Erica Halpern appointed new Del Mar Union School District board member

The complete DMUSD board now includes President Doug Rafner, Alan Kholos, Kristin Gibson, Erica Halpern and Scott Wooden.
The complete DMUSD board now includes President Doug Rafner, Alan Kholos, Kristin Gibson, Erica Halpern and Scott Wooden.
(Karen Billing)

Del Mar Heights parent Erica Halpern was appointed the new member of the Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) board on March 4. The board picked Halpern after a three-hour public interview session with 11 candidates and she was sworn in on the spot — Halpern, who is currently vice president of the Del Mar Heights PTA, smiled broadly as she took her seat at the table for a quick moment before adjournment.

The board was up against a March 6 deadline to replace trustee Doug Perkins, who resigned from the board to serve on the San Diego County Board of Education.

DMUSD President Doug Rafner said seeing 11 applicants willing to take on the task of serving on the board was “flattering” and with so many outstanding, qualified candidates he would love to increase the board to 15 members.

Trustee Scott Wooden said he was looking for a candidate who would bring some of Perkins’ strengths to the board, such as fiscal discipline and planning, someone who is a good steward of tax dollars and who will make good use of district resources without having a narrow agenda.

Alan Kholos measured the candidates on four criteria: district knowledge, a commitment to the district, leadership and temperament, and the skills they bring to the district.

The board members narrowed down their selections to a top five and Halpern was the only candidate to make the top five of all four lists. Candidates who were on three top lists were Jen Charat, Bob Shopes, Randy Berholtz, Darren Gretler and Robert Nascenzi.

During public comment, several people spoke in favor of Halpern, including Gina Vargas and Tiffany Kinney from the Del Mar California Teachers Association, and parents from Carmel Del Mar, Del Mar Heights, Del Mar Hills and Ocean Air schools.

“Erica’s commitment to improving our school has been unwavering. The qualities she has demonstrated as a parent and as a school site leader would be a tremendous asset for our district as a whole,” Vargas said. “She has proven to be an insightful and visionary leader.”

Parents described Halpern as positive, collaborative and highly effective. Carmel Del Mar parent Kate Takahashi said although she and Halpern could sometimes disagree on issues, Halpern has a rare combination of being “calm, articulate, kind and logical.”

Parent Amy Smith said the board’s addition of Halpern would also result in a more “balanced” board, as she would represent the only member to reside west of I-5.

Halpern is a parent of two children at Del Mar Heights and her youngest just turned 3 so she has more than a decade to go in the district. She has an MBA in finance, and a career background in finance, business and public affairs, having worked in management at Goldman Sachs.

“One of the most important jobs of the school board is to ensure that we remain fiscally responsible so that we can provide a stable and thoughtful educational program with low class sizes and high-caliber teachers,” Halpern said.

Halpern said that fiscal responsibility requires maintaining reasonable reserves and careful planning around school facilities usage to stay ahead of demographic shifts that impact schools.

Last year, Halpern was a part of the district’s months-long facilities master plan committee, which “helped lay the roadmap for making the best use of facilities while keeping school communities intact.”

“I feel fortunate every day that my children are able to go to school in this district. I know that they are not just absorbing information and skills but they are gaining a love of learning,” Halpern said, noting when she inadvertently booked her daughter’s orthodontist appointment during science class her daughter was reduced to tears because she was missing that day’s experiment. “That is the kind of inspiring, engaging education that our district offers.”

Halpern said she is committed to public education and from her first day in the district felt a personal responsibility to do everything she could for DMUSD schools. She immediately signed on as a room parent, became a classroom volunteer and joined the PTA. By her second year, she was elected PTA president (she served as PTA president in 2012-13 and in 2013-14).

She has helped increase donations to the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation by 50 percent and increased parent participation by 67 percent through a new annual giving campaign. She helped the PTA build on educational programs such as SciFri nights, brought back the school play and strengthened the school community by creating Grandparents and Dads Clubs and the Friendship Games, which creates connections between Del Mar Heights students and students at neighboring Del Mar Hills.

She said she found it gratifying to work with other PTA presidents, sharing ideas on how to improve work at each school.

“It is amazing to see how quickly good ideas can spread and benefit the whole district,” Halpern said.

At the meeting, each candidate was given eight minutes to make initial remarks to the board and then three minutes on two questions. Candidates waited in another room while others answered the questions.

The first question was on what qualities make a good leader. In answering the leadership question, Halpern said the most important part about being a leader is being a good listener.

“A leader is not so much about setting a vision and getting other people to follow, it’s listening to others and ferreting out what is a good idea and helping to navigate that process and reach a consensus through collaboration,” Halpern said.

The second question asked candidates if there were a major reduction in funding, how would they determine priorities for the most important programs or services to retain.

Halpern said she would start with the student experience and try to understand what would effect students the most in the classroom and build from there, making sure to keep the student experience rich and look for other creative ways to trim the budget. Getting public input on their priorities would be key, she said.

“I think sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Halpern said. “You get the best ideas when you get more input.”

Other candidates who stepped up to be considered for the open seat included Stephen Cochrane, Russell Coronado, Candice Fink, Jeffrey Hatter and Summer Shenq.

The unusual public interview process to fill a board vacancy is not the first time for the district. In 2010, Perkins was appointed as an interim trustee after the resignation of Linda Crawford. At that time there were seven candidates who applied.

Several candidates made reference to Perkins, as he recently suffered a stroke and is recovering in the hospital.

Shopes noted that it was with mixed emotions that he sought to fill Perkins’ seat and said that he wishes he could be half the person Perkins was on the board with his humor, knowledge and grace.

“He’s left big shoes to fill here,” Charat said.