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Elsken resigns, MUSD to appoint successor

Martinez Unified School Board member Denise Elsken. (MUSD / On File)
Martinez Unified School Board member Denise Elsken. (MUSD / On File)
By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
Martinez Tribune

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Denise Elsken, the Martinez Unified School District (MUSD) Board of Education trustee who announced her resignation Dec. 11, will be replaced by a provisional appointee, the Board decided Monday, Dec. 14.

Elsken said Monday she had lost her passion for the work on the board, and decided to quit before her term ends in November 2016 so someone with young children in the school system could serve in her stead.

Her resignation is effective Jan. 31, 2016. Until then, she’ll be able to participate as a full member of the panel except when it chooses her successor, said C.J. Cammack, who is next in line to be the district’s superintendent after Rami Muth retires at the end of the current school year.

Elsken unsuccessfully ran for the MUSD board shortly before being appointed to the panel nearly two decades ago. She has been returned to the board at each subsequent election. She is a member of the Curriculum Advisory Council and the District Technology Committee.

Although Elsken made her decision public earlier, Muth made the formal announcement to the board at the Monday, Dec. 14, meeting. She promised Elsken’s service would be recognized before her departure next month.

“With regret, we will file the letter,” Muth told the Board.

“I feel like I have lost my passion for being on the school board,” Elsken said after the meeting. “Someone who has younger kids in our schools needs to take my place.”

Although she has 10 more months left in her term, she said: “I am not the appropriate person to be in this seat.”

Elsken said her initial interest in joining the Board was to assure the Las Juntas Elementary School area of the city had a voice on the Board. “I felt a part of the community wasn’t represented,” she explained.

Although she failed to gain a seat on the Board in her initial try, she was appointed in May 1999 to succeed Joanne Hoyer at her resignation, and has remained on the panel for 17 years.

She has been elected four times, most recently in 2012. During her campaign, she said being self-employed has let her volunteer in classrooms and visit the district’s school campuses.

While on the Board, she has served on the Strategic Planning, Potential Action Team, Class Size Reduction, Facilities and Report Card committees. During her terms, the district renovated the Martinez Junior High School and started improvements to the local elementary schools.

She has been president of Las Juntas PTA and a member of the Martinez Community Swim Team board.

Elsken said she has seen computers come into the classrooms, improvements in MUSD staff and passage of school bond measures during her terms on the Board. The latter will be a mixed memory, she said. Although voters authorized issuing the latest round of bonds, Elsken worries the money hasn’t been spent according to the community’s wishes.

She praised the district for the way it weathered the lean times of the Great Recession. “Everyone pulled together,” she said. “Martinez is a great place.”

But Elsken herself became the subject of a controversy March 30 during the Board’s discussion of Measure K appropriations.

During that meeting, Elsken suggested that Las Juntas Elementary School pupils were better acclimated to classes without air conditioning than those going to John Swett Elementary School, because the Las Juntas children were less likely to have air conditioning at home.

Elsken, whose children attended Las Juntas, was criticized for the statement. Some parents suggested it was discriminatory, especially because many students at Las Juntas are Hispanic, while most of those attending John Swett are white.

District officials had said earlier there wasn’t enough Measure K money to provide air conditioning at both schools.

But some parents launched an online petition, urging the district to air condition both schools.

At the Board’s Monday, Dec. 14, meeting, the panel approved a strategy that would allow air conditioning for classrooms and multi-purpose rooms at both schools after prices for the projects exceeded consultant estimates by more than $1 million.

Countering her critics, Elsken’s supporters said her remarks had been misinterpreted. They called the incident a political “hit piece” and said a short video of her statement posted on YouTube was edited to exclude her other comments made later at the same meeting. In those statements, Elsken said Las Juntas employees preferred spending Measure K money on educational programs for the school, rather than on air conditioning.

Meanwhile, a staff report said the school’s staff had asked the board for improvements to the athletic field.

Days after the March 30 meeting, Elsken apologized for the way she expressed her thoughts. In a written statement, she said: “I was simply trying to make a point that in light of the fact that it already has cool roofs and some temperature control, that I believed there were other more important needs at Las Juntas that would better serve its students.”

Meanwhile, the Board decided unanimously Monday, Dec. 14, to fill the remainder of her term by appointment, rather than spend money on a special election.

Applicants need to be registered voters who live in Martinez and are not disqualified by California laws and Constitution from serving in a civil office, according to the district’s rules.

Those interested may download pertinent information and materials from the district’s website, www.martinez.k12.ca.us, or may email Sue Casey, executive assistant to the superintendent, scasey@martinez.k12.ca.us, or request them in person from the district office, 921 Susana St., Martinez.

Completed applications must be submitted as hard copies with original signatures to the district office by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 7, 2016.

Applicants must each submit a letter of interest, a current resume and a completed application. They can be sent by mail or delivered in person. Those applications will be considered public documents and will be made available for review, according to the district rules.

Candidates will have the option of attending an information and orientation meeting at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 4 at the district office’s board room.

The Board of Education will interview candidates and appoint Elsken’s successor at a public meeting Jan. 25, 2016.

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