Before discussing its items for the day, Tracy Unified School District swore in its newest trustees for the Board of Education and elected a new president during its meeting Tuesday night.
New to the board are Trustees Ana Blanco, Zachary Hoffert and Nathalia Erskine. The three replace former members Brian Pekari, who last served as the board's president, along with Jill Costa and Jeremy Silcox, who lost their 2020 re-election campaigns.
"I want to welcome the new board members. It is a challenging time, so you came on at a good time. You're going to earn your spurs. There's an awful lot going on here, so I just wanted to express my appreciation," said superintendent Brian Stephens.
San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas, who had previously served as Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for TUSD before his career with the county, led the oath of office for the new board members.
Afterward, the board voted on its officers for the new term and chose their committee positions. Trustee Simran Kaur was chosen as the next board president in a 6-1 vote, with Trustee Ameni Alexander dissenting. Trustee Steve Abercrombie was chosen as the board's vice president in a 5-2 vote, with Blanco and Hoffert dissenting. The position of clerk was given to Blanco on a split 4-3 vote, with Trustees Lori Souza, Alexander and Abercrombie dissenting.
"I'm super excited to work with you all. Each of you brings a different position and a different opinion to this board, and we very much appreciate that," said Kaur in her address, thanking the board for appointing her to her new role as president.
In his closing remarks, Hoffert noted that he believed the board was entering a new era, stating that the 2020 election made it clear that the public was not content with TUSD's previous administration. He commended Pekari's previous leadership and encouraged his fellow members to follow in those footsteps.
Tensions rose in October when the board made the decision to bring students back on campus after the county had moved into the "substantial" red tier of Gov. Gavin Newsom's Blueprint for a safer economy, in regards to the number of COVID-19 cases. Under the red tier, schools were allowed to open at their discretion without needing to apply for a waiver.
The board pushed its reopening plans back to January a week later after public backlash from those who felt that reopening campuses was a rushed action amidst the pending cold and flu season. This included an online petition that reached over 8,000 signatures — which circulated the names of the board members that voted to reopen schools — and a public protest in front of the district offices.
"Like it or not, there is a strong feeling of mistrust, frustration and disappointment that this community has toward this district. Before we even try to heal this divide, we need to come to the realization that this problem does exist. The lies must stop, the dishonesty must end and the egos must subside," Hoffert said.
Although Hoffert alluded to a hint of animosity, further instigated by one of his family members pushing for an investigation on Souza for comments made on social media, veteran trustees welcomed new members and expressed that they looked forward to working with them.
Stephens expressed his optimism in the new group, saying that different perspectives and opinions was good for the board. Overall, he thought the first meeting went well.
"It's unlikely that, when you have seven board members, you're even going to have two or three that have the same perspective on everything. What one board member brings, the others don't and vice versa," Stephens said. "I think our new board members accounted for themselves quite well last night. They were informed. They voted on issues. They fully participated, which I think is a good step, because there's a lot to learn here. This is not easy. You can be on a board for several years and find out something new at every board meeting."
In addition to making decisions for what's best for students in light of the COVID-pandemic, TUSD's new board will be tasked on approving decisions for the district's budget, which Stephens said the district will have a better idea of once Newsom releases his budget proposal. The district has experienced a steady decline in student enrollment the past few years, partially due to more students graduating high school than entering primary school according to Associate Superintendent Rob Pecot.
The biggest setback that lower enrollment brings to the district's budget is its staffing, which is adjusted every year based on student enrollment. Despite schools being in distance learning for the majority of 2020, Stephens says that attendance has been at 96%, which he sees as a win and attributes this to his dedicated staff.
"We closed our schools on March 13 last spring. Nobody thought we would not have students on campus all the way to December. And the fact that we have done as well as we have with distance learning with the technology and getting that out in the hands of students, I just applaud the efforts of everybody in the district," he said. "Because what seems easy, is incredibly difficult and complicated with hundreds of factors. so I just applaud the work that everybody in the district has done, and I think we're all hoping in the spring, at some point, that we're going to get students back on campus."
• Contact Brianna Guillory at email@example.com or 209-830-4229.