Laguna Beach USD names 2021-22 employees of the year

Megan Bhaskaran was named as Teacher of the Year and Kelli Merda was chosen as the Classified Employee of the Year earlier this month. Courtesy of LBUSD

A Thurston Middle School social studies teacher and district human resources assistant were selected as the 2021-22 employees of the year for the Laguna Beach Unified School District

Megan Bhaskaran was named as Teacher of the Year and Kelli Merda was chosen as the Classified Employee of the Year earlier this month. Both women were surprised by staff with balloons and a personalized banner after being elected by fellow employees from throughout the school district.

“Since joining the Thurston family, Megan has shown to be an open, collaborative, and reflective staff member who naturally contributes to our community’s positive culture and climate,” Thurston Middle School Principal Joe Vidal said in a press release.

Eight years ago, the UC Irvine alumna helped Thurston students start a Model United Nations program, which is historically more popular among high schools. Two to three students from the Laguna Beach High School Model UN program help Bhaskaran run Thurston’s program, which is available as an elective course.

Schools from around the state are assigned a country and research how that nation’s government responds to real-world policy questions. They then present at a mock UN General Assembly. Top schools move onto national competitions.

Her interest in international affairs partly stems from her two-year stint with the U.S. Peace Corps in Saint Lucia.

This past year, Thurston was assigned Indonesia and studied the refugee crisis in Myanmar and the use of child labor in Southeast Asia. Students report that their family members are often astonished by how knowledgeable they sound while talking about policy issues around the kitchen table.

“It’s moments like that that are really special. You can tell it’s impacted them and their future,” Bhaskaran said.

Besides Model UN, the Oceanside resident is also passionate about providing an excellent education to English language learners and collaborating with Special Education teachers.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I had amazing teachers that had a great impact on me—who I’m still in touch with. I wanted to be that person for students,” Bhaskaran said.

At the district office, Merda wears a few essential hats. She acts as a receptionist for anyone walking through the district office’s front doors. Merda also serves as the guest teacher coordinator, a role that is more important than ever as teachers call in sick for exposure to COVID-19 and other illnesses.

After six years with the district, Merda said being chosen by her peers was humbling.

“It’s challenging to make sure all of our teacher absences are covered,” she said. “Thankfully we have a great substitute pool. We have [guest teachers] who work here every single day.”

There’s been a statewide shortage of guest teachers as many have chosen to retire, stay home with young children, or accept other positions during the pandemic. Those who continually show up for Laguna Beach students are assured someone will always be around to help them, Merda said.

“Kelli plays an integral role in the coordination of day to day support for students by working with sites to ensure vacancies are filled. She thinks creatively to complete this daily staffing puzzle all while being the face of the District Office greeting staff and community members with a warm smile,” Mike Conlon, assistant superintendent of human resources, said in a press release.

Laguna Beach Unified also recognized Classified Employees of the Year in specific categories, including Doug Bowman for custodial, maintenance, nutrition, and security services; Elizabeth Phillips for health and student services; and Margaret Warder for paraprofessional and instructional assistant.

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