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Petaluma City Schools board elects district’s most diverse leadership to date

As the city’s largest school district continues to maneuver pandemic restrictions and distance-learning, its five-member board is launching the new calendar year with the most diverse leadership team in its history.

Last week, Petaluma City Schools District’s board of education members unanimously voted to install Joanna Paun as its new president and Sheldon Gen as clerk. The pair steps into the year-long positions as the district grapples with a sharp rise in failing grades, self-reported stress among students and growing demand for diversity and equity initiatives.

Paun became the city’s first-ever elected Black official in 2018 when she won her place on the board, amassing the second-highest number of votes in the race for three seats. Her campaign highlighted her experience as an educator and a parent to students within the district, pledging to improve representation for minority students, increase trust between teachers and district officials and strengthen Title IX protections, which deal with student’s civil rights.

The 42-year-old’s appointment coincides with a new position at Marin Academy in San Rafael, where she assists in the College Counseling and Learning Services Department, a timely synthesis of her passion for student advocacy in the classroom and in the board room.

“As a counselor, I want to give more voice to students,” she said. “So when we look at things like agendas with budgetary items or updates about transportation or bond money, within that you have to look at how it’s impacting kids. That’s always been my focus.”

A Sonoma State graduate with an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s in counseling, Paun began her career in education as a special education aide at Tamalpais Valley Elementary, before she was hired fulltime as a counselor at Kenilworth Junior High School in 2016.

She stayed at the Petaluma school for two years, until she was dismissed from the position in early 2018 despite what she said were stellar performance reviews. The decision sparked a torrent of public controversy and raised suspicions over whether the decision was racially motivated, although those accusations were never corroborated. The experience also catalyzed her intention to run for a board seat.

Yet the Kenilworth incident would not be the only time Paun’s employment made waves. St. Vincent de Paul’s decision last summer to terminate Paun, who was dean of counseling, and Kinyatta Reynolds, a physical education instructor, led to protests among students and school alumni. Reynolds and Paun, who were the only Black educators at the private Catholic school, pursued legal action alleging discrimination. The school issued public denials, stating the dismissals were due to budget. The civil suit was resolved, although details have not been disclosed.

“I look at it as a cautionary tale,” Paun said. “Because even though people say they want a diverse staff or want to hear from diverse voices, in my experience, these actions have proven otherwise. I don’t want that for Petaluma City Schools. I want us to have diverse employees and for those employees to feel comfortable raising issues without fear of retaliation.”

Both instances have been jarring for Paun, who colleagues describe as soft-spoken, unfailingly kind and passionate about education. It was those characteristics that encouraged Gen to nominate her for the board president position, the 54-year-old said, along with her relationships with parents and educators throughout the city.

“The president is our most forward-facing and public role, they respond to the public on our behalf,” he said. “Part of the reason I nominated her was because she’s so well-connected, is so thoughtful when she speaks, and has an eye on student success and equity.”

While Paun’s role marks a significant first, Gen’s ascension to board clerk is also a symbolic achievement. A Chinese-American and son of immigrants who fled the communist revolution, Gen hopes he can act as an inspiration to students, as living proof of how education can open doors of opportunity.

Gen is an associate professor at San Francisco State’s School of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, holding a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, a master’s degree in public administration and a Ph.D. in public policy.

“I am the son of immigrants, and I’ve lived the American dream,” he said. “We have a lot of children in the district who are immigrants or whose parents are immigrants. I hope I can represent what is possible for our district and for our schools.”

Although the board and its new leadership look toward an uncertain 2021, it’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic’s effects will be forefront of their focus as they set priorities for the year.

Moving forward, Paun said she also wants to focus on building strategies to assist students once students are able to go back to in-person instruction, suggesting a post-pandemic goal-setting session and a citywide public meeting to exchange ideas and hear from parents.

“So much has been put on hold, and right now, we have to focus on getting kids and teachers back to school safely,” she said. “We also have to start thinking about how we’re going to address the learning loss and psychological effects of this pandemic on these kids. So much has happened while they’ve been at home.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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