Santa Rosa school board election draws two young candidates from west side
When Lyndsey Burcina was a high school freshman in Petaluma, she was bullied by peers in person and online. She transferred to Elsie Allen High School in southwest Santa Rosa, where she continued to struggle as a sophomore.
But by her junior year, she became active in social justice work and maintained a 4.0 GPA for the next two years. She credits Elsie Allen teachers and administrators for being supportive, and now she hopes to give back to the greater community as one of two young women of color running unopposed in the Santa Rosa school board election on Nov. 6.
'I bring a different mindset,' said Burcina, who graduated high school in June. 'I was that kid that struggled. I had to seek mental health help. I know what it's like to not be perfect.'
Burcina, 18, is running for the Area Two seat, which represents northwest Santa Rosa, while Stephanie Manieri, 22, also an Elsie Allen alumna, is seeking the Area Six seat for southwest Santa Rosa.
A third seat is up for grabs. It's for Area Four, or south central Santa Rosa, currently held by Frank Pugh, who has served on the board for 28 years. He's running against local community organizer Omar Medina.
The Santa Rosa school board unanimously voted in August 2017 to scrap at-large elections and switch to district contests that would allow voters to cast ballots by geographic area, a groundbreaking shift that came after criticism the old system disenfranchised minority communities.
'It's great. I think the board really demonstrated their mission for equity for the district, because this is really about equity,' said Manieri, whose parents emigrated from Mexico and Venezuela.
Voters in the Santa Rosa district now have seven trustee areas, with three seats to vote on this November and the remaining four seats up for grabs in the 2020 election. Board members serve four-year terms.
'Our board is becoming more diversified, which I think is a good thing,' Pugh said.
Current school board members Ron Kristof and Bill Carle's four-year terms expire this year.
Kristof lives within the newly created Trustee Area 5, while Carle lives in Area 3. Those seats won't be up for re-election until 2020.
Pugh said Burcina, if elected, would likely be the youngest school board member to ever serve in the district.
Burcina is a year younger than when state Sen. Mike McGuire was first elected to the Healdsburg school board at age 19.
'It was something I was passionate about so I didn't care how old I was,' said Burcina, who attends Santa Rosa Junior College and hopes to one day be a history teacher. 'I knew at a young age I wanted to get into politics to make a change.'
As a high school student, Burcina canceled her 17th birthday plans to speak at a school board meeting in March 2017, when budget cuts were on the agenda and the restorative justice program was in jeopardy.
Burcina said she wants to serve as an advocate for kids in need of 'an extra push to find within themselves that they're worth something.'
'There are so many kids that are unseen because they're minorities,' said Burcina, who is of Panamanian, Puerto Rican and Japanese descent. Her maternal great-grandparents were married in the 1940s while forced to live at Amache, a Japanese-American internment camp in Colorado.
Manieri said her family exposed her to different kinds of community engagement, such as volunteering at a food pantry, and that she sees everything through a social justice lens.
'Growing up, I didn't see a lot of people who looked like me in roles of leadership,' Manieri said. 'In the end it's not to benefit myself, it's to benefit my community.'
At 22, Manieri already has a master's degree in health policy and law. She works as a bilingual crisis counselor at California HOPE, and before that she was a bilingual advocate for sexual assault victims at the Family Justice Center.
While she and Burcina aren't in contested races, they said they're still campaigning.
Manieri said she wants to be accessible, so everything on her website and Facebook page is bilingual.
Hers is a campaign 'for hearts and minds,' she said.
But for incumbent Pugh, 63, and candidate Medina, 39, it's a campaign for votes in south central Santa Rosa.
Pugh was first elected to the school board in 1990. He has been contested in every election he's been in except for one. As a longtime board member, Pugh has name recognition, a resourceful institutional memory and 28 years of experience.
'We've accomplished a lot in the city schools in the last 28 years, and there's more to do,' said Pugh, who's a counselor at SRJC and serves as president of the National School Boards Association.
He also has served as the director of the California School Boards Association.
Pugh's interest in running for the school board was sparked by his concern for students as they transitioned from high school to college, something he witnessed firsthand as an applied tech teacher at the SRJC.
'That became my lightning rod; I became fascinated with school board policies,' he said.
As a school board member, he supported the district's move this spring to require students to take college-prep classes to graduate, doing away with a two-track system that guided students into either a university-bound courseload or classes that would qualify them for vocational and community college.
Pugh also supported the district's restorative justice program and the adoption of the new school board elections system.
'We need to do all that we can do to benefit our kids,' he said. 'We're here to serve our children.'
Medina first ran for school board in 2004 while a Sonoma State University student, and then again in 2014. But he was unsuccessful in both bids.
Medina moved to Sonoma County in 1988 and graduated from the first class at Elsie Allen in 1997. He worked for the North Bay Organizing Project for two years, and now works as the program coordinator of UndocuFund, which provides financial assistance to undocumented families impacted by the October wildfires.
A passion for community work and the new district elections system prompted him to give it another go 'for democracy's sake,' he said.
'I think moving to district elections will definitely increase diversity,' said Medina, whose parents are Mexican immigrants. 'For so long, most of the representation was from the east side.'
You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707‑521-5216 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @susanmini.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated candidate Stephanie Manieri's age. She was 22 at the time of publication.