The Sun recently interviewed Darshana Patel, Poway Unified School District’s newest school board member. This is Patel’s first year as a member of the board. She serves alongside four other board members.
The following is a transcript of the interview conducted on January 19.
Q: Why did you decide to run for this position?
A: Since a very young age, I have had a sense of civic responsibility – that could be a combination of my years in Girl Scouts, being a Rotary Youth Leader or being part of an immigrant family. As I have gone through life, I have taken opportunities to be involved in student government, participated in civic organizations and volunteered in the community. With our school district, I saw a need for a collaborative leader who has the discipline of a problem-solver in a board level position. Because I am a civic-minded scientist with three young children in PUSD schools, I felt compelled to be part of the solution and not be a bystander.
Q: How has your background in the biotech industry/etc. helped you in this position?
A: Having professional work experience in a team-focused career setting like biotech provides an invaluable skill-set that can be applied beyond the technical setting. Biotech, like many professional settings, requires an open mind and solution-driven decision making. I am very comfortable working with a whole team of experts from various fields to determine whether a potential solution will deliver the desired result. I am optimistic that the board can work with the experts in our district to focus on student education and well-being as our primary goal.
Q: Is working with the other board members easier or more difficult than you expected and why?
A: As I expressed in my first Board Member Report to the public at the December meeting, I don’t expect all decisions to go with a 5-0 vote, however, I do expect board members to have respectful discussion. Certainly there is potential for significant challenges in reaching decisions, but I hope the community keeps in mind that the board members agree that delivering high-quality education is the primary purpose of the school district. We have a lot of common ground and we should not let our differences divide us or provide fodder for sensationalized reporting in the media.
Q: What are your primary focuses as a board member?
A: The highest priority item on our Board docket is hiring a new superintendent. As an individual board member, I plan to visit all of the school and facility sites and get a realistic view of our strengths and areas that need more support. With these assessments in mind, along with input from the LCAP forums coming in the spring, we’ll be working on the budget to ensure sufficient resources are available to meet our goals. A specific concern that I have is how we balance academic success with student well-being. Additionally, I have articulated specific goals around supporting environmentally sustainable practices, introduction of new programs and technology that is accompanied by proper training and resources, and fostering collaborative relationships with local entities for expanding student learning opportunities and joint-use facility agreements.
*Update 02/01/2017: The Board selected a new superintendent has selected an interim superintendent, Dr. Tony Apostle.
Q: How do these focuses affect high school students in particular?
A: For students, I strongly support our district goal of college and career readiness for all students. Collaborating with local organizations such as community colleges for CTE, online learning, A-G coursework and classroom resources will support student learning with the goal of opening the range of learning opportunities. Implementing more sustainable practices allows the district to be a positive role model to our community as a good steward for our environment (and usually has a positive budgetary impact!).
Seeking out joint use agreements for facilities and fields will provide funding to improve them.
Q: Where do you see your future as you continue to serve or even after you serve on the board?
A: I grew up with the Aesop’s fable of the The Milkmaid and the Pail, so before I start thinking too much of a long-term future in public service, I want to make sure I will be an effective Trustee for PUSD over the next four years.
Q: What is the biggest challenge as a new board member?
A: Coming up to speed – there is no formal training or on-boarding process and with all the top level transition, many of us are learning at the same time. While all the staff I have met with, from teachers and principals to personnel, IT, planning and facilities directors have been eager to help me learn the ropes, it is a challenge finding enough hours in the day to learn enough to provide informed oversight. Our job as Trustees is not to be involved in the daily aspects of everyone else’s job but to make sure that the policies and resources are in place so that everyone can be effective at their job. In order to do that, though, you need at least some basic working knowledge of the required responsibilities. I am an eager student, though, and am climbing up the learning curve as quickly as I can.
Q: Why do you think it is important for students to be informed about the school board?
A: I can clearly see two distinct reasons for students to stay informed about school board actions. First, the priorities and policies set by the board directly impact the opportunities and environment for student learning. Secondly, all students are members of a community that need to develop the skills to be more civic minded. Most of the decisions that affect our daily lives happen at the local levels of government – or can be influenced by local elected representatives at higher levels of government. No matter what career path you choose, I believe, you need to be an informed resident of your community in order to be your own best advocate. You should not let others use your own voice against you.
Q: What do you believe is the most important aspect of this position?
A: The most important aspect is expressed in the definition of a Trustee – a person who holds a position of responsibility for the benefit of another with the intent to achieve the collective good while not exclusively furthering the interest of a special constituency. What that means is that we are elected with the explicit intent to provide a high-quality education for all of our students in the most equitable way possible. When we do this faithfully, it follows that we will be responsible employers and be in a sound financial position. That might seem optimistic to some, but I took my college academic advisor’s version of a Confucius quote, to heart, “If you aim for the stars and miss, you might land on the moon, but if you aim for a pile of garbage [modified for language] and get it, what will you do with that?” Rational optimism provides me with the energy I need to be a genuine Trustee.