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Former Santa Rosa school board president opts not to run for third term

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When she was president of the Santa Rosa school board, Jenni Klose got invited to a lot of public events.

Many invitations came in the aftermath of the 2017 North Bay wildfires as the community tried to understand what losing over 3,000 homes in the city meant for students and teachers in the Santa Rosa City Schools district.

Klose, 50, said those discussions made clear to her housing mattered not just for maintaining strong education in a recovering community, but the overall quality of life, the local economy and the environment all rely on having a diverse, affordable supply of housing.

Those community discussions led to a new direction for Klose, a real estate attorney and the longest-serving member of the city school board.

She will not seek reelection this year for a third four-year term. Klose is shifting her attention to the nonprofit sector as executive director of Generation Housing, an advocacy group aiming to shift the community and political will on an issue with longstanding ramifications for the viability of Sonoma County.

“It’s going to be hard to leave the school board. It’s something I’m passionate about,” said Klose, who served as board president from 2016 to 2019.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last eight years. We’ve made a lot of really big changes and really big decisions that were necessary, and challenging.

“The more I learned about (how we recover),” she added, “the more passionate I became about the issue of housing being the strongest lever we can pull to ensure a thriving community going forward.”

Klose, who graduated from Montgomery High School and earned degrees from UCLA and Indiana University, has been a vocal supporter for closing student achievement gaps during her time on the school board, especially among minorities or students from low-income families.

For example, she has been outspoken in favor of the district’s move nearly two years ago to offer only college preparatory classes at Santa Rosa high schools.

That decision has been met with resistance from numerous teachers who think the district failed to provide enough resources to successfully teach harder material to more diverse classrooms.

The school board is expected to vote on a waiver later this month that could potentially help the large number of underclassmen in danger of not graduating on time and are struggling with the new course requirements.

During her tenure, Klose helped the Santa Rosa school district move away from a zero tolerance approach to discipline and use more restorative justice practices, which helped curb suspensions and expulsions, she said.

The board also changed admission policies at district charter schools to a lottery system so students of color had an equal chance.

Before she vacates her board seat at the end of the year, Klose said she intends to help launch the first fundraising arm for the district to help enrich local schools, and lay the foundation for a housing down payment assistance program to better attract and retain educators.

Fellow trustee Ed Sheffield, who has served alongside Klose since 2016, said the board is losing expertise and valuable institutional memory with the remaining members either halfway through or wrapping up their first term.

Sheffield has been particularly touched by Klose’s passion, he said, especially for someone without kids.

“We always are trying to put our students, our teachers, the family, the school community first in everything we do,” Sheffield said.

“She preaches that — lives, breathes it every day.”

Healdsburg High School counselor Ever Flores, president of the Healdsburg teachers union, confirmed on Wednesday he is pursuing Klose’s open school board seat in Trustee Area 1, which encompasses downtown Santa Rosa. The Santa Rosa Teachers Association has already endorsed Flores, union president Will Lyon said.

The path to building new housing often takes years, and is fraught with hurdles in planning or resistance from neighbors.

Klose hopes Generation Housing can help get residents involved earlier in the development process so community members can be stakeholders rather than opponents.

The region’s chronic housing shortage remains one of the biggest issues facing Sonoma County as job growth continues to outpace housing construction.

The California Housing Partnership Corporation last year estimated Sonoma County needs to add 16,000 new homes by 2022 just for low-income residents.

Elece Hempel, a Generation Housing board member and executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, sees the advocacy organization as a tool to help municipal housing departments that are short-staffed and sometimes lack the resources to adequately get the public involved.

“When you look at Petaluma, we have one person in housing. Windsor has someone who’s a quarter time,” Hempel said.

“When redevelopment dollars went away, those departments went away too. We have to figure out a way to elevate the conversation so we can advocate for those good projects.”

Santa Rosa Metro Chamber CEO Peter Rumble views importance of housing production through a different lens. Another Generation Housing board member, his fear is the long-term effect of losing the vital labor force that fills local schools, hospitals or the area’s restaurants when no one can afford a home in Sonoma County.

“There’s a strong concern on my part about what kind of community character we’re going to have when we lose our workforce and our major employers because they can’t attract and keep people,” Rumble said.

“If our schools are vacant of teachers, are we still the same community? Probably not.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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