Joan Lambert and Terry Thygesen, who have more than two decades of experience as school board members between them, stepped down from their posts on the Menlo Park City School District board on Dec. 7. Their board colleagues and the district honored the two retiring trustees at a Nov. 13 board meeting.
Since Thygesen first took her board seat in 2000, the district has seen its enrollment increase over 50 percent and passed three parcel taxes to fund "excellent" teachers and "robust" programs, according to a district press release. During that time, voters also passed two bond measures to modernize and build new campuses, including the renovated Hillview Middle School and the new Laurel School Upper Campus, according to the release.
As board members, Lambert and Thygesen initiated a conversation about "fully funding" the district, meaning outlining what it would entail, and cost, if the district were to provide students and teachers with as many resources as they needed. These could include more class electives like art and physical education, and higher teacher salaries.
The school board is continuing this conversation and exploring a teacher compensation philosophy as a first step toward potentially raising funds to increase teacher pay.
Thygesen and Lambert recently sat down with The Almanac to discuss their time on the board and the district's future.
Thygesen was one of the board's longest-serving members. She ran for school board in 2000 – a race that ended up being uncontested – and served two terms before stepping down in 2008. Community members, she said, talked her into running for the board again, and she was elected in 2010.
Thygesen first got involved in the district in 1998. It all started with a dinner with the district's new superintendent Meredith Jones, now-Sequoia Union High School District board trustee Chris Thomsen, and Carol Thomsen, Chris Thomsen's wife, who later co-founded All Five preschool in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood.
During the dinner, Thygesen learned about parcels taxes and "became aware of how much less funding" the Menlo Park school district operated with compared with the school district in neighboring Palo Alto, she said. She started attending school board meetings, and learned that the district was trying to raise money through a parcel tax, she recalled.
"Literally, someone chased after me in the parking lot and asked if I would get involved," she said. "I thought, 'how can I do something?'"
Thygesen, who had a full-time job at management and technology firm Booz, Allen and Hamilton and four young children, didn't know many people in the district at the time because as a "full-time working parent, it's hard to be involved," she said.
She ultimately co-chaired a parcel tax ballot measure campaign in 2000. The $298 annual parcel tax, which passed in April 2000, was intended to improve students' academic performance, reduce class size, improve teacher quality and expand courses, she said.
She then joined the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation. By that time, people were strongly urging her to run for the school board, she said.
Eighteen years later, Thygesen said that one of her greatest accomplishments was opening a new preschool, the Early Learning Center, at Laurel School Lower Campus this school year. The preschool aims to provide high-quality early education for a diverse socioeconomic group of children. The district subsidizes tuition for 25 percent of the preschoolers on a sliding scale based on family income. The other 75 percent of students pay market-rate tuition, which covers all the preschool's operating costs.
Why leave the board now? "There's still a lot of important work to be done, but the district is in good shape," Thygesen said.
The district has improved its test scores, provided more support to teachers and added more electives to its middle school curriculum, but "why not try to be the best school district in the state?" she said.
Thygesen said she is proud of the district's entrepreneurial culture and of how it's one of the most "cost-effective" districts in the area.
"Menlo Park City School District is the biggest little school district," she said. "We're always thinking big and reaching farther."
What will Thygesen miss most about the board?
"It feels really good to do important work," she said. "What's more important than educating future generations of the world? That's hard to top."
Thygesen said moving forward she would be open to serving on standing district committees.
"We're (Thygesen and Lambert) not moving," she said. "We're still going to be here and willing to help." She is happy to serve as an informal adviser to board members for however long she's needed, she said.
Lambert was elected to the board in 2010 after moving to the area from Seattle. She formerly practiced as an attorney, but is now putting her energies into her new startup – Amava, a website for people who are thinking of retiring or leaving full-time work and figuring out what to do next. The site includes paid and volunteer job postings, along with information on unique experiences – like volunteering to care for sled dogs in the Yukon, or volunteering at an organic farm.
"It's time to let new people take over," she said. Lambert's three daughters went through the district's schools, but her youngest graduated from the district a year and a half ago.
Lambert said she is proud of the electives the district now offers and of the new preschool.
"The district's Spanish Immersion and world language programs owe their success to Ms. Lambert's insightful leadership, ... as she was instrumental in their design," wrote Superintendent Erik Burmeister in an email to district community members.
Lambert agreed with Thygesen's conclusion that board members always feel that there's more room to improve the district.
"The nature of being on the board is that you always feel like there's more to do," Lambert said.
One thing that's still a work in progress in the district: closing the achievement gap – the difference in academic performance between students with socioeconomic advantages and those without them.
"We've made great strides," she said.
Lambert said she will miss the people in the district she's grown close to over the last eight years. But she is now moving her focus to her startup.
"I'm really enjoying this new role as I transition off the school board," she said.