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RSF School candidates speak on safety, gym bond, academic excellence

Rancho Santa Fe School District’s five special election candidates made the rounds last week ahead of the April 24 election, speaking at a candidate forum hosted by Rancho Santa Fe residents on March 18 and in front of the Rancho Santa Fe Public Interest Committee (PIC) on March 20.

The election ballot packet was mailed to all voters in the district on March 26 and will be due back by April 24. Voters may also vote at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters beginning March 26 through Election Day.

The following are candidates comments made at the March 20 PIC meeting, in the random order they were selected to speak:

Thomas Barton
Thomas Barton Courtesy

Thomas Barton

Barton has been a Rancho Santa Fe resident since 2013, moving to Rancho Santa Fe for the “excellent” school and the community’s rural feel. He has students in both the elementary and middle school at R. Roger Rowe and is actively involved as a school volunteer and Scholars’ Circle donor.

Barton has been in education his whole life. The son of a pair of professors, he quickly learned he wanted a career in higher education. He graduated from Princeton University, received a PhD from Yale University and has been a professor at the University of San Diego for the last 10 years. Barton also has experience as a businessman, developing a real estate portfolio in Denver as well as acquiring property in San Diego.

“I’m sensitive to tax increases,” Barton said. “I’m fully invested in keeping the school as excellent as it can be but I feel like we need to be really sensitive to the cost that will be put on the rest of the community to maintain the school.”

Barton said his background in education gives him a unique skill set to add to the board. He believes he can bring a “valuable voice” on district assessment, curriculum review and ensuring that the district is efficient with its existing resources.

“This school already spends more per student than any other school in the county,” Barton said. “We’re at the top of spending in the state. I think the problem is not money, the problem is how we use the money and whether we’re being effective and efficient in creating a learning environment with those resources.”

Barton said he’s spoken with many parents who have left the school for different reasons, the most troubling being that they believe the school is in decline in test scores and performance. He said one of his priorities is to “be vigilant” to make R. Roger Rowe the best it can be, to see the district maximize every dollar spent and see academic performance improve as a result.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be not just number one in the county but number one in the state given how much we spend,” Barton said.

Barton also touched on the topic of school security, which he said is a different conversation for the upper and lower grades. He said he would like to see efforts taken to make the school a safer place to be, such as physically securing the campus as well as addressing bullying in the middle school.

Another one of his goals is to reach out to the broader community to better engage everyone, not just parents, as the school is a community asset. Improving the quality of the school helps preserve property values and he said that the school should serve as “the heartbeat of the community.”

“We won’t be the community we think we are if the school doesn’t maintain its excellence,” Barton said.

Jon Yonemitsu
Jon Yonemitsu Courtesy

Jon Yonemitsu

A father of three, Yonemitsu moved his family to Rancho Santa Fe in 2016 specifically for the school. He moved his children from private school to R. Roger Rowe School, impressed by the small class sizes and how staff was willing to talk to him about goals, expectations and how best to create a structure for his children to succeed.

“It couldn’t have been a better decision. Our family has made a seamless transition and we have made fantastic friends in the community,” Yonemitsu said.

He has gotten involved as a coach at Junior Dunkers and Rancho Santa Fe Little League and his wife has participated in school fundraising events. Additionally, he stepped forward as a candidate to fill Marti Ritto’s seat and was appointed by the board out of five applicants. He was removed as a result of the petition and special election.

“As a school board member, I was very excited to serve you as stakeholders,” he said.

Yonemitsu has 20 years of experience as an attorney and, currently, he is a litigation defense attorney and partner at Gordon & Rees.

“I have a unique skill set in looking at issues in a creative way and to problem solve,” Yonemitsu said, noting he has an ability to listen to arguments and positions, and work to build consensus so everybody can move forward.

Yonemitsu said he was looking forward to the opportunity to serve as a board member as he believes his core values were consistent with the existing board members. Like the board members, he said academic excellence is the number one priority, both in school rankings and test scores.

He said one of his priorities would be to retain families through middle school as the school has seen enrollment dip in last few years. He said he has talked to families that have children in the middle school who have expressed concerns that R. Roger Rowe is not preparing their kids to get to high school—he said that needs to be addressed.

“Developing global citizens I think is a vital core value that any school should have,” said Yonemitsu, drawing on his educational experience at the Punahou School in Honolulu. “ Yes, academics is critical and you want to prepare your students for the next step. But it’s also developing curious minds and learners that want to think about more than just themselves and how they fit in the scheme of society and how they’re going to impact the world. I think that’s important.”

Yonemitsu said that fiscal responsibility is also a top priority—ensuring that school funds are utilized in an appropriate way—and noted school safety is also a very important issue right now. He said he was pleased that the district has created a Safety Advisory Committee as an opportunity for more parent input on potential next steps.

Yonemitsu said while he did not support the recall effort, he understood that it was because residents felt there was a due process issue with the board using an appointment rather than a special election to fill a board seat. He said now that narrative seems to have changed from due process to one that has specific criteria for board members that excludes him as a candidate personally.

The specific criteria for school board members has been stated as that the candidate has to live in the community for no less than three years, has to have children both in the middle school and elementary school grades and has to have experience in educational strategic planning.

He said that he has been asked if he owns property in the Covenant, suggesting that because he rents, he doesn’t have a stake or skin in the game.

“I think we’re better than that as a community,” Yonemitsu said. “I’ve only been here for two years but my two years here have really re-enforced the fact that I know that we’re better than that. We all can be better than that. And I think why I’m standing here is because I believe that.”

Steven Hughes
Steven Hughes Courtesy

Steven Hughes

A Rancho Santa Fe resident since 2016, Hughes grew up in North County San Diego, in the communities of Solana Beach, Encinitas and Olivenhain.

He met realtor Jason Barry of Barry Estates at UC San Diego during their undergrad and, a few years after college, Barry invited him to come work with him in real estate in Rancho Santa Fe. Hughes said he got to learn about the unique community as well as understand the value of the Covenant, which works to “protect its integrity and keep the essence of what the community stood for.”

As a real estate agent, he got involved as a Junior Dunkers and RSF Little League coach and decided that ultimately he would like to live in Rancho Santa Fe.

Hughes, who also has an MBA from the University of Southern California, left real estate in 2004 and went to work for his father’s company Hughes Circuits in San Marcos. He helped grow the company from 25 to 200 employees. At Hughes Circuits, he uses cross-functional teams to solve problems which has helped him understand opposing positions and points-of-view and to be able to come up with agreeable solutions. He has to create an annual fiscal budget with certain constraints — experience he believes would apply nicely to a school board position.

Hughes had the opportunity to buy his home in Rancho Santa Fe two years ago and his daughter will be a kindergarten student at R. Roger Rowe School this fall. When he heard about the special election, he decided to step up as a candidate.

“I just wanted to participate,” Hughes said. “I thought a good way for me to see how the school is going is to participate and help out in some way.”

If not elected to the board, he said he still plans to be involved at the school as a volunteer.

If elected, Hughes said his job would be to represent the community, to listen to voters and be their voice at board meetings.

“I don’t have any hidden agendas,” Hughes said. “I would tackle things with financial prudency and responsibility.”

Elise Dufresne
Elise Dufresne Courtesy

Elise Dufresne

Dufresne has led a career in politics and law. She runs her own political consulting firm, focusing on campaign strategy and communication for candidates and ballot measures. Prior to that she worked in the law as a paralegal, for the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, D.C. and handled protocol for former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. She continues to do nonprofit legal work with the Cornelia Law Center, specifically with refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced civil and human rights violations.

Dufresne has lived in Rancho Santa Fe for 10 years and has a first grade student at Rowe. She ran for the board the first time in 2016, came forward again as a candidate during the appointment process and again for the special election.

“I have expertise in formulating policy and looking at strategies for really good outcomes for governmental entities is one of my strengths so I think I have a lot to contribute in terms of being a school board member,” Dufresne said.

Dufresne spoke about several of her priorities such as keeping the curriculum “moving to the top” with more technology and foreign language but she said the issue of “foremost importance” is school safety.

“To their credit, the board has taken a step toward trying to decide how to secure our campus better. Currently, it’s probably not the best, currently there’s also not a known threat so we have time to mitigate any damages that can possibly be done,” Dufresne said.

Dufresne said she is knowledgeable on the issue of safety as she has a degree in international security and conflict resolution with a double minor in Arabic and Hebrew from San Diego State University and went on to do grad work at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with an emphasis on terrorism and warfare. She said she was certified by Homeland Security and FEMA for threat and risk assessment.

Dufresne said she would like the district to explore the ideas of securing all entries with a key code access system and the possibility of an undercover law enforcement officer.

“As hard as it is to believe and as far away as it seems to most of us, it is a living reality,” Dufresne said regarding the threat of school violence.

Dufresne also expressed her opinion of the potential school bond for a new gym —“I don’t think this is a good time, I think we should table the bond,” Dufrense said.

She said the timeline is too short to meet the deadline for the November ballot and the district does not have time to go through all the processes and gather the appropriate amount of public input for a bond to be well-received by voters. She said looking ahead to 2020 might be a better option and provide more time to go through the process.

Jee Manghani
Jee Manghani Courtesy

Jee Manghani

Manghani grew up in San Diego and got his degree in computer science from UC San Diego. He has been in the software engineering field for the last 20 years and currently runs a software consulting company.

He has been a Rancho Santa Fe resident since 2010, moving mainly for the school system and rural lifestyle. His wife, Rocio, has a very busy career in the pharmaceutical industry and Manghani said he has become a “Mr. Mom” to their two children as a result. The couple has a third grader and incoming kindergartner at Rowe.

“I want to reconnect the board back with the community and operate with transparency. I believe an elected representative is supposed to represent the community and to serve them and I’ve heard from many people that they feel there is an agenda being pushed on us,” Manghani said. “The fact that a recall occurred shows that there is much broken trust to be repaired.”

Manghani said one of his goals includes improving curriculum by adding more hands-on STEM and after-school programs such as introduction to circuitry, medicine engineering, and more robotics. He said he has met with Superintendent David Jaffe about implementing a pilot 3D printing class. “It would be funded by the RSF Education Foundation and if we don’t have the funds we won’t be doing it. I’m fiscally conservative and responsible,” Manghani said.

Manghani shared strong opinions about the gym and a potential general obligation bond.

The board received an independent assessment of the gym last week and it came back as good with the roof and fire system rated as fair. The immediate and necessary repairs cost $322,639 and the gym would have a useful life of another 20 years with an additional $900,000.

“This is after hearing for several years that the gym is an unsafe structure and is on the verge of being condemned,” Manghani said.

He said after getting the report, several board members still made a case for a new gym, referencing board member Tyler Seltzer who said they can get from point A to point B in a Mercedes or an old car but the Mercedes is better.

“The problem there is that we would pay for it. This is an elementary and middle school, this is not a high school,” Manghani said, noting that a bond would raise property taxes for a gym that would cost more than half of what the entire school cost. “The case for investing in a new gym has not been made and we need to spend the $330,000 to repair it and then put the gym issue behind us so that we can focus the board’s limited time each month on improving our school’s education.”

Manghani said if elected, he would vote against putting a bond on the ballot and his election would send a message about the community’s opinion on the bond: “I don’t want yours or my taxes to go up,” he said.

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