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Rancho Santa Fe District school board candidates Steven Hughes, Jee Manghani, Elise Dufresne, Thomas Barton and Jon Yonemitsu take part in a recent candidate forum. Photo by Christina Macone-Greene
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Residents and stakeholders meet school board candidates

 A special candidate forum was held on March 18 at The Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club for the Rancho Santa Fe School Board special election to be held on April 24. Those vying for the vacant seat included Thomas Barton, Elise Dufresne, Steven Hughes, Jee Manghani and Jon Yonemitsu.

The selected person will fill Marti Ritto’s seat. Ritto resigned on Sept. 13, 2017. The new board member will serve from May 2018 to November 2018 since Ritto’s term will reopen for November’s general election in 2018.

Initially, five applicants were interviewed on Oct. 16, 2017, to fill Ritto’s vacancy. A week later, the Rancho Santa Fe School District agreed to a provisional appointment and selected Yonemitsu.    On Dec. 15, Yonemitsu was recalled after a school petition was deemed valid by the San Diego County Superintendent of Schools.

Petitioners wanted a special election process to choose a school board member, not a provisional appointment made by the school board. Until a new board member is voted in, the school board will operate with four trustees. Ballots were mailed beginning on March 26.

Hosting the March 18 community forum were Todd and Nicole Mikles, and Bruce and Brenda Kleege. Bruce Kleege served as the evening’s moderator.

Kleege thanked everyone for attending the forum on a Sunday night. His son drew candidates’ names for their 10-minute speaking order. Afterward, candidates were on hand for a Q&A.

First up was Yonemitsu, a practicing attorney who specializes in litigation. He started off by saying that his appointment by the board to fill Ritto’s seat was through a lawful and ethical process.

“Some people in the room may disagree,” he said.

Yonemitsu said the board decided to have an appointment because there was one year left for the term. The board decided it was more cost effective to have a provisional appointment versus a special election. However, a petition to recall Yonemitsu gained traction.

Yonemitsu said he was disappointed with his removal because he wanted to serve the school board and stakeholders.

“I was looking forward to making an impact,” he said.

Yonemitsu said his bigger disappointment stemmed from the fact that he never had the opportunity to meet with the people supporting the petition. He wanted to understand their position better.

“They didn’t want to meet with me,” said Yonemitsu, noting it was unfortunate that they didn’t get to know him.

Yonemitsu explained that his family moved into the area so that their three children could attend R. Roger Rowe. He said one of his children required special attention in the classroom.

“We met with people at R. Roger Rowe, and we were blown away,” he said, adding that impressed he was with the student to teacher ratio.

He and his family moved to the Ranch calling it a “no-brainer.” Unfortunately, the petitioners did not know this. Also, serving on the board was a way for Yonemitsu to give back.

“We should honor, and we should appreciate the integrity and sanctity of the (school) board and the board’s decision in how they went about doing it (appointment),” Yonemitsu said. “That to me is why I am here, and that to me is important for you to understand.”

Next up was Elise Dufresne, who has lived in the Ranch for the last decade. She has one daughter at R. Roger Rowe.

“We love the Ranch,” she said.

Dufresne is a principal of a political consulting firm who earned her degree from San Diego State University in international security and conflict resolution. 

Dufresne said when she considered running for the board, she knew she could give back based on her personal experience. Dufrense has run mayoral, Congressional and presidential campaigns as well as for ballot initiatives.

“I want to give back in a manner that I feel that I can contribute,” Dufrense said.

She focused on items she felt were school board priorities. In light of the school shootings around the nation, she underscored security and safety.

“There are a number of different ways that we can secure the school and secure our students,” Dufrense said. 

Ideas Dufrense shared were having safeguards such as access systems and coded entries. Working with local authorities regarding safety and security plans should also be made a high priority, she said. Educating students on what to look for was also mentioned.

“Our school should be prepared,” she said.

Another topic Dufrense talked about was marijuana. She said children need education about it, particularly how edible marijuana can come in the form of gummy bears and chocolates.

On the technology front, Dufrense explained the need for more computer security since students are on iPads.

Another topic she addressed regarding technology was offering students virtual reality education experiences for lesson plans. Examples cited were visiting having a virtual interactive experience at locations such Niagara Falls or the Red Woods.

“It would be wonderful to have our children have that added level of enhancement,” she said.

Fluent in Thai, and with degrees in Arabic and Hebrew, Dufrense said she wished there were more language options at R. Roger Rowe offering students to be multilingual.

“We are so globalized and interconnected that our children need to be multilingual,” she said.

Dufrense said she thought a bond for the school gym should be tabled due to the economic and political climate. 

Next was Jee Manghani, who has a degree in computer science and oversees a software company. He said he didn’t know how to reach out to the community about his candidacy, so the forum was a perfect opportunity.

Manghani said his family continues to have an awesome experience at R. Roger Rowe. He has one child attending the school with another starting in the fall. Manghani said he is running for the school board for three reasons.

“I want to reconnect the board back to the community and operate with transparency,” he said. “The fact that the recall occurred shows that there is a lot of broken trust that needs to be repaired.”

Manghani also said he believed there should be a board member protocol.

Every August, before an election cutoff date, board members should be asked if they plan to serve out the entire year, he said.

“These are elections, not appointments,” he said.

Attendees broke out in applause.

“While the board has the legal power to appoint replacements, appointments don’t reflect the community and the community never gets a chance to give input,” he said.

The No. 2 reason Manghani is running is to improve the curriculum with more after-school programs focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

The third reason he cited was the recent evaluation of the school gym, which came back as good. Manghani said the median and necessary repairs were estimated at $330,000. After the repairs, the gym would have another useful life of 20 years.

“Three of four board members seem to want to continue to push for a new a gym,” said Manghani, adding that this would require a bond and he would vote against it.

Up next was Steven Hughes who said what attracted him to the Ranch is that it is very community oriented. He bought a home there in 2016 primarily because of R. Roger Rowe. His daughter will start kindergarten in the fall.

Hughes earned his MBA at the University of Southern California. While working in his family business, Hughes said he was able to grow the company.   

“If I get the opportunity to be a board member, I’ll be the eyes and ears of the voters,” he said, adding that he has no hidden agenda.

Knowing that his daughter will soon be involved in the community through R. Roger Rowe, Hughes too wants to be involved.

“That is what inspired me to be on the board,” he said.

Hughes said he would use his MBA training and the expertise he obtained in his family business if elected. Fiscal responsibility is key.

Hughes said he kept what he wanted to say “short and sweet.”

The last to speak was Thomas Barton, a professor at the University of San Diego, who earned his Ph.D. at Yale University. Barton and his family moved to Rancho Santa Fe in 2013. He has three children at R. Roger Rowe. 

Barton said he has worked on different boards at USD. He is familiar with the items that the Rancho Santa Fe School District is addressing.

“This would allow me to hit the ground running,” he said, adding that he is already attending the school board meetings and understands the issues of program reviews and strategic plans. “These are things I do all the time at USD.”

Barton was quick to point out how the district cannot squander any money. He also said he has a background in business, particularly in real estate investment.

Barton said he is an active parent volunteer at R. Roger Rowe and knows many of the other parents.

He explained it was essential to have teachers, students, parents and community members all involved at the same time in the conversation about how to make the school as effective as possible. This dialogue will encourage transparency.

Barton said when he decided to run for the school board, he did some research on the top blue-ribbon schools in the nation. He discovered the commonality that demonstrated their asset of success: strong parental community involvement.

“I hope I can earn your vote,” Barton said. “If I am elected, we can continue to work together to take our school to the next level.”