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Endorsement: Omar Paz, Jr. for school board

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Few public entities have experienced the kind of staff upheaval that the Sonoma Valley Unified School District has seen in the past 18 months. From the superintendent to human resources to the director of student services and special education, SVUSD has an almost entirely different district senior staff than it had at the beginning of 2017.

Change, at least in the short term, has become the norm at Sonoma Valley Unified.

So it should come as no surprise that the district is also about to add two new faces to its board of trustees.

At the close of their four-year terms, Dan Gustafson, of the Flowery Elementary School population area, and Sal Chavez, of the El Verano Elementary School area, decided not to seek re-election, leaving two trustee seats open. Only Melanie Blake, former principal at Dunbar Elementary, filed to run in the Flowery area – and thus will take that seat.

Meanwhile, two candidates, Cathy Coleman and Omar Paz, Jr., will square off to represent El Verano, an area with a sizeable Hispanic population that stretches from Boyes Springs to Diamond A.

Coleman, 66, says she has served in administrative positions in higher education – including at the California Institute for Integral Studies – and, now that her two children are grown, is inspired to give back to the district that educated her kids during their formative years.

She says her top priority on the board would be keeping the budget under control.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District shaved nearly $2.5 million from its budget this year, after receiving flak from the county Office of Education last year over ongoing concerns about SVUSD’s deficit spending. Most of the budget savings came from personnel cuts.

Also on Coleman’s to-do list would be easing “salary tensions” between the district and teachers, which may still linger following a contentious spring when the Valley of the Moon Teachers Association protested the district offering new-superintendent candidate Socorro Shiels a $200K-plus contract – about $20,000 more than her predecessor – at a time of austere cuts in the classroom.

She describes herself as a “calming influence” who would work well with new Superintendent Socorro Shiels, and that she’d also support an increase in teacher salaries.

“My passion is empowering young people,” Coleman told the Index-Tribune about her impetus for running for school board.

She says the district needs to be “open and not stuck in an it-has-to-be-this-way (mentality).”

Omar Paz, 25, was student body president at Sonoma Valley High School and served as the student trustee for the Santa Rosa Junior College board of trustees. Additionally, he served as president of the student senate for the State Community College Board, and was a member of the Sonoma County Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, better known as the Andy Lopez Task Force. He currently works at La Luz Center.

Like Coleman, Paz cites as his No. 1 priority: getting a grip on the budget. But, beyond that, he told the Index-Tribune he’d like to focus on improving communication between the school and between educators and the SVUSD board.

“Teachers don’t feel connected to the board,” Paz said.

With a budget under control, Paz says any discretionary funds should go toward hiring more student counselors and providing professional development opportunities for teachers. In 21st century classrooms, Paz says, “teachers need to be equipped to use the technologies.”

He calls for a greater “board presence” at the schools and in the classrooms “building community.” “We need a more welcoming nature on the board,” Paz said.

As SVUSD continues down the road with more changes in its headlights, El Verano-area residents should be comforted to know they’ve got two thoughtful, well-spoken candidates vying to represent their area on the board.

Given his experience with other regional school boards, we think Paz will make a valuable addition to the Sonoma Valley school district. With two younger siblings attending schools in the district – and having been student body president at SVHS within the last decade – he’s got a familiarity with Sonoma Valley schools unlike the typical board trustee, who traditionally comes with a parent perspective.

Paz’s fluency in Spanish – he double majored in Latin American studies and sociology at UC Santa Cruz – is important for the El Verano area, as well.

Paz said the public schools “helped me to feel grounded in the community” and wants to bring that feeling to today’s students.

We think Sonoma voters should give him that chance.

We recommend Omar Paz, Jr. for Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees.

– Jason Walsh, associate publisher & editor

– Emily Charrier, publisher