Steffen hopes to bring business acumen to school board

Between running two local businesses—Wheeler Steffen Sotheby’s International Realty and Wheeler Steffen Property Management—and participating in an array of community organizations, Paul Steffen has a recognizable face in the Claremont community.

Should he win a seat on the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education in the November 5 election, Mr. Steffen says he would make an effort to be even more accessible. It would start with regular office hours, allowing CUSD parents, teachers, students, staff, administrators and residents to share their thoughts.

“I consider it one of the duties of a board member to be an ombudsman for the community,” he said. “Every now and then, [people] find themselves stuck within the system and they need a relief valve, someone who might be able to carry their concerns to the right person.”

Community members will be able to carry questions and concerns to Mr. Steffen at several upcoming campaign events. These include an afternoon of conversation and light refreshments on Sunday, October 6 from 2 to 3 p.m. at the house of Jim and Jessica Marchant (128 E. Green St. in Claremont) and a wine-and-cheese mixer at the home of Pat and Bob Hauducoeur (2420 Forbes Ave.) on Thursday, October 10 from 7 to 8 p.m.  

Mr. Steffen has high praise for the current board and the progress they have made. This includes hiring superintendent Jim Elsasser, with whom the district inked a 3-year contract in June. It is a move that should put an end to the remarkable leadership turnover and subsequent instability that the district has experienced in recent years. Mr. Steffen said Mr. Elsasser, whom he has found to be thoughtful and approachable, seems to be a good addition to CUSD.

He believes that the school board itself could be more approachable, an area in which he said the Claremont City Council has made great strides.

“When you go to Chamber mixers and other events around town, there are often several council members there,” he said. “It may be politicking, but I’ve had the opportunity to express some concerns—I’ve seen them take quick notes and they’ve promised to get back to me.”

Mr. Steffen, who said he really enjoys working with community organizations, is no stranger to getting out and about. He is a longtime member and past president of Claremont Rotary and chair of the executive committee for the Claremont Community Foundation. He has also participated with the Claremont Educational Foundation, the Claremont Chamber of Commerce and the Claremont Youth Sports Committee and served as an AYSO referee, among other involvements.

He has pondered running for the Claremont school board in the past. What made him take the plunge was the decision by school board member Jeff Stark, a local financial planner, not to run for reelection this time around.

“With Jeff stepping aside, I was encouraged to run,” said Mr. Steffen, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from UCLA and an MBA from Pepperdine University. “We need someone with a business background on the board. When it comes to doing cost-benefit analysis, a business person, who makes these decisions every single day, often has a unique perspective.”

A business perspective will be particularly useful in the next year to year-and-a-half, when CUSD receives more than $13 million from the sale of the former district office and current service center. Last February, the short-lived La Puerta middle school was declared surplus and, while no auction date has been set yet, the site represents another source of potential income in the coming years.

Mr. Steffen expressed his admiration for the way the school board handled the sale of the district office and the service center, relying on the expertise of an ad hoc committee of local realtors and property experts. He said the sites fetched prices far beyond what he had envisioned. When it comes time for La Puerta to be sold, he would like to ensure that a similarly efficient process be used.

Funds pending from the sales that have already taken place will prompt the district and school board to assess spending priorities, Mr. Steffen said. Chief among these is deferred maintenance at the various school sites, and he feels he has the acumen to help with “some tough decisions.”

Mr. Steffen points to his background in facilities management, a skill set gained not just from his current position as a property manager but also from his 5 years as fiscal officer for the athletic department at UCLA. At that post, the management of athletic facilities fell under his purview along with all the fiscal reporting for a department with a $20 million annual budget.

“I understand large buildings and what it takes to keep campuses operating,” he said.

Mr. Steffen is also familiar with Claremont schools, where he received his own K-12 education. He has grown children who attended Claremont schools, and he and his wife Dawn have a younger daughter, Lauren, who is currently an 8th grader at El Roble Intermediate School. Additionally, he has hosted exchange students and helped guide them through their year at CHS.

“Overall, we have really wonderful, dedicated teachers,” he said. “It’s rare to see teachers have such huge concern for students, do such outstanding work and work so well together. They just need the freedom to find creative solutions that work for them. I believe the best solutions come from people who are doing their jobs.”

CUSD is beginning to implement the Common Core form of assessment, which should be fully in place by the 2014-2015 school year. Along with new testing methods, the Common Core—which is aimed at cultivating problem-solving skills and real-world applications over rote learning—will involve an all-new curriculum. Under Assembly Bill 86, Claremont schools will receive some $1.2 million in the next 2 years to facilitate such changes. 

“The Common Core is going to force every single person associated with Claremont schools to rethink how we are teaching and how we are going to make the whole thing work,” Mr. Steffen said. “There are some opportunities for creative teaching ideas.”

Mr. Steffen acknowledges that his campaign platform is short on new ideas, a decision he says is deliberate.

“One thing I believe is that until you sit on the other side of that desk, you have no idea about all the issues going into a decision,” he points out. “I’m approaching this with an open mind so I can get caught up with certain decisions and understand the goals behind them. Until I understand, I’m not going to advocate one thing over the other.”

Mr. Steffen does, however, advocate a policy of improving relations with any district stakeholders who might be feeling disenfranchised. Earlier in the campaign, the Claremont Faculty Association interviewed Mr. Steffen, along with the 4 other school board candidates, in preparation for making campaign endorsements.

“I was left with the impression that [members of the teacher’s union] aren’t feeling welcomed by the district and members of the school board,” he said.

It is a disconnect that Mr. Steffen would like to help remedy.

“I like putting together groups that aren’t communicating well and helping them find ways of communicating better,” he said.

For more information on Mr. Steffen’s campaign, visit Paul Steffen for Claremont School Board on Facebook.

The COURIER will be making endorsements for the three open school board seats in a future edition. In the meantime, consult the Candidates’ Corner in this and upcoming editions for opportunities to meet the candidates and hear their views.

—Sarah Torribio



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