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Seven Panama-Buena Vista Union School District candidates vie for three seats

Three seats of five on the Panama-Buena Vista Union School Board are up for reelection this year. With only one incumbent running for reelection, it's certain that voters will be electing fresh faces onto the board responsible for a district that educates more than 18,500 students in southwest Bakersfield.

Seven contenders are vying for three seats in Area 2, the largely northwestern half of the district, which stretches from just east of Highway 99 where Seibert Elementary is to far west past Enos Lane. President Greg White and Dean Haddock are not running for reelection, so JP Lake is the only incumbent on the ballot. One candidate whose name will appear on the ballot, Paula Van Auken, said that she has dropped out of the race. The three trustees elected this year will oversee a budget of $247 million.

The Californian emailed these candidates asking about their qualifications and why they were running. We also asked them about the very unique decisions that they will have to make — or for incumbents, already have made — about how to educate students in the midst of a pandemic. The state has restrictions on reopening schools under its tier system and guidance for those that do. But many decisions about when and how to reopen will ultimately be in the hands of school boards.

The candidates below are listed in alphabetical order.

Muosadak Abbas

Abbas is a foreign graduate physician, who also has a master’s in Health Care Administration from CSUB. His family is also in the medical field: His wife is a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente and his oldest child is in her second year of medical school. He’s lived in Bakersfield for 14 years and both his children attended schools here since elementary school. He volunteers as a CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate.

He’s running because he wants to make sure that schools are preparing students for “the new technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work.”

That includes the low-skilled jobs being made obsolete by artificial intelligence.

“I’m running because I think schools and teachers need serious help to reinforce science and science subjects in school curriculums, to prepare our students for a competitive technological work future,” he said.

When it comes to reopening schools, he looks to a multitude of voices.

“We should listen to science by following the CDC and to some extent WHO guidelines,” he said. “Additionally, we should give voice to our teachers and parents when deciding on reopening our schools.”

Zack Bashirtash

Bashirtash said he's passionate about the future “not just for my kids but all of the kids in our town.” He said he's been involved in education through donations to local schools.

“My family and I have been involved in education for many years,” he said. “From giving financial support to teachers in the classrooms to creating learning centers in different inner-city locations.”

He said he's running to keep “special interests out of the classroom.”  

“I believe in being a good steward of our tax dollars,” he said.

He expanded on this in a video posted to his Facebook page.

“There’s been a radical movement recently to bring politics into the classroom that pushes a radical social agenda,” he said in the video. “I trust that you agree there’s no place for inappropriate material taught in our schools.”

Two of his children are old enough to be enrolled in school at Laurelglen Elementary School, and he calls home distance learning a “struggle.”

“I believe we need our kids in the classroom as soon as possible,” he said. “I believe we can make this happen in a safe and strategic way.”

Bryan Easter

Easter said he comes to the race from a unique vantage point: He has 15 years of experience in education, including nine years teaching in the district, and he is an invested parent of a kindergartner currently enrolled at Reagan Elementary. He has taught at the elementary, junior high and high school levels and is currently a high school administrator.

“Strong and experienced leadership is more critical in schools now more than ever,” he said.  “As a listener and visionary, I will listen to parents, staff and students and provide guidance on decisions and ensure those decisions will have the best possible outcome for the future of PBVUSD.”

He said he comes to the job with a desire to have equitable education across the district, a passion to see students succeed and a heart to listen and serve others.

Easter said that since the pandemic struck, he has been most concerned about the vulnerable population of students: special education, English learning, students with serious emotional disabilities and also the very young kindergarten and transitional kindergarten.

He advocates for full parent and teacher choice for all three models: full distance, full in-person or a hybrid. He also recommends the district pursue exemptions, with recommended safety measures in place, for special populations and then younger populations, before expanding into older grades.

“I personally believe this needs to start happening faster rather than slower because distance learning is creating gaps for all students, especially our youngest grades and inequity is rampant,” he said.

He’s won the endorsement of the Panama–Buena Vista Teachers’ Association.

Mike Tann

Tann is an Army veteran. He also spent 26 years in the California Department of Corrections, starting as a correctional officer and culminating as an associate warden. He retired and became a stay-at-home dad, and then started a group for socializing preschool-aged children called My Gym, whose membership number is currently at 232. Now he’s out of retirement as a part-time employee of Envisioning Justice Solutions, which brings rehabilitative programs to high-security inmates. He volunteers and is Parent Club president at Hart Elementary School where his children have attended. 

His stay-at-home dad duties have become heavier during the pandemic. He currently has a second grader at Hart and a sophomore at Stockdale, and an 81-year-old mother at home. He said that prior to the pandemic, he didn’t get involved in district issues because he had always been impressed with the quality of teachers, principals and staff at Hart and Tevis Junior High. But when he started to tune into board meetings and get involved, he felt like the board was out of touch. He said too many of the current trustees and trustee candidates running do not actually have children in the district’s schools.

“When I started to dig deeper, I found that my values are fundamentally different than the current board's and thought that parents like me should have a voice,” Tann said. “I am deeply committed to public education and I firmly believe that school board trustees need to be non-partisan.”

He said that besides his perspective as a parent, he believes that his background running and training an employee peer counseling team, as well as planning and working with a large governmental budget, will be useful as a trustee. He views the current board as being “technocratic” and he describes his orientation as being a “servant-leader” who talks and listens to people. He said as a Parent Club member he was on campus every day, and that’s the energy he’d bring to the trustee position.

He said he wants to bring teachers, staff and students back to campus as quickly and as safely as possible. He supports the district’s current plan of prioritizing students with special needs. He believes teachers and parents should have input and doesn’t believe the current board is giving them enough right now. He does want to ensure that families who have a high-risk member in their home, like his, or teachers at high-risk should be given the opportunity to stay home. 

JP Lake

Lake is the co-managing partner of Kern Venture Group, an angel fund that invests in the tech and industrial sector. He’s also the only incumbent running in this race. He’s won the endorsement of the Panama–Buena Vista Teachers’ Association.

He said that education is “the foundation for a vibrant community and economy.”

“The challenges facing Bakersfield and Kern County are growing but we have boundless potential if we invest in our children's education,” he said. “Seizing this opportunity requires good leadership from school boards and trustees who listen to the community, parents, taxpayers and teachers.”

Lake said that the district has improved under the current board. He pointed to the STEAM Academy at Castle Elementary, balanced budgets and reserves he said will be important to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the new contract with teachers “expands professional development while ensuring accountability and implementation in the classroom.”

“The results in Panama are encouraging; student achievement in English, language arts and math increased by more than twice the statewide average since 2016 and it's my goal to see the gains continue,” he said.

He added that as a trustee, his goal is to reopen the district’s schools in compliance with guidelines from state health and education department guidelines and to give parents, teachers and staff a choice on when they want to return to the classroom.

Tom Webster

Webster comes to the district with a background in technology. He worked in the Bay Area dot-com boom years and when it went bust, he moved into construction and property management. Now he works for the city as its webmaster. He said the district is sorely in need of someone with skills like his.

“In the past several years, I have seen our district continue to shy away from making the proper investments in technology that will prepare our children, engage our parent community, and secure the data our school system needs to operate,” he said. “In 2020 alone, our district's financial system crashed, our entire system was infected by ransomware that wiped out years worth of lesson plans and delayed grades. All of that was before the schools were closed by the pandemic. Our teachers had no training and little preparation and guidance.”

Webster said his 20 years in managing projects both in technology and construction are crucial skills for a school district.

“I understand the work that needs to go in before the first decision is made and how having the right tools is a necessary component of success,” he said. “I also know that tools don’t do the work, people do.”

Webster said that he looks to the guidelines laid out by the state for reopening and the comfort level in the community.

“I think the future of our district lies in opening schools for those who feel safe and allowing a very long period for a voluntary return to in-person learning adhering to those guidelines,” he said. “We need to continue to build and grow our online learning capabilities and we should expand those offerings to as many students as we can reach.”

Kelly Youngstrom

Youngstrom said she was inspired to run by a tradition of education and service in her family: Her mother was a public school teacher for nearly 40 years, three sisters are also in education and her father was a civil service employee. 

She has a background in finance, an economics degree from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and she said she worked for Fortune 500 companies in managerial roles dealing with budgets in the millions of dollars. Locally, she serves as the vice-chair of the PBVUSD Bond Oversight Committee and as a AltaOne Federal Credit Union Supervisory Committee Member. 

She said her first term goals are improving literacy, ensuring a safe and healthy environment and strong fiscal management of taxpayer money.

“As a school board member, I will emphasize fiscal responsibility and transparency while increasing accountability of taxpayer money,” she said. “It is important to make every dollar count so our limited resources are spent educating our students and not on bureaucratic interests.”

When it comes to bringing students back to school, she said she's committed to following state and county guidance for the reopening of public schools. She will also advocate for a comprehensive distance learning program even after students are brought on campus.

“In addition, I believe all stakeholders, including staff and parents, should be involved in the creation of rigorous safety protocols and in monitoring compliance with those protocols,” she said.

Her candidacy won an endorsement from Jean Fuller, former California State Senate Republican Leader and Bakersfield City School District superintendent.