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Virtual forum held for seven RSF School board candidates

RSF School board candidates
RSF School board candidates participated in a virtual candidate forum on Sept. 22. (Top row, l-r): Jason Karches, Annette Ross, Ellen Williams; (Middle row, l-r) John Tree, Chris Blatt, Rosemarie Rohatgi, (Bottom row, l-r) Moderator Jeanne Brown, Paul Seitz.

(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe community was given a chance to meet the seven candidates jockeying for three of five seats on the Rancho Santa Fe School District board with a virtual candidate forum on Sept. 22. With no incumbents running, this November voters will elect three new members to represent their interests on the board.

The Rancho Santa Fe Education Foundation partnered with the non-partisan League of Women Voters to host the forum. Moderator Jeanne Brown said they collected over 100 questions from community members, narrowing it down to 12 asked in the two-hour forum. In a randomly drawn order, each candidate was given time for an introduction and closing statements in addition to answering questions.

Candidate John Tree was born into an Air Force family and has spent the majority of his life in public service. He has served in the Air Force for 30 years, seven in active duty and 23 in the reserves. Currently he holds the rank of brigadier general, assigned to The Pentagon as a senior reservist to the Air Force chief of staff. He has served as the CEO of private equity firms and has eight years serving as the board of directors of an $8 billion a year global retailer. His wife, Michelle, is the secretary of the RSF Education Foundation board.

Tree said he is running primarily because of the coronavirus and the global impact it has had. He brought up the “sobering” fact that 200,000 Americans have died this year of COVID-19.

“These are people of all ages, you can’t just say it’s old people with underlying conditions, it’s a virus that’s attacking all of us,” said Tree, who has been involved in the national COVID-19 response with his role at the Pentagon. “We need to be safe, we need to be prepared and we need to be vigilant. That’s why it’s the top priority on my list.”

As a father of a third and sixth-grader, he is proud of what the administration has done to prepare the school for children to be able to safely go back to school. His three priorities if elected are making sure kids, teachers and staff are safe, to continue the tradition of excellence of Rowe, and to provide transparent board governance.

“I’m all in on this,” he said. “I’m committed to the RSF Education Foundation and the school board whether I win or lose.”

His website is johntree.com

Ellen Williams is the director of University Preschool, where education is individualized to every student through universal design and individualized curriculum planning. She is also the executive director/founder of a recovery gym called SUJO and managing partner of a consulting firm for startups, COM Consulting.

“This is just an unprecedented time and it calls for innovative solutions,” said Williams, noting that the school board needs to work hand in hand with teachers, staff, administrators and families to provide the same caliber of education in “near-impossible circumstances.”

Raising foster youth and as a former foster youth herself, she brings a unique experience and perspective in filling education gaps that arise during times of transition—“the same circumstances kids have had the last seven months where their educational world has been upended.”

“As we transition from this time and begin to rebuild after this pandemic, I’m ready and willing to use the tools that I’ve amassed to pitch in whenever needed,” Williams said.

Williams said that the pandemic and its resulting fiscal crisis and mental health complications call for a new model of civic leadership, one she is willing to help bring to the board with her experience in education and making fiscal decisions running her own business.

Her top three priorities would be to continue to develop community-based learning, safety for the whole school including all of the families at home, and board transparency and utilization of resources, both the teachers and the community.

The youngest of nine children, Annette Ross grew up on the south side of Chicago. After high school she worked full time on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, going to college part time while working. It was always her dream to finish college and it took her 10 years to earn her degree. She has lived in San Diego for seven years, the last four in Rancho Santa Fe. She is an author, having published a memoir in 2016.

Ross said her desire to run the board comes from her appreciation of her child’s experience at the school and of Superintendent Donna Tripi’s hard work in reopening the school during the pandemic.

Ross said she would like to be part of developing a library program at the school to help foster a love of literature.

“I believe that good books help us imagine our dreams and sometimes provide the road maps to make those dreams come true,” Ross said. “Reading is a powerful way to show a child they are an integral part of beginning a story and that their life makes a difference.”

Ross said safety is the number one priority right now, keeping the school open and everyone safe. She would also like to maintain the strong fiscal position the district is in that was “hard-won” by the school board and build an even stronger community.

“There’s always ways to improve our school, I’m always open to ideas, I love to learn and enjoy working with others,” Ross said. “Most importantly, I love children and I deeply care about education. I think it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give them as they go out into the world.”

Her website is annetteforrsf.com.

A North County San Diego native, Jason Karches has lived in the Ranch for 40 years—he is a graduate of San Dieguito High School. His wife Kelli attended R. Roger Rowe and they have a daughter in the fourth grade. Karches has 20 years of experience leading businesses and he is a deacon at the Village Church and chair of the community outreach program.

Karches said that past boards have put the school on the path to provide quality education in a safe environment but he believes it can be even better.

He said the board has made decisions around best practices to bring the school from good to great but he doesn’t believe it is enough to meet the extraordinary needs of the community.

“Inherant in best practices is standardization. It stifles differentiation and limits organizations from moving from great to extrordinary,” Karches said. “Some may argue that great is good enough or that it’s not possible due to the funding constraints that we have. I suggest we just haven’t tried hard enough.”

Karches said he sees potential for the school to be extroarindary and his goal is to integrate the community with the school, as was intended by Dr. Roger Rowe. He plans to use his leadership background to build stronger bridges between the school and the community.

“The primary reason I’m running for this seat is I think there’s a great opportunity to engage the community in a much deeper level,” Karches said.

Karches’ other top priories are supporting teachers and making sure the curriculum is world-class.

His website is Jasonkarches.com

Rosemarie Rohatgi has lived in Rancho Santa Fe since 2015, moving here with her husband, Sameer, for the top-ranked school and to raise their two children in a rural environment with a “thriving sense of community.” Her background is in healthcare—after 15 years of practicing dentistry, she recognized the demand to treat sleep-related breathing disorders and opened her own business.

“We are here for our children which is the most important thing above all,” said Rohtagi, who is the mother of a first and third grader at the school.

Rohatgi brings board experience having served four years with the American Parkinson’s Disease Association, the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine and she has also been on the board of the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center since 2019.

She has served as a parent volunteer and RSF Education Foundation donor for many years, pledging Summa Cum Laude level ($100,000). She is also a gold level community partner.

“The board needs to be very cohesive. I have a very good strong working relationship with Donna, Jee and Kali,” she said of the superintendent and board member Manghani and Kim. “My past experience with boards has taught me to work productively and constructively as a unified board as this sets an example for our children.”

Her top priority is individualized growth for all students at all levels, which includes bringing the bottom up and raising the top, challenging all students, filling learning gaps and providing enrichment to those who are exceeding grade expectations. She also prioritizes collaboration with all constituents and remaining fiscally conscious: “I intend to make effective use of our resources to support our district’s priories,” she said

Her website is RoseforRSF.com

Paul Seitz moved to Rancho Santa Fe for the excellent school and the community. A Marine Corps veteran, he worked as a contractor for several years before discovering a passion for training horses. He now owns and manages an 85-year old ranch in Rancho Santa Fe where he boards, trains and shows horses.

Seitz believes in putting kids first always. His decision to run was due to changes he has seen take place at the school due to layoffs and cutbacks in 2018.

“Our school is not what it was two years ago. This place was magical,” he said recalling walking through the school to see teachers out in the morning talking to each other, giving hugs to students. “We’re in a pandemic so the hugs have gone away but this was lost two years ago and we need to get that back.”

He would like to get back the sense of community with improved communication and more teacher support, letting them know they are secure and valued.

Seitz, who has a daughter in the school, said he believes in order for things to get better, the board needs to start by listening to everyone’s voices. His top three priorities are simply the kids, the teachers and the parents, making sure the school community feels like family.

“What you see is what you get,” Seitz said. “I will tell you the truth, I will admit when I’m wrong and make mistakes. I will always be open to ideas and always answer questions.”

His website is RSFCowboy.com

Christopher Blatt has three children at Rowe and he and his wife moved to Rancho Santa Fe targeting the school as the best in the county and state. “We have the capability, tools and resources to be the best school in the country.”

Blatt’s educational background is in chemical engineering and he served 26 years in the military and had a career in the computer industry in Silicon Valley. He has been actively involved with the school’s robotics program for over five years and has assisted in past programs like Ocean Week. With an interest in education, he also tutors elementary through high school students in math and science.

“I can see the school has made great progress over the last year education-wise and I think that’s a key benefit to make sure our kids are ready for the next step,” said Blatt, who was also a candidate for the board in 2016. “I want to keep that momentum going forward.”

Blatt’s top priorities are the kids, teachers and the parents. He wants students to be prepared for the next level and to excel and he believes teachers are the backbone of the school and it is important to support them and listen to their needs: “If we’re not paying attention to what they’re saying, we’re losing a valuable asset.”

Blatt also prioritizes transparency and making sure parents are involved in every decision.

Blatt recognized the strengths of all of the candidates for the board: “I feel confident that whoever is selected, we’re going to have a great school board and move the school forward to the next level of excellence and that’s what it’s all about.”

During the forum, candidates answered questions about the district’s COVID-19 response, distance learning, bullying prevention, how to strengthen the relationship between the board and the teachers and whether the district’s current policy regarding equity and discrimination is sufficient or lacking given an approximately 90% white student body.

On the topic of diversity, all candidates said they supported inclusion and equality— as Blatt said, it is common sense to treat everyone equally. While the candidates weren’t familiar with the school’s discrimination policy, they believed the school was doing a good job.

“The country is going through a national awakening of sorts on how we deal with race relations and I definitely support having conversations and being supportive and inclusive of everyone,” said Tree. “I would love to see diversity on the board, even if that means I don’t get elected as a white male.”

Williams, who has a “big blended family,” said that the topic is an issue that they deal with in their family. She said her children who are Black have felt welcomed and accepted at Rowe and she said their first day of school she was in tears hearing her son talk about how great his friends were.

Karches said he would love to see more opportunities for special needs students to be integrated with general education classes and Rohatgi spoke about having more community service opportunities that would provide more diverse experiences for students. Seitz agreed: “I grew up one of 13 kids, went all over to different schools and learned different ways,” he said. “The more people you interact with, the more evolved you become.”

One community question quizzed the candidates on the number of school board meetings they have attended this year. Rohatgi had been to the most, attending 16 of the 19 school board meetings in 2020: “I know the key issues and can hit the ground running.”

Tree said he attended most but lost count, Ross attended five, Blatt attended two, Karches has participated in three and Williams did not attend but has read the meeting minutes for the last 10.

Candidates were also asked what programs they felt were lacking at Rowe and if there was anything they would add. Ross would like to see a better library program for all ages of readers that would involve author visits. Blatt and Tree spoke about having more emphasis on computer coding and science-driven skills that will be essential to future jobs; Williams would integrate art into the STEM program as well as “as many sports as possible.”

Karches said he would like to see more leadership opportunities and a focus on communication skills. Rohatgi would like to enhance language offerings like Spanish and see more community service options for students to be more active in giving back to the community. Seitz also would like service learning opportunities as well as bringing back some things that were lost such as science specialists and the library program, as well as more sports and clubs.

Those who missed out on the live streaming can watch the recording of the forum at youtube.com/watch?v=BYvnNa6Kt6s&feature=youtu.be


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