Q&A with Poway Unified School District Board of Education Area C candidates Heather Plotzke and Patrick Batten

As a part of our coverage of the upcoming elections, The Nexus interviewed Poway Unified School District Board of Education Area C candidates Heather Plotzke and Patrick Batten.

Below is an abridged transcript* of the candidates’ responses to The Nexus. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you choose to run?

Plotzke: I’m running because I care about PUSD. I do not, in any way, consider myself a political candidate. I’m not a politician. I’m definitely not a polished politician. I’m not doing this for a photo op, or because I want a higher office. I’m doing this solely to get onto the school district, and to work for the school district. No matter what happens, I will still be volunteering. I can’t think of a school board meeting I’ve missed in the last five or six years. I have been at every school site, and I’m regularly at the district offices. I’m a member of the seven PTAs that my kids have been at, and I do know that other candidates have not had that same dedication.

Last year, whenever I was watching the board [meetings] with my kids, they would have to hear the public comment section, and there was always such visceral hate coming from it. [When we watched] they would always tell me, Mom, this can’t be it. We’ve heard you and dad talking, and we know people have been asking you to run. At first, I said no, especially considering [the personal responsibilities] that I have to my family. But in the back of my head, I had always wanted to run for it. After months went by, they called a family meeting. And now, if you read any of my brochures, or my website, you’ll notice that it doesn’t say that I’m running for the board. It says that my family is running for the board, because it was a family vote to put my name on the ticket, because I wouldn’t run without them acknowledging that we were all going in on it, that we all had to do it. And now it’s a family project, because none of us could just let that visceral hatred exist without trying to do something about it.

Batten: What made me run for this seat was my children. I have four kids, two of them have already graduated from PUSD from start to finish and they’re in college, and I have a freshman at RB and a seventh grader at Bernardo Heights Middle School. Being a member of this school district for 20 years is part of it, but in addition, my wife actually graduated from RBHS, and she went through the entire school district. Having been in this district for 20 years, volunteering, working together with the students, having my wife’s experience of 45 years of being in this school district gives us a perspective of what’s important. One of the things that I want to see an increase in is a return to the partnership that used to exist between parents and teachers, and to some degree, students. That partnership as a three-legged process includes parents, teachers, and students, and PUSD has always been special because of this relationship, because parents are involved in every decision that is made in a child’s life, and we need to make sure we have that.

What would you, as a BOE member, like to do regarding mental health support within the community moving forward?

Plotzke: Mental health is a really big focus of my campaign. I would list it under safety. Most of the time, when it comes to a school threat, it’s a student who comes back and perpetrates it, and usually it’s because something has happened and they don’t have the mental health resources to deal with that. That see-something-say-something campaign has been so important—kids have been participating in it, and that’s helping, and I think it’s great because those kinds of things weren’t available 10 years ago. I desperately think that it would not help if these things went away. I think if we don’t help [mental health] situations, we would be creating worse problems. I’m just tired of having to explain to my kids that another friend or another student was hurt, or hurt themselves.

Batten: I think that mental health in PUSD is growing in importance. It’s always been important, but what I’m seeing is that the pressure and the stress that has always existed, is now being manifested in different mediums like social media, because our campuses are smaller and more connected. Everybody’s small interactions are magnified to the entire student body, and the pressures that our students fall under to achieve higher levels and economic standards becomes more difficult. Another thing that I know of is the bullying situation, and that’s so challenging for so many students because you make a gaffe on social media and that gets magnified, and other students make a joke of it and that snowballs. Unfortunately, because we are now so connected, these problems follow students home. These problems that students are facing are just increasing and magnifying in severity and frequency, really, and we have to be able to provide some of those resources for students who are being bullied or struggling with mental health. Providing students with more resources has to be one of our priorities, especially coming out of COVID-19, since students didn’t get to socially interact. Over the next few years, I think we’ll definitely see more mental health matters rise.

What are your priorities as a candidate?

Plotzke: Besides the core priorities I’ve listed on my site, I really want to have a new way of communication with people. I think after board meetings, the next day, we should have public comments, especially on high-emotion issues, there should be a fact check, and a press release about what’s happening, and why. I think our board should be more focused on answering and addressing public questions. And I think there should be a better line of communication with staff before major changes. You can see it in the staff sometimes, when they feel like they weren’t a part of making a decision, and that doesn’t help. I also feel like sometimes student words don’t get heard, and I think there should be a broader aspect for that. I know I plan on attending student meetings, whether that’s your student board meetings, or ASB class president meetings, I’d like to be a part of those.

Batten:  My number one priority is focusing on what I would call being “brilliant at the basics.” We need to make sure that we’re educating our children, especially early on, that we do focus on those very basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, that allows for a solid foundation for them to build upon as they get into higher educational opportunities. Second, I want to provide more opportunities for vocational education for students. Some students go into college, but there are also students who may prefer a different path. So giving them a chance to be exposed to different opportunities that may not require a college education, and partnering with some of the building and trades, and working alongside them, would provide that chance. Third, I’d like us to work with law enforcement in our community to ensure that our campuses are safe. Ensuring that students have a safe learning environment are one of my top priorities.

What are your budget priorities as a candidate?

Plotzke: As far as the budget, I think it needs to be fixed. I don’t think the district has necessarily done anything wrong, but I think we could communicate things better. The website is pretty muddled. You can search and find almost anything you want on the website, but most people won’t go and look. It’s not always explained really well when they go and do things.

I know some people say that we should’ve not taken money that paid for the counselors and therapists at school and put that into infrastructure. But I’m pretty sure that students have needed those therapists and counselors on-site. We needed air conditioning, but in another couple of weeks we’re not going to need air conditioning, even as we still need school psychologists on every site. I don’t care what we have to do to fund that, but that’s the number one thing we need to continue. Our partnership with Mending Matters is too important. Those meetings that we have for parents about what their kids would want them to know are phenomenal and eye-opening. I’ve gone to them and I have kids at every level, and it’s always been so important. We’re having a safety summit next month that’s solely on mental health, and it’s just shocking the number of kids that are hurting right now. People think that they can just go out of town and that’s a county issue, but there is no county help. If you think teachers are short-handed, it’s a thousand times worse to get mental health workers out in town. I know people that are driving to Chula Vista and Temecula and San Clemente to see mental health help, so those are things that have to be taken care of, and budgeted for.

Batten: I wouldn’t say I have any specific budgetary plans that I’m focused on, but I do think I have a lot of budgetary concerns in this district. That goes to our facilities and maintenance. We have aging schools—some of our campuses are more than 30 years old now—and they’re starting to demonstrate a lot of problems. The current school board and administration have put together a $1.4 billion package of priorities that they want to see fixed and we have to make sure that we are prioritizing those and improving our maintenance. Right now, I don’t think we’re spending enough money on that. One of our biggest issues in this district is how to maintain our schools and facilities and continue to improve them so we can stop some of the problems that we’re having. Obviously, as you saw with the AC at RB high school, it became a bigger issue recently. The school did spend $14 million to repair some of the mold issues that we’ve had from groundwater seepage, but these problems aren’t singular to RB, they exist across the district.

What are your thoughts on the recent book-restriction controversies?

Plotzke:  For one, the book-banning issue is not something I’m going to shy away from. I worked in a library for six years, putting myself in and out of college. There’s a review process for a reason for that. The BOE isn’t a part of that process, for good reason, and the school administration has a process for putting books into the library, and there’s a parental form for if you feel that a book doesn’t belong. There are a couple books that are going through that, but they want a hundred books pulled from the shelves, and that’s a really slippery slope, because once you start that, where does it end?

Batten: It’s a very delicate situation and we need to take it very seriously. What I do appreciate is that there is a good process that the PUSD does have. That being said, every year you bring home parent permission slips for movies. If there’s a non-PG movie that’s going to be viewed in your classroom, your parents have to sign that permission slip saying whether or not they’re fine with their child viewing that movie. I think that as the fact is, as these are children, parents need to have that level of responsibility for them. There are different religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds that we need to respect, and these are kind of two different levels. Even if a book is in a classroom, a parent and a student should be able to say that they aren’t comfortable with it and be provided with different options, and I appreciate that we have that right now. Going forward, I support what we have right now, and I don’t want the process to change. 

What can you as a candidate, and only you, provide?

Plotzke: I’ve been volunteering in the district since my kids enrolled in 2016, because I had to advocate for their rights. My son was special needs —and of my other two kids, one was struggling in school, and the other was gay — but they immediately unenrolled my son, so I had to fight to get him into the school system. About two weeks [later], they finally accepted him into an elementary school. After that, I realized that I had to do more for them, and I found the CAC (community advisory committee) for the board, and I started attending their meetings, and after a little while, I joined. As a part of that, we did oversight for the board for any students who had an IEP or an IOP. We also read all of the financials, and we have to do a complete audit of where all the money is, so I’ve been doing that for over six years now in the district. 

I know I’m the most qualified candidate for this job. I’ve read all the education reports, I’ve been in business for 30 years, I have relationships with teachers across the district, and I’ve been to almost every single campus in the district at one point or another. At this point, I’ve been endorsed by the unions and I’ve fought for the PSTA last year, when they were fighting for their contracts. My name is recognized by all the staff and I’ve always tried to fight for all the students.

Batten: My [experience on the Rancho Bernardo Community Council, Planning Group, Recreation Advisory Group, and the San Diego Consolidated Plan Advisory Board] will help me in that I’ve gotten to experience working with others from different perspectives and backgrounds, and that provides a very unique perspective in that I can come onto the PUSD BOE and help make tough decisions.

[Making better financial decisions] is where I think I will be able to provide a big difference between me and my opponent, just through my experience with leadership and making tough decisions. While Mending Matters is a valuable program, it was spent on one-time financial dollars. We got $80.5 million through the CARES act, and we used that for permanent personnel. We hired over 80 permanent positions with that money, and that means we have 80 permanent hires that we will not have the money to fund in a year or so. That’s not to say that these positions aren’t important, but they shouldn’t have been made on one-time money. Those hires needed to be made with long-time money, so that we could keep them. So what I can do is come onto our board, and find money in our budget for the things that matter. We still don’t have all the resources we need for students within our classrooms, and now we have to find a way to pay for programs that, while effective, don’t have long-term funding, [I’ll be effective because] just making those tough decisions is something I’ve done all my life. As a marine officer, I’ve had to make some challenging decisions, but the way you make those decisions is preparing yourself and coming to a conclusion with as much information as you can, to make sure you’re voting on or proposing solutions that will make an impact.

*Interview and transcript compiled by Amy Wang and Swasti Singhai