Mark McDermott

Mahan takes the helm of Manhattan Beach Education Foundation

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Hilary Mahan, the new executive director of the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, with her predecessor, Farnaz Flechner. Photo courtesy MBEF

by Mark McDermott

If you were to try to concoct the perfect preparation to become the executive director of the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, it’s hard to imagine what would better suffice than Hilary Mahan’s life.

She grew up in a community, San Luis Obispo, that prides itself in the quality of its schools. Both her parents were educators in public schools. Her father, Joe Burns, taught middle school social studies and later served two decades as a special education teacher. Her mother, Jean Burns-Slater, taught economics, Englishhome economics, and a variety of other subjects before becoming an assistant principal, then a principal, and finally the superintendent of schools.

Her childhood allowed Mahan to inherently understand the many-faceted needs of providing a good education.  

“Every school system, every school site, every district has so many moving parts, and collectively it takes so many people to move it forward in an impactful way to grow our kids into responsible human beings, to really support this next generation,” Mahan said. “I saw that on a regular basis. I saw my Mom work hard, taking administrative classes after teaching all day. I saw her stay up after midnight making muffins for kids taking tests the next day, making sure they had a healthy breakfast before their finals. I was very aware of the impact someone can have, of the influence she had….She demonstrated what a teacher and a mentor should be, not only for myself as a child, but I think for all students.”

Mahan went to college at UC Santa Barbara and obtained a degree in Communications and English. She and her husband, Rob, moved to Manhattan Beach in 1995. Mahan worked in the non-profit sector, with a special focus on organizing events, such as the Revlon Run/Walk benefiting women’s cancer research. She had her first child, Trey, in 2001, and two daughters, Ella and Alana, in 2004 and 2010.

“I got to the point in my life we were faced with the decision of where our children would go to school.We were already living here in Manhattan Beach and I just remember everyone I spoke with saying, ‘You are so lucky to be here,’” Mahan said. “I recognized that almost immediately when my son entered kindergarten at Robinson Elementary —  that appreciation and that sense of community was evident, the sense of pride our teachers had for providing for our kids, and the sense of volunteerism in the school, everyone working together to create what we have. It became very clear early on I needed to be involved in this.”

Mahan became a PTA leader and began volunteering with MBEF, eventually joining its Board of Directors. The organization was an embodiment of the things she most believed in — building community in support of education, and building education tailored to the priorities of the community —  and did so through such signature events as the Manhattan Beach Wine Auction. It was a perfect fit for Mahan.

“I’ve always been philanthropic, and I’ve always organized and managed non-profit events and community relations,” Mahan said. “But when it came to raising my children in this community and recognizing how significant an impact the foundation has on every child, it instantly became my mission to become more involved in the Education Foundation.”

Four years ago, when Farnaz Flechner arrived as executive director, she took immediate note both of Mahan’s passion and her capabilities.

“She’s just this incredible, thoughtful, patient strategic thinker and strong communicator, an amazing human being, and truly passionate about education,” said Flechner. “She came here and early on as a parent jumped into leadership roles at the PTA, and has throughout her time here been in so many leadership roles.”

A little over two years ago, Flechner asked Mahan to apply for an open position on the MBEF administrative team.

“I jumped on it,” Mahan said. “I applied for it right away, knowing this work was really going to meet my needs as an individual, yet also as a part of this community.”

Mahan was hired and served as the director of the Annual Appeal and Partnerships at MBEF for the past two years, bringing support to new heights as the foundation was able to provide over $6 million in grants to schools each year. Flechner, who left her position at MBEF earlier this year after a remarkable four year tenure that culminated with the passage of Measure MB, identified Mahan as her potential successor almost as soon as they began working together.

“I immediately thought of her as part of my succession planning,” Flechner said. “She was the main force —  everything we did, we did as a team together for the last two years.”

Mahan was selected to take the helm of MBEF after a rigorous hiring process that included 110 candidates who’d applied for the position. She couldn’t be more thrilled at the opportunity to lead the organization.

“Our community is made up of highly educated, professional, and bright people who are empathetic, generous, and committed. All in one,” Mahan said. “So when you build something out of a community like that, you are going to get something great, and that is what our Ed Foundation stems from.

“I don’t think the Ed Foundation could be in better hands,” Flechner said. “She’s genuine, she has incredibly high levels of integrity, she’s very eloquent, she’s a critical thinker who asks hard questions and hold people accountable. She knows how to advocate, both with district and state leadership and with parents. And she’s very warm and graceful.”

MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews first got to know Mahan when she was the president of Robinson PTA eight years ago.

“I appreciated her kind, professional, intelligent, and caring leadership then, and I still do today,” he said. “The MBEF Board got it exactly right when they selected Ms. Mahan to help lead the effort to build upon all of the successes of MBEF. I look forward to working with her as we all seek to do whatever we can to help the students of Manhattan Beach.”

Mahan praised what Flechner was able to accomplish in her tenure as executive director, particularly her role in educating the community on the district’s unique and very complex funding challenges. Flechner gave 68 presentations on the topic throughout the community, out of which grew the campaign for a parcel tax.

Farnaz left a legacy for Manhattan Beach in communicating so clearly and distinctly our funding challenges,” Mahan said. “I think more and more people are finally understanding why Manhattan Beach is such an anomaly —  California funding for education is already extremely low, but Manhattan Beach is amongst the lowest. And Farnaz shared that so eloquently on so many levels that when it came time for people to vote on Measure MB, they couldn’t resist it….that’s how Farnaz works. She has incredible insight and vision, and a beautiful way of bringing people together.  . She’s a tremendous advocate for all public education. ”

One of the key aspects of MBEF that Mahan has cherished is how it establishes its priorities —  a biennial  comprehensive parent and teacher survey that helps identify needs, out of which often comes grants directed at education programs serving those needs. Its indicative of how broadly integrated the foundation is with the community that its board is comprised of 33 members. Out of all this involvement come programs shaped to meet very specific needs.

“The Ed Foundation is our community,” Mahan said. “The Ed Foundation is more than just a single entity; it is a community of support. So we listen to our supporters and we take their priorities and able to put them in practice with funds contributed to the Ed Foundation. I mean, how amazing…I hope we can always grow our support of those needs.”

In the last school year, MBEF’s fingerprints were on almost every aspect of MBUSD education —  providing funding for 74 educators, the hands-on, STEM-centric MakerSpace program, FabLab at MBMS, science electives at MCHS, counselors to support emotional wellbeing, elementary music, and dozens of other programs.

Last month, through a special “Paddle-Rais” at the Wine Auction, MBEF raised $165,000 to fund a new program —  elementary visual arts education throughout the district. It was a program Mahan particularly helped prioritize.

“I think the introduction of a visual arts program for the elementary level is important,” she said. “It has been important to me but also to so many members of our community and I think it’s going to have a significant impact.”

The new program, coming on the heels of Measure MB’s passage, is representative of a turning point in district schools —  though decreasing class sizes remains an elusive goal, the arts program restores something that was lost well over a decade ago. The importance is that MBEF is not just working to preserve programs and positions that would have been lost during that time, but pushing forward.

“I think it was 2004 when we last had arts teachers to support our teachers in the classrooms,” Mahan said. “Our parents have been asking for it but funding has not been there —  because of the cutbacks in other areas, it’s not been prioritized, so the timing and the passage of Measure MB has allowed us to finally suggest and push another initiative through. Even just this small grant, $165,000, has the potential to help build a fuller program.”

She envisions the visual arts program planting the seeds for students to more fully engage in this aspect of their education in middle and high school, much like the elementary music program helped build a foundation for the award-winning MBMS and MCHS music programs.

“Music education starts evoking the interest of young students in elementary school, and then promotes the success of our amazing music programs at MBMS and Mira Costa now,” Mahan said.

This is all in keeping with the role Mahan sees for MBEF going forward —  in fact, going very much forward.

“My vision for MBEF is to continue to be an important part of shaping the education of students,” she said. “If we sit back on our laurels and say, ‘We have a parcel tax, or the state budget is kicking back a little bit more,’ and rely solely on that —  we could quickly find ourselves in a situation our community wouldn’t be satisfied with. We have to push forward. Manhattan Beach has built itself around our schools, and now, for over three decades, the Education Foundation has been truly instrumental in shaping our schools and providing our students with enriching programs and progressive academics that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. My intention is to ensure that MBEF continues to play this important role in our community.” ER

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