Steve Tietjen, the superintendent of schools for the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE), says he couldn’t be more proud of the support and cooperation he has received from fellow educators, local leaders and community members.
Tietjen, with 42 years of public education experience and 28 years at the district and county leadership level, is running for re-election to the top MCOE post, the first time since he won the seat in 2018.
The 66-year-old superintendent has received re-election endorsements from all 20 school district superintendents in the county, all five members of the Merced County Board of Supervisors, three city mayors, and the Merced-Mariposa Teachers Uniserv Council that represents 2,600 teachers in the region, among many others.
“We saw there were two candidates in the race and we wanted to clarify the field for our members,” said Teresa Strube, a Weaver Union School District teacher who is the treasurer of the teachers union. “We were ready to recommend the best candidate no matter who, but it was clear by the end [of the interview process] that Dr. Tietjen brought the most to the table.”
Tietjen faces challenger Alberto López Velarde, a Merced resident who works as a principal of an elementary school in the Lodi Unified School District. The race will be decided by local voters in the June 7 Primary Election.
MCOE’s superintendent of schools is an extremely important position. The office oversees 20 school districts, employs more than 6,000 people, and impacts 60,000 students in one of California’s fastest growing counties. MCOE’s gross budget supported by state and federal dollars approaches $1.2 billion.
Superintendent Tietjen describes the campaign for the county seat as a “big lift” because it takes extensive outreach efforts and building relationships across a broad area from Dos Palos, Le Grand and Planada to Atwater, Livingston and Delhi to Hilmar and Gustine, and everything in between.
“There are some pretty significant things I want to see through,” he told the Times. “I believe I am the best candidate for the job, but certainly I can’t take anything for granted. I’m running hard. I’m running on my record, and what I’m going to do.”
After heading up the effort to safely reopen schools and keep the education system moving forward with stability after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Tietjen is focused on more opportunities for local students through expanded academic programs, new school facilities and increased scholarship funding.
He points out that MCOE this year has issued $590,000 in scholarships from the Virginia Smith Trust (VST) to local students — that’s way up from last year’s record high of $235,000. And that total doesn’t include another $100,000 in scholarship grants MCOE has received through other sources.
However, Tietjen’s scholarship goal envisions much more annual funding ahead.
The superintendent has led the effort to transform VST funding through the sale of expansive trust-held land near UC Merced that’s targeted for residential and commercial development. The sale of the first 80 acres of VST land appears to be imminent.
“We expect to be courting a master developer by July this year,” he said. “The sale will close when we are completely entitled and annexed into the city. And we expect that to happen by December of this year or so.”
MCOE expects to bank and invest about $18 million from this initial land sale for an expanded VST scholarship program that will not only support Merced-area kids (which was the original intent of the trust established in 1975) but all students throughout the county.
Tietjen says the VST fund will soon be handing out close to $1 million in annual scholarships, and as much as $3.5 million by the year 2026.
New school options, Training for teachers, Camp Green Meadows
Tietjen says he’s excited about multiple growth initiatives MCOE is spearheading at this time. There’s a new “dual language immersion” charter school opening. The center will be dedicated to all students and will feature the teaching of both Spanish and Hmong as partner languages with English. This marks a new opportunity for kids of all backgrounds to learn a second language, including native English speakers. The school will invite TK-1 students at the start, but the plan is to expand enrollment through the sixth grade level. It will be housed at an MCOE facility on Wardrobe Avenue outside of Merced, but the plan is to locate it in a brand new building across from Merced College at the former Saint Luke School site by 2026.
The incumbent candidate says MCOE is boosting its math training team to eight specialists who will be tasked to work with school district staff and teachers on classroom teaching strategies to boost academic performance. To receive the staff development services, districts must allow a minimum of 10 training days.
“Math instruction is critical for student success,” Tietjen says adamantly, adding that advanced math classes are necessary for those students who want to immediately advance their education at a four-year university.
During the 2020 Covid year, MCOE took advantage of closures at Camp Green Meadows — the county-owned nature education center for youth near Mariposa — to complete a long-awaited nursing state, a new septic system, and a new power generator back-up system. Improvements to the bunk cabins will be made this summer.
More than $3 million has been invested in the camp over the past three years, and this includes private donations from the community and the Merced Education Foundation.
“We are fully booked for Camp Green Meadows for the coming school year,” Tietjen says. “Some 4,500 sixth graders from throughout the county will benefit from this outdoor experience.”
All in all, Tietjen says Merced County is ahead of the rest of the state in student enrollment, though the projections tend to go up and down like a roller coaster. The superintendent points out that new schools are being built in Atwater and Los Banos, and MCOE is expanding its preschool footprint.
Special Education, leadership stability
On the Special Education front, Dr. Tietjen says MCOE is planning on increasing classrooms and classroom space over the next four years depending on the state’s hardship funding program. He says this region is eligible for about $15 million for the project.
This would involve about 40 classroom across the county — with the average class size being reduced from 12 to 14 kids to 9 to 12 kids.
Susan Coston, the longtime assistant superintendent for Special Education will be retiring at the end of June. However, Tietjen says a highly qualified new director from the Sylvan Union School District, Laura Fong, was recruited to fill Coston’s shoes. Tietjen mentioned that Fong has a brother living with special needs.
“She gets it,” he said. “She has empathy for kids and families who are working with the public education system.”
Tietjen added that two other assistant superintendents in his cabinet have also signaled they are planning to retire.
“We need to have stability at the superintendent level and someone who understands what this office does, and the responsibility it carries,” Tietjen says. “Bringing in new leadership at the assistant superintendent level is going to be critical. They have to have credibility with the school district superintendents. This job is all about relationships and making sure there is a sense of trust that goes two ways. We can trust them to do the right thing with education money and they can support us in our program efforts.”
Dealing with Covid
Make no mistake. The COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest crisis in public education that Superintendent Tietjen has faced in his 40-plus years as an educator.
Merced County had it particularly rough due to the rural region, the agricultural and food processing industries, language barriers, and lack of medical care support.
“All kinds of things were against us,” Tietjen said, “and yet we were one of the few counties that fully reopened in early 2021…
“All 20 of the school district superintendents and I worked together to have a united front on how to bring the kids back in-person instruction.”
Despite the state going back and forth on its closure plans in the early summer of 2020, Tietjen stresses that Merced County had a plan quickly in place and were ready to come back for that coming school year. The challenge was getting the covid numbers down in the community to meeting the state guidelines.
Nevertheless, most of the small districts were open in the fall of 2020, and also the mid-size districts by October. Special Education classes opened around that time too.
“We were among the few counties in the state that opened on such a widespread basis. And then the surge came during the winter and we had to shut down, but we opened back up in February of 2021. By early spring, the large districts in Merced and Los Banos also found a way to open too.
“As much of a crisis as it was, because we had a plan that we built together, the board members trusted it, and I think the public trusted it.” Tietjen said with a bit of emotion in his voice. “And so we opened, and I think it’s one of the most gratifying things to see that happen.
“Now we have to ensure that we stay back. … I feel an obligation to stick around to ensure that we get through this. … Part of my campaign is safety. Kids are safer when they are in in-person instruction than they are left at home. We need to make sure kids are safe by being in school.”
Tietjen said one of the big fights he anticipated this year was against laws being pushed in Sacramento to require young students to be vaccinated in order to attend the new school year.
“I didn’t want to see a significant percentage of our kids being forced to stay home because their parents made a decision to not vaccinate. We need to respect parents. While I’m vaccinated and so are my kids and grandkids, I believe in the choice of the parent or caregiver. I worked with Assemblyman Adam Gray to get the word out that we need to keep the personal belief option in place. And just recently, State Senator Richard Pan withdrew his legislation that was going to require covid vaccinations before students started school in August. Enough of us said that was a bad idea and not a good year to shove that down people’s throats. I feel like we won a big one there.”
Tietjen added, “And that’s one of the roles of a county superintendent. To stand up for our students and families in front of the folks in Sacramento who don’t really understand what we are trying to accomplish.”