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Steep learning curve for Petaluma school board

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When Caitlin Quinn was certified last week as the third highest vote-getter in the November election, it gave the three challengers to the Petaluma Joint Union High School District Board a clean sweep.

Voters, in a potential rebuke of the current board, elected three newcomers to replace incumbents with a combined 21 years experience serving on Petaluma’s largest school board. In 2016, two incumbents with a combined 22 years experience on the board stepped down, and voters elected newcomers Ellen Webster and Frank Lynch.

When Quinn, Mady Cloud and Joanna Paun are sworn in at the first school board meeting in January, they will join a board with a combined total of four years experience, the least amount of elected experience the board could ever have barring a resignation. The shakeup on the board could provide a reset in the sometimes acrimonious relationship between teachers and administration as contract negotiations continue into the new year.

The Petaluma Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 300 educators in the district, endorsed Quinn, Cloud and Paun and actively campaigned for the challengers. The union backed Webster and Lynch two years ago.

Sandra Larsen, president of the union, said she doesn’t expect the new board to rubber stamp teacher priorities, but she hoped having new members would improve relations between the board and the union.

“No one expects the new board will magically be the teachers’ board,” she said. “But hopefully they will be respectful and open to dialogue. We needed a change. We needed a board that would listen.”

While the board members have little or no elected experience, they do bring decades of educational expertise, a departure from the board of two years ago. At the beginning of 2016, board members included Troy Sanderson, Mary Schafer, Phoebe Ellis, Michael Baddeley and Sheri Chlebowski. Only Schafer, the business manager for the Two Rock School District, had experience working in education.

Of the new board, only Quinn has not had a career in education. Webster is an English and drama teacher at Tomales High School. Lynch spent 36 years as a public school administrator including a stint as principal of Petaluma High School. Cloud is a retired Casa Grande High School English teacher. Paun, a former Kenilworth Junior High guidance counselor, currently has that role at St. Vincent de Paul High School. Quinn is a nonprofit communications director, and at 25, she is less than a decade removed from the Petaluma school system.

Lynch said that the experience in education makes up for the lack of board experience.

“It’s daunting to say that, two years in, we’re the most senior,” he said. “But we’re going to be fine.”

Lynch said that there will be a steep learning curve for the new board members. Besides contract negotiations, the board will have to navigate the changing state education landscape with a new governor and new state superintendent of education. The board also must decide how to spend the remaining money from a 2014 school bond.

Despite having the teachers union’s handpicked board members, Lynch said the union may not get everything they ask for in a new contract, especially if the district’s budget remains tight.

“All the good will in the world doesn’t make any difference. The bottom line is how much money do you have to pay people,” he said. “We all want to be as generous as we can, we love the teachers. But at the end of the day, we only have X number of dollars. It’s not like some new money is going to appear.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)