Midpeninsula Post

Meet the 2022 Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District board candidates

Los Altos High School in August 2022. (Eason Dong)

Six candidates are competing for three spots on the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees: incumbent Catherine Vonnegut and newcomers Thida Cornes, Eric Mark, Esmeralda Ortiz, Jacquie Tanner and Carrol Titus-Zambre.

The board will be tasked with rehabilitating post-pandemic student academic performance and addressing the growing student population and projected enrollment growth. It will also shepherd the ethnic studies elective, which is currently being piloted, into a state-mandated course.

The Post spoke with all six candidates about their experience and policy positions, focusing on student mental health and wellness, equity and communication.

Candidates are ordered by alphabetical order of last name.

(Courtesy Thida Cornes)

THIDA CORNES

Cornes is a Mountain View resident and has served as a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, vice chair of the Environmental Sustainability Task Force and a member of various Mountain View Whisman School District committees. She lives with her husband and two children, both of whom attended MVLA schools before transferring.

“I’m committed to ensuring that all of our students feel connected, embrace challenges and thrive,” Cornes said. “My experience as a disabled, mixed race immigrant and mother of two children drives my years of public service.”

Mental health and wellness

Cornes said she thinks the district is providing adequate support to students suffering from extreme mental health crises such as suicidal ideation. However, she said that the district should take the students’ cultural backgrounds and possible stigmas surrounding mental health into consideration.

“In many cultures, seeking help for mental health … is not okay,” Cornes said. “Like, in my Burmese culture, if you have a mental health issue, you talk to your family, you don’t talk to a medical professional. And so we need to provide culturally sensitive help.”

Cornes also stressed the importance of working with and providing uniform training to the on-campus police behavioral units in order to better handle situations involving at-risk youth.

“I understand that Los Altos and Mountain View police are trained differently, but we need to work out something so that on both campuses, you have the same kind of consistency,” she said.

Equity

Cornes said she’s a strong supporter of programs like the Parent Institute for Quality Education, which provides linguistic and technological services to disadvantaged and Latino families seeking support.

“We really need to get more families involved [so that] they don’t feel, like, ‘Well, I don’t know how to help my kid,’” Cornes said.

She noted that many parents may not know the importance of sleep and sleep hygiene. Expanding the program would allow parents to better help their kids, she said.

Communication

Cornes said she believes the district’s methods of communication should be more technologically streamlined. She took particular issue with the accessibility of school board meetings.

“As someone who’s observing the meetings, you have to go to the website and look to see if there’s a meeting,” Cornes said.

She suggested some sort of simplified system that would allow people to sign up for meeting notifications instead of having to email the superintendent’s secretary.

Cornes also stressed the need to foster partnerships with MVLA’s partners, such as the K-8 districts, city councils and the county, to broadcast messages to the greater local community.

To learn more about Cornes, visit her website here.

(Courtesy Eric Mark)

ERIC MARK

Mark has served local youth in various capacities, including as a coach for his kids’ school and club sports teams, an entrepreneurship coach for StreetCode Academy and a tutor for Mountain View High School’s AVID program. He formerly worked as a computer sales systems specialist for local small businesses. All three of his kids are attending or have graduated from MVLA schools.

Mental health and wellness

Mark said that although his perception of mental health at MVLA schools is mostly from what his children tell him, he is going to work to gain a more diverse perspective.

He also proposed capping the number of AP classes that students can take and eliminating weighted GPAs to reduce fixation on grades.

“I firmly believe that … if MVLA students were taking fewer courses but they’re happier … that would be a big win,” Mark said.

Equity

Mark is a strong proponent of the ethnic studies curriculum, which is currently being piloted. He said he believes it will promote awareness and allow students to have a more diverse worldview.

“That [awareness] will lead to, hopefully, more harmonious outcomes as a student gets into adulthood,” Mark said. “I want to definitely keep tabs on that [and] be part of making the program even stronger.”

Communication

Mark said that his easygoing and cooperative nature will allow him to better collaborate with members of the community to find solutions.

“You basically have to demonstrate to people that you’re listening,” he said. “Not everyone’s gonna be happy. But if we keep the framework that we’re trying to do what’s best for the students, … we can build bridges and collaborate.

To learn more about Mark, visit his website here.

(Courtesy Esmeralda Ortiz)

ESMERALDA ORTIZ

Ortiz grew up in San Mateo and said she is a proud product of its public school system. A first generation student, Ortiz attended UC Berkeley, UC Davis and the University of Southern California for bachelor’s, graduate and Doctor of Education degrees, respectively. 

She is now in her twelfth year at the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula, where she serves as vice president of its high school and postsecondary success program. Ortiz lives in Mountain View with her husband, who is a teacher at Mountain View High.

“I believe that my professional and personal experiences as a first-gen student who attended public schools in California and currently works with high school and college-age students [would make] my perspective a unique one that would contribute to the existing board,” Ortiz said.

Mental health and wellness

Ortiz commended the district for its handling of student mental health during and after the pandemic. She is a strong advocate for dual enrollment classes at local community colleges and said that many of her students at the Boys & Girls Club taking dual enrollment courses are less stressed than those taking traditional AP courses.

“There’s a lot more courses that the community colleges have that are not available on a high school campus,” Ortiz said. “So students have more agency to choose courses that are more culturally relevant or cater more to their specific interests.”

Ortiz also said she believes that the district needs to take into account the trauma that new immigrant students face when providing mental health and wellness services.

Equity

Ortiz said that her time as a first-generation student has shaped her perception of student resources and alternate pathways.

“I was in dire need of the kinds of resources I believe are available through the MVLA district, programs such as AVID and the ability to take AP courses,” Ortiz said. “At the time, [my high school] did not have an AVID program. … And so that has shaped how I view these resources and value them.”

She said she believes that her identity as a Latina woman will be crucial to achieving more representation on the board and conducting deeper outreach with Spanish-speaking families.

Communication

Ortiz said she thinks that students need to be better connected with resources so that they are aware of their options when deciding what field to pursue. 

She described watching how her high-achieving sister, who took many AP courses and had an almost perfect GPA, planned on attending community college because she did not know she had other options. After a college counselor at their youth foundation urged her to apply to more schools, she was offered admission to most of the schools she applied to and ended up at UC Berkeley, where she thrived around like-minded, academic-oriented students.

“That experience made me realize just how much is needed to really bridge students to resources, especially when the district has [these resources],” Ortiz said.

To learn more about Ortiz, visit her website here.

(Courtesy Jacquie Tanner)

JACQUIE TANNER

Tanner has served as a frequent volunteer in the Mountain View Whisman School District, where her daughter was a student. She recently retired from her role as senior production materials planner at Tesla.

When Tanner herself attended MVLA schools, her mother volunteered as a bus driver and union leader in the district, propelling Tanner’s interest in parent engagement. Tanner has lived in Mountain View for almost her entire life.

“During my time [at Tesla], … I couldn’t be as involved as I wanted to be with the school and the city and what was going on.” Tanner said. “So I just retired in June. And now, I can spend all my time serving the community.”

Mental health and wellness

Tanner praised the board’s treatment of mental health issues during the pandemic. She said that she had not yet heard of any mental health issues from researching and talking to fellow parents.

“I’ve been studying diligently on previous board meetings and reading the Mountain View Voice and trying to get other people’s opinions about the school’s progress,” Tanner said. “I’m sure there are issues that we haven’t seen yet.”

Equity

Tanner said she believes that the district needs to provide better support for incoming freshmen. She cited her own daughter’s experience transferring from Blach Junior High School to Los Altos High School as what made her realize this issue.

“That’s when the need is the greatest,” Tanner said. “The kids are new. They’re not mentally ready for high school. I think that’s where we can capture their weaknesses and bring them up to the next level.”

Communication

Tanner discussed the upcoming influx of students the district will have and pointed to communication as a key factor when expanding to a third high school.

“I’m going to be very focused on the future growth readiness of the whole system,” she said.

Tanner also suggested that the district collaborate with middle and elementary school boards in order to facilitate the larger number of students.

“The school boards don’t talk to each other,” she said. “Because Mountain View Whisman is our feeder school [district], they need to be able to bring in people first. So we need to work together to make sure that we have the land and the processes … handled.”

To learn more about Tanner, visit her website here.

(Courtesy Carrol Titus-Zambre)

CARROL TITUS-ZAMBRE

During her time as an MVLA parent, Titus-Zambre has served as a sports coach for Los Altos High and the National Youth Volleyball Association and as Girl Scout leader for the local troop. She grew up in Santa Clara and went through its public school system. 

Titus-Zambre is a veteran of the Silicon Valley tech sector and founder of Golden Poppy Inc., which produces augmented reality games to encourage STEM-based learning for youth. She lives with her husband and three children, all of whom are attending or have graduated from Los Altos High.

“It’s my goal to have every MVLA student graduate with the 21st century skills they need to thrive by continuously improving the quality of services provided, maximizing learning outcomes and enhancing community stewardship,” Titus-Zambre said during a forum held by the League of Women Voters.

Titus-Zambre said she was referred to Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer by a mutual friend and decided to run in order to “help Nellie out.” She falsely claimed that she was endorsed by Dr. Meyer, according to reporting by the Los Altos Town Crier. When later asked by the Mountain View Voice, Titus-Zambre said that she misunderstood what endorsements are because of her “limited knowledge.”

Following a string of comments she made to the Talon in April 2021, in which she accused teachers of getting paid without working during the pandemic and said science did not support wearing masks, she threatened the reporter of the article with violence and legal action. According to the Talon, she did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the situation.

Mental health and wellness

Titus-Zambre said she believes that students should exercise and get outside more to ease mental health problems.

“It’s actually been shown scientifically to be very therapeutic,” Titus-Zambre said. “And so I would definitely boost up the athletics. I think that’s an important thing.”

She also supports the current social services the district has in place, although it is unclear which ones she was referring to.

Equity

Titus-Zambre used the model of the Advanced Student Investigations, an advanced research science class, project at Los Altos High, which her children all participated in, to illustrate how she wants to increase equitable practices in the district. She said she would like to expand this project to become available for students at Mountain View High as well.

“It [the project] has these long term effects,” she said. “Kids have to not only do research and have a point of talking with a mentor, but they actually have to find a mentor outside. So it sets them up not only for university, but, you know, career paths later.”

She also said that she would like to see this model adapted for the AVID PEAK program.

Communication

Titus-Zambre said she thinks the on-site board meetings and school events have helped the community feel more connected after the pandemic.

“I think we … [should] do more [to] reach out to make sure everybody feels connected and as a community because we were so separated,” Titus-Zambre said. “So that’s really a key growing thing and I think we just need to kind of celebrate being open again.”

To learn more about Titus-Zambre, visit her website here.

(Courtesy Catherine Vonnegut)

CATHERINE VONNEGUT

Vonnegut was elected to the board in 2018 and currently serves as president and a member of the Finance Committee. She is also a graduate of Mountain View’s leadership, CERT and Citizen Police Academy programs. 

She formerly worked as a software engineer and licensed EMT for Santa Clara County. Vonnegut lives in Mountain View with her husband. Her son, who now works as a local chemistry teacher, attended Mountain View High.

“I want to continue the good work we’ve done,” Vonnegut said. “We will have two new people who will have good ideas and that’s great. I love fresh input and innovation. However, there needs to be stability too.”

Mental health and wellness

Vonnegut said she believes the district has done a good job in the past few years regarding wellness. She pointed to the creation of a wellness coordinator position and allocation of more money towards mental health services. However, she said she thinks the district needs better coordination between the various wellness services.

“Where does the teacher leave off?” Vonnegut said. “Where does the counselor or the therapist take over? Where does the administration, like, the assistant principals, take on the situation?”

Vonnegut also said she would like to improve equitable grading and homework policies to alleviate student and parent stress.

Equity

Vonnegut said she believes that equity means providing the resources each individual student needs, whether or not those resources are the same. She said she is interested in exploring and refining alternative academic programs such as the International Baccalaureate program, Middle College and dual enrollment at community colleges.

Ultimately, Vonnegut said she wants students to feel supported and confident in their abilities when going on to postsecondary pathways.

“You look at the newspapers that talk about the price of college … and it seems daunting, like, ‘Our family doesn’t have that kind of money, and my parents don’t know how to help me get through that,’” Vonnegut said. “We need to help broaden their horizons for these kids: help them access those resources, get them thinking that they could really do it.”

Communication

Vonnegut said that although the district provides ample resources for students, it needs to do a better job of promoting these resources to encourage students to use them.

“We have great resources,” she said. “We just need to make sure everybody knows about them and then makes use of them.”

To learn more about Vonnegut, visit her website here.

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