Two young challengers are fighting three incumbents for a place on the Petaluma City Schools board, unusual competition in a race where seats often go uncontested.
Steven Cozza and Gonzalo Romo are campaigning on a promise of bringing greater diversity to the board and making the five-member body more accountable to teachers, students and the general public.
Incumbents Michael Baddeley, Sheri Chlebowski and Phoebe Ellis say they have served the district well in their first terms on the board and ushered in big changes that they’d like to see through, including nearly $90 million in bonds approved this summer, a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that lays out the district’s spending priorities, and increased technology in classrooms.
The race comes at a time when the district finds itself at loggerheads with its teachers union over pay raises and the terms of contract negotiations themselves. The Petaluma Federation of Teachers has become highly involved in the race, endorsing the two challengers and walking precincts for them.
Cozza, a Realtor and former professional cyclist, said he’s running because a longtime interest in helping children and a desire to see changes such as improved communication.
“I have energy, I have creative ideas and experience with communication and problem solving, and I’m really looking forward to improving certain things on the board,” he said.
First on the list of things to improve is communication, he said. Teachers and community members tell him they don’t feel like they have an active say in changes at the district, he said, and he’d like to change that. Specifically, he wants to see board members meet regularly with all school committees and parent groups.
He suggested creating a newsletter to communicate what’s happening at board meetings and various schools around the district.
Cozza is not yet a parent, but said he and his wife plan to raise their children in the district. Also, he’s long dedicated time to helping kids, he said.
“Just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I won’t be a good school board member,” he said. “It means I’ll have a different perspective. I’ll be unbiased toward a particular school.”
He’s also served on boards and understands what it takes to make them work better, he said.
“Part of it is having diversity on the board,” he said. “You can’t have all lawyers.” Baddeley, Ellis and Chlebowski are all lawyers by training.
Fellow challenger Romo also emphasized the importance of diversity on the board. A consultant with Petaluma Transit and Latino Service Providers, he graduated from Sonoma State University in May and is the youngest candidate at age 28. Cozza is 29.
He said he became involved in educational issues about two years ago when he was entertaining the idea of becoming a teacher and started attending meetings related to the LCAP, which he described as “one of the most important documents schools have had to implement in the last couple decades” because it will dictate how funds are spent and what areas will become focal points for schools.
As he learned and got involved, community members encouraged him to run for the board, he said.
As a Chicano/Latino studies major, he says he is well-equipped to reach out to under-represented community members, including Latinos. He and Cozza have both English and Spanish campaign material on their websites.