In a race pitting tenured experience against fresh perspective, the elected Santa Clara County Board of Education trustee for Area 4 will represent some of the students and families hit hardest by Covid-19.
Joseph “Joe” Di Salvo, the 12-year incumbent, will face off against Ketzal Gómez and Lucia Garcia, two underdog challengers who each vouch their community ties are more in touch with current needs and experiences in schools.
They are hoping to win the seat which covers a majority of San Jose Unified, a portion of Oak Grove and East Side Union High school districts.
The stakes of this Nov. 3 race include electing a candidate who will providing a clear voice for under-resourced districts and be able to effectively communicate with the entire board. Other issues at play include:
- Closing the achievement gap and digital divide
- Early childhood and special education programs for students
- Creating shared best practices between public and charter schools
Joseph Di Salvo
Joe Di Salvo has spent four decades in education within Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose, where he was born and raised.
The 68-year-old was first elected to the Board in 2008, after a career as a teacher, principal, administrator and student in public and private institutions. He opted late in the election to campaign for a fourth term—one of four decades-long members running—to keep his social justice work energized.
Di Salvo sees his extensive history as “sacrosanct” and a critically important perspective on the board, knowing about teaching, learning and parenting from the bottom up.
“To have a $300 million organization with nobody on the governance body having personal experience with teaching in school administration is not a good thing when you're spending public dollars on public education,” Di Salvo said. “Because I have that kind of knowledge, it helps me advocate for what is proper, even during a pandemic.”
His top priorities include bolstering early learning and civics education and reducing achievement gaps exacerbated by the digital divide.
Di Salvo said he has a passion for championing the most vulnerable children, who he says the “system is rigged against.” He said he’s tackled those issues through advocating for career tech education for alternative students, maintaining funding for Head Start and voting in favor of quality charter schools.
“It is a path for parents to have choice to get out of a school in their ZIP code, because their school hasn’t performed well for 50 years,” he said. “Choice should be a positive term … parents have a choice to make where they’d like their children to attend based on the quality of the people in the program.”
That passion fighting against inequities, he said, is what turned a history of heated meetings and public disagreements into a censure for gender-based harassment by the board in a split vote in July.
Wondering if this will impact his ability to communicate and make decisions if reelected as a trustee, Di Salvo said he doesn’t know.
“I am chagrined, but all of this should’ve never happened,” he said, claiming mistruths that can be disproven by documented meetings. “You can watch all of them and come to your own interpretation on whether it’s gender bias or just the issue involved.”
Ketzal Gómez officially started her campaign after hearing the disconnect between concerns about Covid-19, comparing worries about socially distanced SATs to families’ ability to provide food on the table.
As a queer Chicana woman, Gómez said she’s directly in touch with the lived experiences of students—in the classroom and out—within Area 4, a majority of whom are low-income Latino residents.
Her priorities include closing the digital divide through universal broadband, helping more youth utilize the county’s safety net of services and ensuring learning stays physically safe throughout the pandemic.
Even though implementing change often requires years of experience in elected positions, Gómez said her recent years of experience within the system—including special education services—gives her a better perspective to the realities of education, compared to others who graduated or taught decades ago.
Born and raised in Area 4, she now works in the Santa Clara County Office of Women’s Policy, dealing with women and girls in leadership and the justice system, witnessing South Bay’s continued inequities first hand.
“It’s interesting how a lot of the areas that the board specifically overseas I’ve had personal experiences with, and I want to bring that personal advocacy onto the board,” Gómez said. “Professionally, I also believe that my policy expertise with justice involved youth will bring some of the work that the board has already done and push it further.”
While her mother, Teresa Castellaños, currently sits as the San Jose Unified School District board president, she said concerns about answering to special interests is moot since she had positive experiences attending both public and charter schools.
Instead, she’s more concerned about collaboration and respect on the board, referencing the incumbent’s recent censure. She said these kinds of issues and attitudes waste time, resources and the ability to communicate effectively amid budget cuts and a pandemic.
“I see myself as the complete opposite of this man,” Gómez said. “I think it’s time for people like me—with my experiences with my perspectives—to really be able to voice what our community needs.”
Lucia Garcia, a mother of two, added her name to the ballot because she felt neither of the other options represented her nor the immigrant community.
Moving to the United States as a 17-year-old, she said she was denied standard high school admission and handed a permission slip to work with her family in the fields, instead attending continuation school.
She prioritizes increasing access to high-quality early education and bettering engagement with children in underrepresented groups, such as the juvenile system, foster care, the disabled and fellow English language learners.
Garcia said she’ll listen to each district’s different concerns with an “open door” if she gets elected—whether that means overworked teachers, burned out students and disproportional drop out rates of Latinx and Black students.
“I’m running because I am invested in my children’s education,” Garcia said. “It’s the same success I wish to see for every other child across the board.”
Garcia said she was the Latino Student Union President at Mission College, worked with special education students as a County employee and is currently studying Business Administration at San Jose State University. She said her qualifications include the ability to lead and mobilize, most recently marching in protests and distributing food to community members in need.
Garcia sees her lack of direct political experience is a plus; while the years-long policy work the other two candidates flout diminishes their accountability, she knows she needs to learn the ins and outs of the system, studying every presentation, file and report that comes to the board.
She said this approach avoids falling into the “political hierarchies” of other candidates, especially when it comes to public and charter school divisions. Instead, she said residents need leaders motivated with integrity, vision and compassion, not agendas and fear to reach across the aisle.
“If schools are not doing well enough, then we have to fix the problem, because the kids are not getting the programs they need to succeed,” Garcia said. “We have to be open to the idea that everybody has room for improvement.”
According to campaign disclosures filed on Sept. 24, the three candidates for Santa Clara County Board of Education Trustee Area 4 have raised a combined $87,700.17.
Below is a breakdown.
Joseph Di Salvo: $61,586.10, endorsements include San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone and San Jose council members Magdalena Carrasco and Dev Davis.
Ketzal Gómez: $26,114.07, endorsements include the South Bay Labor Council, California Teachers Association, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, and Claudia Rossi, Santa Clara County Board of Education President.
Lucia Garcia: $0, no endorsements.