Interview with School Board Candidate Bob Poppenga

Poppenga-DogBy Nicholas von Wettberg

Two of the five seats on the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Board of Education are up for grabs, in the November General Election, and, thus far, only one person has formally announced their candidacy.

The Vanguard opens up its coverage of the race, featuring a recent interview with Bob Poppenga, a professor of veterinary toxicology at UC Davis who ran for a seat on the Board back in November 2014.

Poppenga is the parent of two DJUSD students, and served on the district’s Professional Development Action Team during the strategic planning process, and was on the district’s CTE/STEAM (Career Technical Education/Science, Technology Engineering, Arts, Math) Strategic Planning Committee.

Vanguard: Tell us about the early stages of the campaign.

Poppenga: “Well, I felt that it was important to get out early, and try and get a good start and get the organization together. The focus now is on the June 7 primary but I wanted to have all the pieces in place to get out early and strong. I think probably the school board race will not get started in earnest until after July 4, but in 2014 that was one of the major races because there wasn’t a lot of other competition. Now it’s going to be President, Senate, State Assembly, State Senate…so I think there’s going to be a lot of things going on, so you’ve got all that background, and it will be interesting to see where people’s attention is on more local races, like the school board. So we won’t have the city council, which is probably an advantage. That election will be over in June.”

Vanguard: What did you take away from your previous experience running for school board?

Poppenga: “I think a neophyte doesn’t realize all the moving pieces in a campaign, even for something like school board, and I think the one thing that’s so important is to have a dedicated team around you that can do a lot of the legwork, and provide a lot of good input and advice. I really do believe that it’s so important to make the personal contact and often times it’s more than just the one contact, so I think that I tried to get out and walk around the neighborhoods last time in 2014 and had people help me walk the neighborhoods and knock on doors. That takes a lot of people power so I think that’s one of the things that I wanted to try, lay the groundwork now so that in the fall we can actually get out and knock on doors. That’s probably the most important thing.”

Vanguard: Speaking of elections, after hearing the results of a survey the board is ready to decide on a final amount for the school parcel tax. Where do you come out on the measure?

Poppenga: “I think the school parcel tax is critical to the district and its overall percentage of the school budget, right now at the 620 [dollars] or so level. I understand the philosophy of trying to do these surveys ahead of time but you know, the actual level, it seems to be a little bit putting the cart before the horse – because I think you should say, ‘here are the programs that we need, here are the programs that we want, how much is it going to cost,’ then go out with ‘is this going to be, is this what we really need to do, what we really want to do, is the community going to support that?’

“It seems to me that they’re throwing these numbers out to try and gauge the support, and I have not seen the survey, I don’t know the questions that they’re asking but I think it’s better if you can approach the electorate with ‘here’s what we feel we need for these reasons, and the status quo is going to remain if we get the 620 but here’s the other things we’d like to do at support for a higher parcel tax.’

“You know, I think it’s incredibly important and I’ve actually come out with an Enterprise letter saying that it is important and we need to support it as a community.”

Vanguard: We keep seeing how difficult it’s becoming for schools to retain teachers, for a number of different reasons – some are retiring, some are moving, and so forth. What are your feelings on this, as an educator?

Poppenga: Well, obviously they’re in the process of renegotiating the contract for the teachers. I think in general there’s three areas that I think I would focus on, and the most important component to a district are the quality of the teachers. And I think there is increasing competition for good teachers, particularly in areas like the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] subject areas. The schools of education are not producing enough, so Davis has to be an attractive place for teachers to come.

“If you talk to the teachers, the compensation is very important and I think we do have to be competitive. Davis is an expensive place to live and that was one of the things that I brought up in 2014 – actually how many teachers, particularly the new teachers to the district, how many of them can afford to live in Davis? I haven’t seen any numbers. I would suspect it would be hard to find those numbers, but a lot of the teachers that have been around a number of years probably live in Davis because they could afford Davis – but the newer teachers, the younger teachers, particularly if they don’t have spouses that are also working, I think it’s a challenge.

“As a community, one of the important things is to decide whether it’s important for teachers and their families to live in the community in which they teach. I come down on the side, yeah it’s important. I think it would be interesting to know the numbers, sort of track the trends over a period of time but I think teachers also deserve a really robust professional development program. The working conditions, however, we can improve it within our resources – I think we should try and do it. I think you have to listen to teachers, I think they have to feel like they have a place at the table. And certainly that would be a focus of mine. Certainly one area [of focus is] teachers, because they’re so important.

“Sort of the two other main areas of focus, having come from the University, knowing the University uses the school district as a recruiting tool for their faculty, finding ways that the University can truly invest in the quality of education in Davis. That was something I brought up in 2014 as well, and I think the important thing is to figure out how to do it on a sustainable basis in more of an institution-to-institution collaboration rather than an individual-to-individual collaboration, because those people could be gone next year and if it’s more institutional to institutional then it’s more sustainable.

“The vet school, I sort of hope this might be a model down the road that the University could adopt more broadly. The vet school is committed to helping out with a veterinary science emphasis at the high school as far as career and technical education, and they’re starting a veterinary science course at the high school. So as soon as I found that out, I had gotten the high school coordinator together with our administration at the vet school and I think that, down the road, there will be some opportunities to bring some students on the campus of the vet school in some internship opportunities. And I think that’s more what the University should be providing, in terms of opportunities for high school kids. I sort of view that as a model that maybe other people in the University could look at and adopt…it’s mutually beneficial. It’s beneficial to the schools because we have a world-class University right next door that could be so useful at multiple levels. And there is collaboration now – don’t get me wrong, it happens but it’s more ad hoc, you know it’s more individual-to-individual, and I really think that has to be looked at holistically, and more sustainably, but I think we can partner with a lot of local institutions more effectively than we are, and so that would be an area of focus I think.”

Vanguard: Picking up on the STEM theme, what about providing the right training, and providing the right avenues of opportunity for high school students?

Poppenga: “And it doesn’t really even have to be for those kids that are intending to go to college. I mean, I think it can really help with kids that are maybe looking at community college. You know, I think STEM is so important in so many non-college career pathways now because even on a factory floor you have to have computer skills and you have to have math skills. I would love to see the University offer some summer programs for at-risk kids, kids that don’t otherwise have programs to stimulate them during the summer. Their parents can’t afford to pay a lot of money for summer camps. I think that’s something that a segment of the University could help address. I mean they have summer camp programs now. Figure out ways to offer it at low-cost or no cost to kids that can’t otherwise afford those programs.

“The STEM program is a natural extension of what I do now. I am a scientist, I am a veterinarian, and I am in an academic institution. I think even the non-traditional STEM career pathways – let’s just take, for example, art. I think you can tie so many of the STEM topics into art. I mean there is a science behind art. I think that’s important, to put the STEM topics throughout the curriculum. It’s not just for the kids that are going to be the next PhD candidate. It’s cross disciplines and it’s sort of a holistic approach to education but I think being able to understand math and science and the areas of art is important.

“In terms of career and technical education, I think it’s probably something that in Davis has been overlooked a little bit. And I think that’s where partnerships come into play, because I think it’s difficult for one district to meet all of the needs of every student and so I think that’s there’s an opportunity even at the county level to have some collaborative programs – where maybe Davis is a place for students that are interested in science, but maybe there’s another program in a different district that would really meet the needs for people that want to do some other type of STEM career path. I don’t think our district has the resources to be number one in every different area of STEM or CTE. It’s sort of a hybrid because I think you really have to develop those pathways where, okay, maybe a student peels off, doesn’t have any interest in community college or the University. You know, they want to be a carpenter. Well you have to have math skills to be a carpenter. But then there’s a student that maybe wants to do a two-year community college and, just by example, in veterinary medicine you can become a veterinary technician after two years so you work in the veterinary field but you’re not a veterinarian – you’re a veterinary nurse.

“But if you want to be a veterinarian you’re sort of looking at the University … well, maybe you don’t want to do eight years to get your DVM but you want to be an animal scientist so you can do a bachelor’s degree in animal science and still deal with animals. But then for those that really want to do additional training they can do a DVM or PhD in veterinary science so you’ve got this pathway that’s sort of integrative, so that people can peel off in a lot of different ways, to still deal with animals.”

Vanguard: The status of the district’s AIM program has been a hot-button topic, especially with Davis parents. How do you feel the issue should be handled?

Poppenga: “Well, it’s been very controversial in Davis and I think it’s really unfortunate that the community has not been able to come to some sort of common ground, at least, or come up with some sort of compromise on that. It seems to be very polarizing. My view is that there are children that learn differently and that their needs need to be addressed. I think maybe even the University can help in that regard, providing maybe some challenging opportunities for the kids that are academically advanced. I firmly believe that every group, whether you’re talking about at-risk kids – there’s [such] a lot of at-risk kids that it’s hard to identify them because they haven’t had the opportunities to excel but they’re there, so I think really one of the challenges is to provide really the best available ways to identify those kids and give them opportunities to excel. I think if you go to the Healthy Kids Survey, and you dig down into some of the numbers there, that there are a significant number of kids that don’t feel challenged. I think that’s something that I would certainly be interested in – trying to find ways to challenge every kid, no matter what their background is.

“In the past, it (AIM) was a pretty good reflection of the diversity of the community and this past year that’s changed. I just don’t think that we can overlook the kids that really need to be challenged in our public education. We need to obviously offer opportunities for the kids that don’t have opportunities, but we can’t hold any kids back. That’s the bottom line.”

Vanguard: That leads us to the board’s number one priority so far this year, which is figuring out ways to close the achievement gap. We know it’s out there. How do we match kids up correctly?

Poppenga: “Well, I think you have to put a lot effort in early. At the county level, there’s an effort to increase the sales tax county-wide to enhance the preschool opportunities of kids and I think that…everything I understand about preschool and kindergarten, [with] quality preschool and quality kindergarten, the payoff is tremendous. For every dollar you invest in quality preschool you gain back multiples of that later on. I really think that’s a great effort countywide. I think if kids can read at grade level by third grade all the data indicates that those kids are going to do much better than kids that can’t read at grade level by third grade. I think those programs are incredibly important. I think it’s important to try and involve the parents of at-risk kids.

“I think there are ways, reading programs… I think that’s really where the community can provide a lot of added value. I’m on the Executive Board of Explorit Science Center, at UC Davis, and they have summer camps and it hasn’t happened yet but I think it would be wonderful to have slots in the summer camp program and explore it for at-risk kids. You know you try to identify those kids and provide them opportunities for a two-week summer camp that explores nature or whatever. I think we’re starting to move in that direction and I think the emphasis on those early opportunities for at-risk kids is important. One of the most important things is, are they reading at grade level? One of the things I think that my science background – one of the things that I’m very interested in is, if you have a program, what are the desired outcomes?

“What are you hoping to achieve with this particular program? So it’s maybe a summer reading program. We’re putting resources into the program, what do we hope to get out of that program, then measure whether we’re achieving those outcomes. Is the program effective? And I don’t think we do enough of that. If we’re not achieving those outcomes, how can we change those programs to make them better to achieve the outcomes that we desire? And that’s part of spending money wisely. I mean, that’s part of saying [that] we have limited resources, let’s put it into programs that work. So I think there can be significant improvement in that area.”

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Marina Kalugin

    I was not impressed with this guy, but thought he was better than most of the others last time around.

    The only one I truly supported was the guy who was the only one who said he has issues with common core…..of course, he didn’t make it to the finals…  I truly hope that guy runs again.

    Even Sunder danced around that question…

    I would support that other guy, and John Munn, and if she could be convinced to run again, Debbie Nichols-Poulos……

    Most of the other brilliant GATE teachers and other long-time teachers with a clue died last year…..including Joanne Modenhaur and Gina Daleiden’s mother (her name escapes me at the moment)….and Mrs. Peterson among too many others who also died or retired…


    1. hpierce

      That would be Mary Surkala.  But, you didn’t have a “clue”.  For those of us who knew Mary, and respected her (and she never taught our kids, but her positive influence on the entire Birch Lane campus was unmistakable), you sound like a “name-dropper”.  Or, early ‘old-timers’?

  2. Marina Kalugin

    Idiots were in charge Bob….that is why we have common core, the achievement gap and the destruction of a truly stellar GATE program…..which even the ridiculous term of AIM…..just to appease some pc sensitivities of the not-quite bright who managed to get onto the school board in recent years….not to mention the disaster of a good ole boy super…..

    1. Tia Will


      I ONLY voted for the one  guy who was not afraid to speak his mind”

      So it would seem that you believe that you know what is in other people’s minds to such an extent that you know whether or not what they are saying is what is on their mind ? Or perhaps you are saying that if they are not saying what you believe, then their ideas are not worth considering.

  3. Marina Kalugin

    PS>    as someone who always voted in this town even as a student and later as an elder without children in the district I always voted for the parcel tax.

    As I told the person who wasted my time not long ago on a truly poorly designed and unnecessarily long survey, which I tolerated as I always do….I said I would vote NO on any tax this year unless I was assured that the idiots on the board would not squander the funds…therefore, anyone besides Sunder has to go….and even Sunder is borderline…

    I don’t like people like Sunder who capitulate on what they know is correct simply to appease the other idiots…and show a “united” front….why??????  when the majority are obviously not nearly as competement….

    If I had kids  or grandkids of school age right now, I would be all over the NO side…….I would tell parents to save the money and send the children to Peregrine or other private schools.

    My sons only made it out alive due to GATE……and, even then, had to take some subjects through DSIS, and through the nearby colleges and UCD to make it through…..and yet, many others right now are being denied that right….

    See my many rants in recent days on this topic….on other threads….





    1. wdf1

      MK:  If I had kids  or grandkids of school age right now, I would be all over the NO side…….I would tell parents to save the money and send the children to Peregrine or other private schools.

      For much of our time in Davis, we would not have had the money to send our kids to private school.  For one of our kids we did investigate private school options in an effort to entertain “what if” because he had a diagnosed learning disability and social/emotional issues, in addition to being an ELL student.  It was very clear to us that the private schools we looked at were not capable of handling those issues; the Davis schools were.  I also appreciated that most of the time he could feel accepted by his peers.  Our other kids have thrived according to their needs and abilities.

  4. Tia Will


    See my many rants in recent days on this topic….on other threads…”

    As an effective means of communication, I would recommend that you not “rant”. You seem to have been involved in the community for a long time. This probably means that you have accumulated information that many of us newer to town, or having become publicly engaged more recently do not have. It would be very useful if you were to provide some actual information or evidence that would help others to understand your point of view. For me, calling anyone who does not see an issue as you do an “idiot” does not help to either provide information nor establish your credibility.


  5. quielo

    Great interview and at this point Bob has my support. Partnering with UCD is such an obvious advantage to Davis I am surprised it is not more advanced at this point. The acknowledgement that a disctrict of our size cannot be all things to all people is an important piece of self awareness to start from.

  6. hpierce

    I am concerned that, although I strongly believe we should attract high level teachers, not sure how “floating the boat” for the mediocre already on board accomplishes this in a meaningful way.  I’d support financial incentives for attracting new ‘true talent’, retaining same, but I’d want to do that without “negotiating” that with DTA.  Or rewarding the mediocre in order to reward the true talent.

  7. Misanthrop

    “I don’t like people like Sunder who capitulate on what they know is correct simply to appease the other idiots…and show a “united” front….why??????”

    Because, as Sunder said at the time, under the rules of the Board only a member who votes with the majority can bring an issue back for re-consideration.

    Ranting is easy, governing is hard. Especially when you are in the minority on an issue you are passionate about and are forced to sometimes swallow a bitter pill and think strategically. Its even worse when people who should be your natural allies go off half cocked attacking you when they haven’t taken the time to understand the details or strategy of your position.

  8. Chuck Rairdan

    As someone who ran for DJUSD school board in 2014, I fully support Bob Poppenga’s candidacy.  I likewise learned just how complex and challenging it is run a successful campaign and Bob has a great support team this time around with the endorsement of many of the community’s leaders.
    We find ourselves in an era where the need for thoughtful leadership on the school board is greater than ever and Bob would bring much to the table in this regard.  He understands and puts into action the realization that the diverse learning needs of all children should be met to the best of our abilities and there is still much potential in a town like Davis to make that happen.
    He is outcomes oriented and will make decisions based on the demonstrated merits and evidence for a given proposal.  His focus will be on improving and better integrating our various programs and making those opportunities available to the children most in need of specific services.  This involves the wise use of available resources and taking a long view in planning for our district’s future.  As an accomplished educator, Bob has the experience and mindset needed to keep our public schools on a successful path going forward.

  9. The Pugilist

    Bob has the right demeanor, background and experience – he would a huge asset for the board and a huge improvement over a long term incumbent.  I think nine years on the board is enough and hope that Susan Lovenburg will step aside to allow a different voice to emerge.

  10. MrsW

    I am concerned about how DJUSD uses numbers to inform their decision making.  I am particularly concerned with (1) statistics used to identify effects, good or bad, on small populations; (2) numeric models that are extrapolated outside of the range they’re calibrated for, but nevertheless used to support decisions; and (3) the use of parametric statistics to identify effects, good and bad, on biological and social systems, i.e. children, schools–period.  I will continue to read about Dr. Poppenga, to see if he might show leadership related to this concern.

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