You have permission to edit this article.

She dropped out of a school board race. But she won, and takes her seat Tuesday

Paula Van Auken

Paula Van Auken will be sworn in as a trustee for the Panam- Buena Vista Union School District.

At its meeting tonight, the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District board will swear in three trustees who will represent Area 2: incumbent J.P. Lake and its two newest members, Bryan Easter and Paula Van Auken.

November’s school board election was a hot race that attracted eight candidates. Some of the candidates campaigned actively and lost. They courted endorsements, raised money, put signs up, maintained an active social media presence, met voters at drive-thru events and gave interviews about their views to local media.

Van Auken did none of this, and in fact said she had dropped out of the race. Still, she won a seat.

Why? Van Auken believes it has to do with the one piece of information voters did have about her on the ballot: She was listed as a “retired teacher.” She believes this is also what helped give an edge to front-runner Easter, an assistant principal of instruction at Frontier High School, who was listed on the ballot as an “educator/administrator.”

“It tells you that people want someone in education to be on the school board,” Van Auken said.

Easter won 20 percent of the vote, Lake won 17 percent and Van Auken won 16 percent.

Once she saw votes coming in, she changed her mind about taking a position on the board. She believes her experience as a classroom teacher for 26 years will provide a valuable perspective.

“I am prepared to improve the quality of education, as well as tackling equity, and the fiscal challenges involved in the running of our schools,” she added, in an email. “In the current pandemic era, supporting teachers and families in distance learning is of utmost importance.”

In the run-up to the election, The Californian asked school board candidates how they would make decisions about opening schools. Since then, the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District has opened its campuses to small cohorts of vulnerable students and then shut them again. That is in large part because of the difficulty of staffing during a surge in local cases, which caused many staffers to be quarantined because of a case of COVID-19 or an exposure.

Van Auken said it’s a difficult question to know how to reopen schools at this point.

“I think safety is the big issue,” she said. “Safety, staffing, you have to look at it all.”

Van Auken, 69, worked in Greenfield Union, almost entirely at Ollivier Middle School, and she retired in May 2019. She taught English Language Development to English learners and also G.A.T.E.

Sheila Johnson, principal at Ollivier, described her as having “a tremendous heart for kids.”

In the years before school lunches were freely available, Johnson said Van Auken would bring spare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Students came into her classroom over their lunch break, and Van Auken always wanted to ensure no one went hungry.

“She will be fair-minded, she will consider all the evidence and data provided and make a decision based on what is best for kids,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you can ask for more of an elected official or a human being for that matter.”

Luke Hogue, assistant superintendent of personnel at Greenfield Union, said Van Auken guided him as a young teacher beginning his career.

“She was very respected as a colleague and teacher in the district,” he said.

Later, Hogue met Van Auken on the other side of the bargaining table when Van Auken was the president of the teachers union. Hogue said she was always very frank in bargaining negotiations.

“She’s a straight shooter,” he said.

Becoming a board member for PBVUSD isn’t Van Auken’s first experience in the district where she has lived for 35 years. She has two grown daughters who attended Hart Elementary School and Tevis Junior High.

She said she will encourage involvement from parents, students and the community, and she will also seek the knowledge and expertise of the district’s employees and employee groups.

Van Auken said she isn’t eager to take a position on any matter quickly as one voice on the board.

“There’s a lot to learn as a board member,” she said. “I’m going to take it slow and learn as much as I can and get to know my fellow board members.”