”
For 22 years, Livingston has watched the changing landscape for Coastside education, living in Half Moon Bay and working as an elementary school teacher. She’s watched school bonds and parcel taxes come and go, and today she believes the district has an unprecedented opportunity with the Measure S school bond.
She remembers many years of teaching at Farallone View Elementary and seeing leaky gutters outside her classroom. The bond money is badly needed, she said, but she emphasized that district leaders need to be shrewd about how they spend it.
“The district has a serious responsibility to make sure that money is used wisely and the community knows what it’s going for,” she said. “There are many people who went to the polls and voted no, and you don’t want to distance them more.”
She says her 27 total years experience in education gives her a perspective that is often neglected on the current school board. Before coming to the Coastside, she taught in San Jose and Morgan Hill, along with a period abroad in Germany working for the U.S. Department of Defense.
She has one son who attended Coastside schools and graduated from Half Moon Bay High School.
Growing up on the Coastside, Mario Vazquez remembers attending parent-teacher conferences and having to play the role of translator for his Spanish-speaking parents. Like many Cabrillo district parents today, his family came to the Coastside to work in the farm fields and faced a tougher scenario for accessing education.
But he credits the quality of Cabrillo schools for helping him succeed.
Today working as a welfare attorney, Vazquez describes himself as the best school-board candidate to represent the Hispanic community that makes up approximately half the student body.
“When I go talk to many parents, it’s the first time someone from the schools have talked to them in their own language,” he said. “I can be the person who bridges that gap.”
Vazquez was first appointed to the school board earlier this year to fill a seat left open after former member Charlie Gardner resigned. Since taking on the role, Vazquez has followed one round of tough budget decisions and the passage of the Measure S school bond.
The district has drastically changed over those months, with new leadership at the district office as well as the high school, middle school, El Granada and Farallone View elementary schools. He describes the new blood in the district as an opportunity to inject new ideas and some structural changes into local schools.
He has four children, two of whom currently attend Kings Mountain Elementary.