Students at Pescadero middle and high school and three candidates for the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District board spent an afternoon hearing from each other last week. The students received a real-life lesson in civics while the candidates learned about the issues on the minds of future voters.
At times the contenders for office seemed to struggle finding solutions for the challenges faced by the student body.
Veronica Mazariegos-Anastassiou, Kelly Bowman Greenwood and Allison Collins are vying for two open seats on the board. The candidates fielded questions from student moderators Hannah Rowden and Itzel Ramirez. A fourth contender, Andy Wilson, could not attend due to employment obligations but said he supports bringing politics in action to the students.
Rowden and Ramirez chose questions generated by fellow students in advance of the program. The first round of the forum allowed the audience to get to know the candidates a bit and focused on their high school experiences.
“What was your favorite class in high school?” and “Where did you go to college?” seemed to spark fond recollections among the respondents.
The tone shifted when the students asked about the best and worst memories from high school each candidate could recall. Two of them associated their high school years with the death of a parent. The third talked about disciplinary action imposed on her when she supported a classmate who felt ill.
The discussion then turned to issues facing the school such as the lack of clean, fresh water for students and inadequate transportation covering the expansive area served by the campus.
“I don’t have an answer,” Collins said about the water problem, before assuring everyone that she would work with all the stakeholders to find a solution.
“I believe there are already plans to solve this, but there’s not enough political will to move forward,” Mazariegos-Anastassiou said, referencing the proposal to extend county water lines to the school if a new fire station is built next door.
Greenwood also acknowledged that, “It is really complicated,” to put together plans and political will to bring water to the school. But she added, “At its root, it’s simple.”
The audience asked the candidates about the prospects for the school in light of declining enrollments. English teacher Jennifer Freeman pointed out that not a single student from La Honda Elementary opted to enter Pescadero Middle School this year. Students fired off reasons families choose other secondary schools: sports, languages, better and bigger facilities.
Mazariegos-Anastassiou suggested imagining the campus as a destination. “How do you make this an attractive place for families?” she asked, and then proposed distinctive programs in sustainable agriculture and coastal climate studies that could bring in students.
The others agreed that embracing the small campus and developing its strengths could help. Greenwood suggested applied arts programs that could lead to jobs. She said a focus on sports such as swimming, archery or running that do not require large teams could help. Collins talked about eliminating bullying as a way to make the school more appealing.
The most pressing concern on the minds of students became clear when the moderators opened the floor to questions from the audience. “Do you support the new phone policy at the school?” a student asked, generating a buzz in the room.
Clearly wanting to avoid getting caught between administrators and students, the candidates asked a lot of questions about the new no-phone policy and reflected on the challenges we all face from the distractions of technology.
Pleasing the student audience proved difficult for the candidates. When Greenwood referred several times to benefits that would come if a new bond measure passes, one of the moderators had a question: “What will you do if it doesn’t pass?” Rowden asked.
An anonymous online poll of students following the event revealed the perils of running for public office. “Honestly, I don’t think any of the candidates should be on the school board,” one student wrote. “They didn’t really know the fundamentals of our school.”
Another student commented, “The candidates repeated what they were saying in different words.”
Support for the policy of putting phones in holders during class came under particular attack online. “I disagree with the phone policy. I wish they didn’t like the idea of us having to put our phones in the cozies,” was one of several similar comments.
The difficulty of satisfying an audience of teenagers might have made Wilson the most successful candidate by virtue of staying away. He led the extremely unscientific follow-up survey with half the votes.
One student wrote, “I think that we should vote for Andy Wilson because he was too busy trying to fix the school's problems to show up to the thingy.” The other three candidates shared the other half of the votes equally.