Exit interview: School board trustee Tracy Jensen
Tracy Jensen served eight years on Alameda’s Board of Education, and during that time she helped the Island’s schools weather accelerating state budget cuts and emerged as a champion of families headed by same-sex couples, facing down a recall effort launched against her and two other school board members due to their support. After retiring from the board on December 14, Jensen took the time out to talk to us about the challenges she faced and her accomplishments on the board.
What led you to run for public office?
My interest in public policy and legislation started in the 1980s. I was going to college at Cal State East Bay and I served an internship with then-Assemblymember Johan Klehs. The policy issues and constituent interaction were very interesting, and I found the legislative (political) side very fascinating. After graduate school I worked for the Maryland Legislature and the Democratic Party, and I loved it.
Despite all of my work in politics, I didn’t just decide to run for office. In fact, I ended up running for the school board because I didn’t get appointed to the newly formed Alameda Health Care District Board. I was at my dentist’s office here in Alameda, and I told her about the hospital board. At which point she stops working on my teeth, gets on the phone (in the exam room) and calls the president of the Alameda Teachers Union to tell her that I would be the best candidate for the school board. In 2002 I had not even considered running for the school board, my son was a year old, and Dr. Larson basically recruited me while I was incapacitated in the dental chair! The rest is history, I guess.
What’s the first major lesson you learned as a public official?
I’ve been working in the public sector for more than 20 years and the major lesson I have learned is how very little impact elected officials have on government programs and operations. Then, as a school board member I learned firsthand that the only things I could directly control were the selection of an effective agency director, and how I worked together with other board members to move the district forward.
Despite what the public thinks, the school board has very little influence on programs and even less ability to impact funding. I think that the best boards are effective because they have identified how to work together and they have a superintendent that keeps them informed and values their input.
What was your proudest accomplishment on the school board?
My proudest accomplishment is knowing that our schools continue to serve all students, and to do it well. Despite cuts in the AUSD budget of more than 10 percent over the past five years, our students continue to succeed, as demonstrated by test score increases of more than 20 percent during the same period. We have learned to do more with less, and I am really proud that our students, teachers and community continue to believe in and support Alameda public schools.
What was your toughest moment on the board?
I think it is the loss of a friendship of more than 30 years because of the board’s decision to close the pools. My friends decided that somehow the pool closure was personal, or that I could have done something differently, and we haven’t spoken since the pools closed. I have also lost friends because I did not intervene on occasion when the superintendent removed or reassigned staff.
I have spent my career in state, local and federal government jobs, and I’ve found that the separation of executive and legislative functions is often a confusing concept. In the executive agency, there are managers who feel as though it is their job to make policy; that is, they may change a system or make a decision that should be done by the legislative or the legal staff. Alternatively, there are elected leaders who believe that they were elected to change the way the work is carried out – to impact the “executive” functions of overseeing staff, facilities, and agency systems.
Unfortunately, these roles are very different, and when elected or agency officials fail to recognize their responsibilities and the scope of their authority it can lead to litigation (when staff makes policy decisions) or Brown Act violations (when elected staff interferes with or shares information to influence executive decisions).
Is there anything you wish you had more time on the board to accomplish?
Improving school-based physical activity and nutrition. Throughout California and the nation we are ignoring the physical, mental and emotional needs of our kids because we can’t afford to provide physical activity, nutritional meals, or counseling support. As funding is cut and school hours are reduced, all students are suffering from less access to physical activity. If I were still on the school board I would ensure that Alameda’s elementary students are receiving the minimum 200 minutes of PE every week. Right now they aren’t because the district can’t afford it. Kids are less active, childhood obesity is a tremendous issue, and we are not teaching students anything about the benefits of physical activity and good nutrition – much less providing those things.
What’s next for you?
I’ll continue to work with the Alameda Collaborative for Children, Youth and Families to address the physical activity needs of students and to identify other sources of funding for necessary programs. I am the treasurer of the board of the Alameda County Community Food Bank, and I will continue to work to make sure that all children, families and seniors have access to nutritional food.
I will be working in the community to get the Measure A parcel tax passed. And finally, the first thing on my immediate agenda is to spend more time with my 9-year-old son and his father – beginning with a ski trip next week!
Do you have any advice for Margie Sherratt, who’s taking your seat on the board?
I wouldn’t presume to give advice to anyone in public office. I wish her the best of luck!
Anything you’d like to add?
I would like to thank you Michele. The Island has for many years now provided an unbiased, immediate and straightforward picture of the issues surrounding public education in Alameda. Without your reporting my job on the school board would have been much more difficult.