Bekki Van Voorhis-Gilbert has lived in Orinda for eight years and has two children at Wagner Ranch Elementary School: a son in sixth grade and a daughter in fourth grade. Van Voorhis-Gilbert is a former attorney and professor, but now volunteers in her children’s school, including a stint as the chair of the Parent Education program.
“There’s hardly a day when I’m not at the school doing something,” she said.
Van Voorhis-Gilbert, 44, made news last year as the founder of Save Environmental Education in Orinda, a group that tried unsuccessfully to preserve the job of Wanger Ranch Nature Area naturalist Toris Jaeger. Now, she said, she’s running for the school board to offer an alternative to the status quo. In her discussions with community members over the past year and a half, she said there’s a sentiment that although the district is doing well academically, there is a sense that it has grown unresponsive to the community. To increase transparency, she said, the board should move its meetings from 4 p.m. to later in the day and make board packets as well as the district’s budget available online.
For Van Voorhis-Gilbert, the number one issue for the district is updating its strategic plan to acknowledge the fact that schools are coping with the effects of the recession and identify a way to preserve programs despite funding cuts. Unoccupied classrooms and playing fields as well as the Wagner Ranch Nature Area could be rented out to generate income for the district, she suggested. There should also be a full examination of administrative salaries and benefits, she said.
“Just as most of us have changed our spending habits because of the economic downtown, I think the district needs to engage in the same kind of downsizing,” Van Voorhis-Gilbert said.
The district could already be operating as efficiently as possible, she said, but the community has no way of knowing if it is because the district has not made financial information readily available.
If the district reaches out to the community, the community will respond in kind with donations, she said. And if cuts have to be made, she added, they should be kept as far away from the classroom as possible.
“I think parents will be much more inclined to give at generous levels if they feel they have a say in how it’s being spent,” Van Voorhis-Gilbert said.
As for serving on a board with three new members, Van Voorhis-Gilbert acknowledged the district will lose a bit of institutional memory but added, given the fiscal crisis, now may be a perfect opportunity to bring in fresh faces and new perspectives.
“(The candidates are) five parents, all of whom, I think, are educated and interested in volunteering for a job that’s really tough,” she said.