Rancho Santa Fe School board interviews five candidates for vacancy

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board interviewed five candidates for its board vacancy in an open session on Oct. 16.

Candidates Elise Dufresne, Kali Kim, Jee Manghani, Richard Shen and Jon Yonemitsu were each asked the same eight questions about issues such as their priorities, their decision-making process and how they would assess the performance of the district.

The board will now have a week until it makes a decision on the appointment — the board will deliberate in open session and select the new board member on Monday, Oct. 23 at 9 a.m.

Candidate Kim is a certified public accountant who has volunteer experience as this year’s Scholar’s Circle coordinator for the Rancho Santa Fe Education Foundation as well as being a former Village Church Children’s Ministry Commission member.

Kim talked about the importance of setting a district vision and establishing a structure for support and accountability for that vision. She said an important metric to assess how the district is doing is through receiving feedback from the community. She heard a lot of input from parents by attending all of the newcomer events this year, but she would also like to hear from parents of students who are departing to other districts.

As a board member, she said getting out and talking to parents is important so they feel comfortable coming forward with any concerns, as she noted many parents do not attend school board meetings.

“The school board can’t achieve anything without making sure they’re aligned with what the community wants,” Kim said. “I think that a school board member is an advocate for the kids in the community, to ensure that the children receive everything that they need to reach their highest potential.”

Manghani, a commercial software developer, was a candidate in the 2016 election. He received 12.30 percent of the votes, fourth out of seven candidates for three seats.

Manghani said his highest priorities are making sure the school is providing quality education and preparing students for the high school level, retaining the best teachers and staff and making sure the school’s aesthetics conform with the Covenant standards, specifically the gym.

“I think the gym needs to fit in with the school and the rest of the community,” Manghani said, noting that the quality of the school campus has an effect on the community’s real estate values.

As a board member, Manghani said a priority would be looking into whether it is fiscally responsible for the district to pursue things like renovate the gym or acquire adjacent parcels for expansion, especially if they ask taxpayers to consider a bond initiative.

Manghani said that, as a board member, it is important to talk to people and make them feel like their concerns are being heard. He said this goes beyond those with school-age children but with the community at large, to ensure their interests are being represented as well.

Candidate Shen, the founder and CEO of RS Technology Ventures, said he is interested in becoming a board member as a way to give back to the community. He said he has helped out at the R. Roger Rowe School with the robotics program and Science Discovery Day and could bring a unique technology perspective to the board.

Shen said one of his priorities, if selected, would be toward “well-defined processes”— setting a baseline on how things should operate and then working to improve upon that baseline. He said he would also like to work toward developing a “robust culture” among school faculty members, the board and the community.

“What a culture does is that it helps provide a long-term direction for an organization, I would like to see that develop,” said Shen, who also said he would like to see increased parent engagement, finding more ways for parents to be involved at the school.

In making decisions on the board, Shen said his focus would always be on the students first but said he would be open to hearing suggestions from the public.

“Getting out there and talking to people…may actually spark other ideas. I would prefer to reach out and talk to people and get ideas and figure out what might be the best solution to the issue at hand,” Shen said. “I’ve seen many decisions that have been made with a narrow-minded focus and in many cases that is usually the wrong decision because they don’t consider all of the options.”

Yonemitsu, a litigation and national trial practice partner with Gordon & Rees, is new to the community after moving to Rancho Santa Fe last year.

Yonemitsu said his priorities are facilities (particularly the ongoing discussion about the gym), ensuring that students have all of the necessary technology tools and district budgeting.

He targeted Rowe for its ability to cater to each child’s individual needs and said he has seen all three of his children’s confidence levels grow while being at the school. As far as assessing the district, he said some of the comments he has heard are around the preparedness of kids getting from middle school to high school and how the school can improve that transition and allow students to thrive.

Yonemitsu said he feels confident in his ability to be “a steward of the public,” to be fair and balanced and give people the opportunity to say what they want to say and take their opinions to heart. He said he has no agenda and his decision-making is all about facts and being as objective as possible.

“The only thing that drives me is to ensure that I’m doing the right thing on a whole and to have integrity about that,” Yonemitsu said. “In such a small community you can get a lot of feedback. To be able to listen is a good quality that I think I have.”

Candidate Dufresne also ran in the 2016 election, receiving 12.10 percent of the vote. As the principal of Dufresne and Associates, a political consulting firm focused on campaign strategy and communication, Dufresne said she brings a “unique set of qualifications” with years of policy research, development and implementation at all levels of government.

Dufrense said her priorities would be providing “a sense of stability in a time of transition with new leadership, board members and visions; and working together to address issues, ensuring that the district is always doing what is best for children, whether that is investing in programs, reviewing curriculum or providing proficient staff. Dufresne said she would also advocate for fiscal conservancy regarding the budget and future planning, including a potential bond that she said would require collaboration with all stakeholders.

“We have wonderful performance here academically. I think that certainly we are a very well-run, carefully-planned school that provides very good education and extracurriculars for our children. As far as academic performance, I think we’re at the top level and I want to see that continue and, if possible, increase,” Dufresne said. “I believe we have the resources to be one of the best, if not the best, schools in California and perhaps the country. How we can push forward and go higher would be a matter of constant review and thought on the part of the board and communication with the staff, parents and community.”