Two Veteran School Trustees Face Off in SCCOE’s Area 1 Race

Two candidates, each with 13 years of experience in school governance, are contending to represent students in the northwest corner of the South Bay on the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

Grace Mah, the incumbent governing Board Member since 2007, is facing off against Melissa Baten Caswell, a longtime Palo Alto Unified School District trustee.

They are hoping to provide a voice for Area 1, which includes Palo Alto Unified, Los Altos Union, Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High school districts and portions of Sunnyvale and Fremont Union High School districts.

As the pandemic continues indefinitely, some are concerned the achievement gaps between students across the county will continue to grow. This election highlights the necessity for experiences, challenges and solutions from better-resourced schools in areas such as Palo Alto and Mountain View to be shared with the county’s entire 32 districts.

As resumes of the incumbent and her challenger face off, voters will be deciding who has the best ability to connect students with continued learning opportunities.

Especially as school districts in Area 1 don’t face as many structural barriers to learning, key issues for this race revolve around compiling information from independent programs to form best practices for hundreds of thousands of students regarding:

  • Safely teaching and learning in a pandemic
  • Addressing the achievement gap and equitable education, including universal pre-school
  • Caring for mental health concerns

Grace Mah

Mah was first appointed to the seat in 2007, sparked by volunteering after having her own children and starting a Mandarin immersion program in the Palo Alto public school system. The engineer by trade self-studied education and early learning and remained unchallenged in elections prior to 2020.

She said her biggest successes include early learning opportunities for children from birth to 8 years old, primarily through her work as a co-founder of the Strong Start Coalition and involvement with the inaugural Children’s Budget.

As the county Board of Education works to coordinate fiscally responsible business, technology and development services, Mah said a transparent budget is one of her priorities to keep district costs low.

Mah is a strong supporter of quality charter schools, but she said the heavy burden of defending their role in education is overblown in this race, as the county’s responsibilities stretch beyond charter to support all vulnerable children. “Being able to support innovative programs—charter schools, in some cases, and other programs—that bring up and boost the educational achievement for kids, that’s all good stuff,” she said. “But I think it’s a real shame that one issue has been pushed so much [financially].”

As the county office provides guidelines for reopening schools alongside Santa Clara County public health protocols, Mah said she will continue having an open door to listen to concerns from parents, teachers and students, as well as attend local government meetings, if re-elected.

Now running for a fourth term, Mah said her tenure is an asset of institutional knowledge, questioning what needs to be changed about the work she continues to do. “I am committed to all students in the county, not just the privileged,” Mah said. “I am really looking for equal access to great schools and education for all students.”

Melissa Baten Caswell

Baten Caswell said she decided to run because she felt the county board members weren’t providing the support families needed during distanced learning.

Her foray into school governance started as a PTA volunteer in Palo Alto, transitioning into the longest-serving member of the Palo Alto School Board after 13 years.

Working as an engineer in high-tech, she said her background in planning, finance and marketing allowed her to align priorities, create a plan and enforce accountability.

Baten Caswell said if she’s elected, those skills will translate directly to priorities of coordinating best practices of teaching safety in a pandemic, mental health support and addressing the achievement gap systematically – disseminating knowledge out of each district’s internal silo.

“The cost of trying to reinvent the wheel in more than 30 districts around the county seems really high,” Baten Caswell said. “It became very clear to me that this could be a place where I could add value … There's a lot to be learned from each other, and the county office should be the repository for that.

When it comes to charter schools, Baten Caswell sees them as any public programs that are evaluated on merits and successes—oversight for which the board is responsible.

While this would be her first dip into countywide governance, Baten Caswell said she’s confident her “on the ground” communication at school sites as president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Association and a part of the California School Boards Association, gives her insight to best practices while education faces crises in equitable wellness and success for students. “I have 27 of the board members in our community who want m  to be the one that’s representing them,” Baten Caswell said. “After [Mah’s] 13 years, I would not expect that balance.”

Fundraising

As of the most recent candidate fundraising disclosures, filed on Sept. 24, the two candidates for the Santa Clara County Board of Education Seat 1 have raised a combined $213,607.59. Below is a breakdown.

Grace Mah: $73,884.99, endorsements include San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, SEUI Local 521 and SCCOE trustees Joseph Di Salvo and Anna Song.

Melissa Baten Caswell: $139,722.60. Endorsements include the California Teacher’s Association, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez and SCCOE Board of Education President Claudia Rossi.

3 Comments

  1. Grace Mah is smart, sincere, and not beholden to the teachers’union. Kids over politics. Kids over unions.

  2. Students and teachers over corporate donors! Grace Mah’s campaign being bought and paid for by for-profit charter schools is seriously worrying.