Education Matters: Only 17, but leaving his mark on the school board

When Isaac Gelman took the oath of office on Sept. 14 for a third year as a San Dieguito Union High School District student board member, it was unprecedented.

SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill said he’s never had a student board member serve more than one year, so Isaac “is unique in that regard.”

“By the time we get to know our [student] board representatives, they move on, so it’s been very special to get to work with Isaac over the years,” Dill said.

Isaac’s path to the school board started when he was accepted as an Associated Student Body member at Torrey Pines High School as a freshman.

ASB is a leadership course – with formal meetings, officers, and a sizable budget that’s audited regularly.

“We‘re very official,” Isaac said. “Last year the auditor said we had the best organized paperwork ever.”

He said ASB gets about 200 applicants each year, and after several rounds of interviews the ASB council accepts about 45 students.

What helped him get accepted, he said, was his technical expertise.

“When I was 12, I built my own computer,” he said. “I ordered the parts, put it all together, installed the system and there you go. I still use the computer every day.”

He applied for several positions in ASB, but his first choice was student board representative. Isaac, now a senior, was appointed to that post at the end of his freshman year, and has served as Torrey Pines representative ever since.

Providing context

Board meetings that include a number of public speakers are the meetings Isaac enjoys most. A divided school board has made the conversations even more interesting.

When there are contentious issues, public comments and board discussions provide context and help him understand how the five trustees reach their decisions, he said.

“The more information you get on a topic, the more context you have,” he said. “And the more context, the better you’re able to understand.”

Regarding the five San Dieguito trustees, Isaac said, “I think all five are good and not afraid to challenge. Talking is more important than having full agreement.”

“The discussion,” he said, “is more powerful than the vote.”

The occasional incivility during public comment doesn’t disturb him.

“Whenever there’s an issue that’s intensely advocated for on both sides, there’s going to be conflict,” he said. “We’re human and we’re passionate for what we believe. I think the boardroom is the best place to do it.

“That’s why I love the school board. I get to hear what other people think. It’s the best way to make an objective decision.”

He does, however, distinguish between passionate advocacy and personal attacks, which he said are when “discourse stops happening, and that’s dangerous. The personal attacks are not productive for any side. Whoever’s doing it is probably weakening their point.”

Isaac said he enjoys the debates at the board meetings. “I’m not a debate team guy, but [the board discussions are] a real form of debate. I’m actually involved … I’m able to be a valuable member, adding my own perspective.”

Listening to people express their opinions has often changed his mind. He said reading an agenda item is like just reading the headlines.

“All of us have this immediate snap judgment,” he said. “But you have to get more.”

Having a voice

Five student board members (one from each of the five SDUHSD high schools) sit on the dais with the five elected trustees, and the students vote on every action item.

“I think all five of us have an incredible effect,” Isaac said. “I think that’s our purpose, to be there to provide another perspective. When something is there that really affects the students, we can give a direct response. I think they really do listen to us.”

He said he’s never reluctant to speak up – whether to express an opinion or ask questions. And he’s not afraid to challenge the district.

“I’m not concerned with what Mr. Dill is recommending,” he said, speaking of San Dieguito’s superintendent.

“We’re really lucky in our district,” he said. “They tell us specifically, ‘If you have something to say, say it.’ The only requirements are to be respectful.”

When he does speak, he said he’s careful with his tone. “There’s always a kind of a conflict, and I’m debating whom I’m going to anger on every decision,” he said.

“I always ask clarifying questions,” he said. “When I don’t understand what’s going on or I don’t understand their thought process, I’ll just try to clarify it. I want to know. I’m a part of it; I have a voice. I think I give a unique insight.”

He only doesn’t speak up when he doesn’t know what trustees are talking about, which he said with a laugh does happen occasionally. And there are times, he admitted, when he’s bored.

“There’s a lot of stuff to keep up with,” he said, noting how he reads each agenda, even though it can often run to many hundreds of pages.

Last month, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate bill 468, which gives student board members greater access to information to help them gain better understanding of the issues so they can offer more informed opinions.

But the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2018, is not giving San Dieguito student board members anything they don’t already have, Isaac said.

“They send us everything, whatever’s legal,” he said. “Everything that’s in there [the bill] has already been done for us.”

Controversies

Memorable discussions in Isaac’s 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 terms included the debate about the resignation of Torrey Pines physics teacher Will Harvie, the 12.5-percent across-the-board salary raise for all district employees, special education issues, and the authorization application by the SOUL charter school.

And the start of his third year on Sept. 14 began with a bang, as dozens of speakers made public comments about the high school foundations, at a meeting that lasted until nearly midnight.

Because Will Harvie is a Torrey Pines teacher, that issue was personal for Isaac.

Isaac remembered asking in open session why two board members (John Salazar and Mo Muir) were not satisfied with the district’s claims that the reasons (provided only in closed session) for Harvie’s sudden resignation were legitimate and should be accepted.

“How was it split when it should have been decided in closed session?” he asked.

After many students and parents spoke in favor of rejecting Harvie’s resignation, the board ultimately agreed, voting 4-1 to not accept the resignation. Trustee Beth Hergesheimer was the minority vote.

That meeting was a break in tradition, when the board was swayed by public comment and decided to oppose the district’s recommendation, Isaac said.

“If you have an excellent teacher who leaves in the middle of the year,” he said, “and two weeks later you can’t find another teacher without reassigning another one, then why are we not reaching out and asking questions?”

Voting Rights Act

In another case, the recent decision by a unanimous school board to divide the district into five separate voting areas sailed through unchallenged. Yet Isaac expressed to me his misgivings, offering unique insights that no elected board member raised.

Several legal judgments showed that the courts have no sympathy for cities and school districts that may be violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Isaac said he understands the district risks the threat of costly litigation if it doesn’t make this change. Still, he objects to legislation or the courts imposing top-down laws and policies that supersede district interests.

Local control for him is an over-riding issue. It’s what influenced his decision to publicly oppose the district’s resolution at the Sept. 14 board meeting to support a state Senate bill recommending later start times.

Isaac said he was not necessarily against later start times and sees the reasoning behind the movement. It was the restrictive language in the Senate bill and the resolution brought before the board that he objected to.

“If [the resolution] said, for example, that we want to build a plan to move them [start times] back gradually, that’s less restrictive,” he explained.

About the CVRA presentation to the board on Sept. 14, Isaac told me he felt it was inappropriate for the law firm to present the information when it stands to benefit financially from the board’s vote to sub-divide the district.

“Why is the lawyer standing there selling their product?” he asked. “They’re literally making a pitch to us.”

He said it would have been preferable for someone within the district to present the facts.

Russian immigrants

The son of Russian immigrants, Isaac, age 17, said his parents’ escape from anti-Semitism and oppression in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s “is a big part of my life, a big part of my culture. I learned a lot from my parents about Soviet history and immigration.”

Both professionals, his father is an engineer and his mother does data analytics. Yet Isaac said it was not easy for them as immigrants. Their biggest barrier, he said, was learning a new language.

Isaac and his older brother, Ed, were born in America but grew up speaking Russian, their first language. He said his parents speak English at home while he speaks Russian “so I don’t lose it.” He can also read Russian.

Isaac speaks English with no detectable accent, although he said he’s been told he speaks in Spanish class with a Russian accent.

When asked about hobbies and outside interests, Isaac, who plans to study applied mathematics in college, said, “I like to do a lot of stuff. My hobby is trying everything. I actively seek different things to learn about.”

Isaac gets his news by reading the Wall Street Journal and exploring a variety of other sites with solid reputations – never from Facebook or social media sites, he said.

“I love politics,” he said. “I follow national politics. It’s something my family has always done. I debate with my parents a lot. I get their insight and they get mine. It’s fun.”

He joked that he has to hold his own at the dinner table, especially when his older brother is there and joins in.

Being involved

“I am so impressed with Isaac’s contributions to our board discussions,” said school board member Joyce Dalessandro, who was first elected in 1996 and is now serving her sixth term which expires in 2020.

“Over the course of his unprecedented tenure, he has demonstrated his dedication to the whole district while representing his fellow students and affording them a voice in the decisions of the board,” she said.

“He jumped right in and offered his thoughts alongside his older peers and the adults on the board,” Dill said. “His involvement has been especially valuable in that no other student has his history and continuity.”

Dill called Isaac “very mature, articulate, and sometimes provocative” with his opinions.

Isaac praised San Dieguito for sending him and fellow student board members to the California School Boards Association student board member program two years ago.

“They’re involved in us being involved,” he said.

Isaac’s advice to future student school board members?

“Do your school board homework. Learn about the school board. Be opinionated. Hold your convictions. Contribute to the discourse.

“Whatever you have is valuable ... even if it’s not what you think they want to hear. They’re going to respect you for speaking out. You’re just another person trying to figure out what’s best.”

Sitting on the school board forces you to make a decision, yes or no, he said. “It reinforces that skill to evaluate information.”

“Listen, take in, absorb, evaluate and make a decision.”

“I wish there were some other avenues to get kids to become problem-solvers on the fly,” he said. “That’s really powerful.”

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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