Election 2020, Gilroy Unified School District: Retired teacher brings inner knowledge of district

Michelle Nelson is a 39-year veteran of Gilroy Unified

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Michelle Nelson is shown at her nephew’s high school graduation. Submitted photo

As a 39-year veteran of the Gilroy Unified School District, Michelle Nelson knows the very inner workings of the education system. Her vast breadth of work—which included a 12-year stint as the president of the Gilroy Teachers Association—gave her inside information in how the district operates. 

That knowledge along with her ability to bring people together has set her up for a run at the Gilroy Unified Board of Education Trustee Area 3 seat. Nelson knows one of the big problems that have plagued the district is the fact that Gilroy Unified teachers are at or near the bottom of the pay scale compared to their peers in Santa Clara County.

“We have approximately a 20 percent turnover rate in the teaching staff every year, and it’s difficult to maintain continuity in the department and grade levels with that kind of turnover,” said Nelson, a longtime educator who retired from teaching in 2019. “It’s also difficult for the students because often they have substitutes and then a revolving door of subs because of some of the regulations.”

Nelson’s top priorities include the formation of a budget advisory committee and a comprehensive evaluation for every program. The former needs to happen because of the current financial picture; the latter remains paramount to judge the effectiveness of each program. Nelson vividly remembers two huge programs in the past that didn’t pan out but cost $1 million and $823,000, respectively. 

“The ($823,000) program was a language-arts program for the elementary schools, and the teachers’ union begged the district not to purchase this new program because we knew we would have a hard time financially the next year, and we did,” Nelson said. “So we knew the district didn’t have money for a (typical teacher) salary increase because they had already spent it.”

It goes without saying Nelson wants a stricter vetting process for programs for all the above reasons. 

“We urged (the school board) not to do it ($1 million program) because we had no evidence it would work,” she said. “From what I remember, they tried it for two years and dropped it.”

While a school board prioritizes a quality education as the top priority—as does the Teachers’ Association—they often differ on how to provide it. Nelson, who spent the better part of two decades negotiating teachers’ contracts, is counting on her experience to bridge the gap between the two sides.  

“Obviously I’m coming in with a teacher and union perspective, but I’m also fiscally conservative even in my own life,” she said. 

Nelson knows an evaluation system for everyone—including teachers, administrators, classified workers and programs—is needed for the district to thrive going forward. Along with a competitive salary, a superior evaluation system goes hand-in-hand with attracting the best talent and keeping it here. 

“Unfortunately, I have seen a lack of follow-through with the evaluation system,” she said. “It will take a lot of hard work and willpower, but I’m coming in knowing what is required to get this done.”

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