Seven local residents are seeking election to one of three seats up for grabs in November on the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board, although a judge has been asked to knock one of them off the ballot.
The Nov. 4 election will see at least two new board members getting elected since incumbent President Elaine Miner and Steven Peterson are not seeking new terms in the nonpartisan race.
As of now, those who are headed for the November ballot are incumbent board member Kiana Maria Sears and Richard Crandall, Lara Ellingson, Vikki Johnson, Joseph O’Reilly and Cara Lee Schnepf Steiner.
On July 20 – the last day to file challenges to school board candidates’ petitions – Tahiliani was challenged by Brian Brewer. Superior Court Judge Scott McCoy has scheduled a hearing on his challenge for July 30.
Brewer is challenging 129 signatures – leaving Tahiliani 79 short of the required 400 to make the ballot. Most of his challenges allege the signatures are from people not registered to vote while a few are being challenged as illegible and therefore in violation of state election law.
Tahiliani garnered the fewest number of petition signatures – 430 – among the seven board hopefuls while Ellingson’s 925 signatures comprised the highest. Sears got 485 signatures; O’Reilly, 716; Crandall, 711; Steiner, 708; and Johnson, 630;
Miner’s decision not to seek a second consecutive term on the board caps a long tenure with MPS. Besides her current four-year-term, which expires Dec. 31, she served two four-year terms beginning in 2000.
Peterson, whose eight children have either graduated or attend Mesa schools, has been active in Westwood High as a PTO member and assistant cross country coach and is winding up 10 years on the board.
The Tribune emailed all seven candidates to ask them why they are running.
Sears did not respond to the Tribune’s email request.
A Mesa resident for 22 years, Sears is seeking a second term on the board and her two daughters are Red Mountain High School grads who attend Arizona State University. She has served as an Art Masterpiece volunteer, a Girl Scout leader and a foreign exchange parent and holds a master’s degree in public administration.
The district website describes her as “an avid ASU Sun Devil, community advocate and experienced public policy creator and implementer.”
“She has contributed to critical laws, committees and organizations such as Children’s Action Alliance, Arizona State Senate, Arizona Corporation Commission, East Valley NAACP, East Valley Martin Luther King Parade and various charities of the United Way,” the district said, adding, “Kiana Maria believes every single child deserves an opportunity to learn and to access a quality education.”
Here’s a look at the other candidates and the reasons they gave for entering the race.
A CPA at CN Resource and chief financial officer at Crandall Corporate Dietitians, Richard Crandall is returning to the political scene as well as seeking a return to the MPS Governing Board, which he served on from 2005-08.
He also served in the Legislature from 2007-2012 and chaired at different times the education committees in both the House and Senate. And before that, he was director of education in Wyoming.
He and his wife have 13 children who are either Westwood, Mesa High or Mountain View grads and have attended five MPS middle schools and six MPS elementary schools. “We have personally experienced much of what Mesa has to offer,” he said.
He is touting his personal and professional experience, as well as his professional background, as making him well equipped to help lead the district.
“Despite the uncertainty of this fall,” Crandall said, “Mesa has a unique opportunity to completely reexamine how it delivers educational content to all 64,000 students. With a new superintendent, a recently passed override, and some of Arizona’s most experienced teachers, we can continue to build a model where all children succeed.”
Besides his board and legislative experience, he also is touting his background in finances – which include an MBA from the University of Notre Dame, a CPA for a company that provides oversight for state agencies of U.S. Department of Agriculture child nutrition services and CFO of the nation’s largest provider of consulting dietary services for assisted living and long-term care facilities.
“As a CPA, I understand school finance and disciplined approaches that help us stretch a dollar while providing competitive compensation to our teachers,” Crandall said.
A mother of four children in second through 11th grades in Mesa schools, Lara Ellingson is a former fulltime teacher and a current MPS substitute teacher with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a master’s in educational curriculum and instruction.
She also has been a PTO president and sits on the school improvement advisory council at her children’s elementary school.
“While there are several reasons I am running for a position on the Mesa school board,” she wrote, “the primary reason is to help shape policy that directly benefits the students. I’m running for my children and yours, the children of Mesa, Arizona.
“I want to see all children succeed and feel the power that a strong education can give them. It is always the ticket to a better life, and we need to give them that. Education is opportunity. It opens doors and builds a stronger community for all of us.”
She said she also wants Mesa “to move to a more phonics-based reading program rather than a whole language approach” because her experience has taught her that a strong phonics education is important as children learn to read.
Stating “literacy in education is important to me” for all children, she said she has a child with dyslexia.
“I have cried in special education meetings advocating for her and I can relate to parents whose children don’t fit in the box,” Ellingson said. “I know there are many parents in Mesa whose children have disabilities and learning differences. It is important to me that their voices be heard.”
She also said she wants to help ensure that money goes “directly into the classroom and directly into programs that benefit our children.”
Johnson is the physician liaison for her family’s practice, Advanced Hearing Group.
A graduate of Mesa schools, she has two sons attending them as well: a seventh grader at Stapley Junior High and a freshman at Westwood High.
“I have always been involved with my kids’ schools, but I would like to be able to support the district at a broader level by making sure that the voices of all families are being heard as well as the voices of the teachers,” she wrote.
Stating she’d like to focus on earlier intervention for struggling learners, Johnson said, “I want to see these kids getting resources prior to third grade to help minimize the learning gaps. Likewise, I would like to focus on current goals for students and implementable programs to ensure that they are obtainable and realistic.”
Joseph O’Reilly is director of the Arizona State University Decision Center for Educational Excellence. Previously, he spent 30 years as director of MPS’s Research and Evaluation Department and Student Achievement Support.
While he has had no children in district schools, he said, “Our students have always been my focus, so I feel that I have more than 63,000 children in MPS” and noted that through his involvement in the district’s largest scholarship program, “I remain directly involved with hundreds of Mesa graduates as they progress through college and tackle their postsecondary goals.”
Citing the turbulent year that the district has gone through, he said he is running partly “to help rebuild the trust that has been the bedrock of Mesa’s success for decades.”
He said that as former student achievement support director he had “a front-row seat to all the amazing things that our students, teachers, support staff and principals accomplish on a daily basis.”
“It’s clear that those on the front line deliver on the Mesa Promise, ‘Every Mesa student will be known by name, served by need and strength, and graduate ready for college, career and community.’ However, recent financial missteps have undermined the community’s confidence in the district’s fiscal stewardship and in the transparency of the decisions involving the district’s budget.”
“I will dedicate my expertise to building trust, increasing transparency and placing students and teachers squarely in the center of all decisions. I spent years working with Mesa Public School’s budget, so I know where the money comes from and where it goes. My experience transforming complex educational data into information usable by teachers, principals, parents and decision makers will enable us to make sound decisions and clearly communicate those decisions to all involved.”
Pointing to three decades serving schools and students as evidence of his commitment to public education, he said:
“I know firsthand the critical role our high-quality teachers, dedicated support staff and skilled leaders play in the success of our students and in the strength of our community. As a board member, I will ensure that our resources are directed toward supporting the individuals who deliver – day in and day out – on Mesa’s Promise to prepare students for college, career and community.
Cara Lee Schnepf Steiner
A retired MPS teacher and elementary school principal, Steiner is department chair of Central Arizona College’s Associate of Arts in Elementary Education & Professor of Teacher Preparation Program.
She and her husband Mike are both MPS graduates and their four children all graduated from Mountain View High and they have seven grandchildren in Mesa schools.
“My grandfather, Donald Ellsworth, was elected and served as a governing board member for Mesa Public Schools in the mid-70s,” she said. “I remember him presenting me with my diploma during my graduation ceremony in 1974.”
She said she is running because “supporting Mesa families and the ever-changing needs of school children has been front and center throughout my 30-year career in public education.”
“From passionate classroom teacher to principal of a Title I school, I appreciate and value the traditions that make Mesa Schools one of the top educational institutions in Arizona,” she said, vowing to bring “forward thinking, innovation and vision for future success and achievement within all capacities of Mesa Public Schools.”
“I support innovative ideas to better serve the changing needs of communities and schools throughout Mesa. I recognize the importance of and have a passion for advocacy with equal educational opportunities and equity for all students.”
She said she’s a believer in the MPS Promise that “Every student in Mesa Public Schools is known by name, served by strength and need, and graduates ready for college, career and community.”
Citing her experience professionally in education and her experience as a parent and grandparent, she said, “I offer fresh perspective and insight focused on forward movement and progress for Mesa schools” and said she understands the district’s diverse makeup and is ready to meet the district’s challenges and changing needs.
A stay-at-home mom with three children who has had extensive experience in the medical field, Tahiliani has one child in Mountain View High and two others who are MPS grads pursuing studies in either education or business.
“I decided to run for school board after two years of attending school board meetings, working on the MPS curriculum board and as a member of several SIAC boards,” she said. “Watching the way we communicate with parents and students in many ways feels very distant and uncaring. My desire to run for the school board is due in part to my personal experience and hopefully we can change our approach to the individual and family.”
She said current graduation guidelines “are falling short” because some important courses are only offered at a few high schools” and called that disparity “a disservice to our students.” She said there was a need to pay more attention to courses that will help students who are not going to college learn a trade or entrepreneurship.
“If we are failing to see the genius that is within our student body and if we continue teaching in an outdated standard, we will lose these amazing kids to other districts and school,” she said. “We have a good foundation, but it’s time to break the mold.”
She said she if she wins a seat, “I will help change lives for the better” and said that begins with pledging to spend no more than $500 on her campaign.
“I refuse to waste money on frivolous material,” she said, citing the economic hardship inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she would wage her campaign on Instagram and Facebook and “continue to donate to local food banks, AZ Brainfood and other charities.”
“I have very smart children who know how to market on social media and I feel there is no better time than now to prove that the students of Mesa are smarter and wiser than most marketing gurus out there,” Tahiliani said.