The next Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Board of Education will have to deal with a multitude of issues facing the District, including a $4.2 million budget shortfall, an unremitting achievement gap and the issue of student stress.
Five candidates are campaigning for three open seats on the Board. Incumbent Melissa Baten Caswell is vying for a third term, while Heidi Emberling is vying for her second. The third seat is the one that will be vacated by Board Member Camille Townsend who decided against running for a fourth term this fall. The challengers are investment manager Todd Collins, former elementary school teacher Jennifer DiBrienza and outsider politician Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera.
Melissa Baten Caswell
Highlighting her many years of experience in the District, Baten Caswell sees herself as an institutional knowledge bridge for the District.
Baten Caswell has said that the combination of Superintendent Max McGee’s lack of experience in the District as well as numerous retirements within the District have created a institutional knowledge gap. If Baten Caswell gets elected this year she would be serving her third term on the Board, while every other Board member would be going into their first or second terms. Indeed, Baten Caswell has stated that she is the only one who has the understanding of the District’s history and culture necessary to help McGee through his transitional period.
“I was the Palo Alto Teen council president for a couple of years before I was on the Board,” Baten Caswell said. “I have had kids in school for 16 years, and I have been doing District-wide activities for the past 13 years, so I feel like I have a perspective and information on our history that no one else has, certainly no one else who’s running right now.”
In addition to her experience in the District, Baten Caswell emphasizes her background in business management and in marketing and technology and said her experience in these fields makes her highly qualified to be on the Board.
“I have experience developing and implementing strategic plans for large organizations. I understand the importance of managing to long term goals, as well as “panning and zooming” between the big picture and implementation details.”
Melissa Baten Caswell
While Baten Caswell views her experience as necessary to shepherd the District, others notably the Palo Alto Weekly, have criticized her record over the past eight years. Citing transparency issues as well as mismanagement the budget, the Weekly believes that the District is in need of “new blood” and that Baten Caswell will only continue what they see as the failures of her first two terms.
By serving in the District and working in management for so long, Baten Caswell said she has a large network of relationships that she said is a significant asset she brings to the Board.
For instance, during her first year on the Board, Baten Caswell said she was the primary individual who introduced management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to the District which helped the District create a new strategic plan, the guiding document for the District.
“We had a strategic plan, but it was not being followed and I brought in a major consulting firm,” Baten Caswell said. “I was able to find someone who gave us pro bono consulting for the strategic plan that we’re still using now nine years later.”
Baten Caswell’s said her top priorities for the Board, should she get elected, would be to emphasize social-emotional health and make sure that every student is engaged and challenged.
“Before a crisis hits it makes more sense for us to invest in making sure students have the tools and support to be strong in their social-emotional health.” Baten Caswell said.
One such tool that Baten Caswell wants to make sure students possess is the ability to make mistakes and recover, which Baten Caswell said will make students more emotionally resilient and better able to cope with stressful situations when they arise. As such, Baten Caswell believes the District should provide students more programs like the Advanced Authentic Research program and the Scientific Research Project program, which gives students a safe environment to learn such coping skills.
Furthermore, Baten Caswell said things such as the Wellness Center and mindfulness curriculum are important for promoting social-emotional health in students.
Despite recognizing that the District has room to grow on many fronts, Baten Caswell likes to point out the success the District has had.
“It’s a great District. We’re number one in the state of California,” Baten Caswell said. “Our academics are number six for public schools in the nation. Eleven of our elementary schools are in the top 100 in the nation, and our three middle schools are in the top 25 … That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make improvements, but I think it’s important to remember that during an election cycle when people are looking for problems.”
If re-elected this November, Baten Caswell will join Board member Camille Townsend as one of only two Board members to serve a third term in the past 40 years.
Focusing his campaign on solving PAUSD’s budget shortfall and on using data-driven solutions, Todd Collins, an investment manager at Tregaron Capital, sees the budget shortfall as critical for the future of the District.
“I’m an investment manager by profession, and I spend a lot of time serving on Board and helping oversee company’s financial affairs. It really struck me that we were in a not good place. We had made some bad decisions, and we are potentially putting what we have at risk.”
At every regular Board meeting since the $4.2 million shortfall was announced, Collins spoke to the Board about the budget during the public comments section of the Board’s budget discussion.
During his frequent comments on the shortfall, Collins has pushed for urgency.
“I hear Board members say that we shouldn’t rush to make decisions without community input,” Collins said at the Aug. 23 Board meeting. “For some cuts, in school site programs for instance, that is certainly a very reasonable approach, but in our budget of over $200 million dollars, are there no cuts at all that we can look at this year now without a thorough community review?”
As the Board’s budget is such as big issue for Collins, most of the criticism for Collins stems from critics for his budget plan. Some say the shortfall is not as serious as Collins thinks it is and that more caution and less urgency is required in budget talks.
Data-driven solutions is Collins’ other major rallying cry.
Some of the recent instances where Collins said the District has failed to properly utilize data include last year’s contentious debates about the District’s three-year teacher contract, whether there should be a limit to the number of AP courses high schoolers can take and the decision to move to full-day kindergarten.
Collins is particularly disappointed by the District’s implementation of the three-year contracts, which he said caused the shortfall.
“It turns out, no other California school Districts similar to Palo Alto guarantees raises in advance,” Collins said. “If we had looked at the contracts other Districts have with their staff — readily available on the web — we would have seen this, and hopefully then asked — why not? — before agreeing to the guarantee, and causing the shortfall.”
Another issue Collins’ prioritizes is the social-emotional well being of PAUSD students. Collins, who had a daughter who went through a mental health crisis, sees enforcement of the District’s homework and test-stacking policies as a significant part of the solution to PAUSD’s social-emotional health issues.
“There is has not been any mechanism for tracking [homework loads and test stacking], for giving feedback for teachers for teachers to share information on it, we literally have a policy that is unenforceable because we don’t collect the data or try to put the systems in place to give people what they need to comply with [the homework and test stacking policies],” Collins said.
In addition, citing the zero period controversy at Gunn in 2015, adding more student voice to the school Board is a top priority for Collins who said preferential votes given to student Board representatives, which allows the representatives to have votes formally recorded on the minutes, but without actual value in the vote count, would allow the representatives to act as the best vessels of student voice.
“If you are going to have a preferential vote, then you should have a way of polling the student body on the issues beforehand. Then I think it would be very hard for the Board not to [listen to the Board representatives].”
Citing the lack of an educator’s perspective on the Board, DiBrienza said her experience as an elementary math teacher will give her a unique lens for viewing the District, missing from the Board.
DiBrienza said she decided to run after hearing complaints from a Board member that there wasn’t a teacher on the Board. As an example of how having an educator on the Board would help, she cites the discussion of merging the two algebra lanes at Gunn last year, where she said the Board would have a greater understanding of how their decisions affect the classroom with a teacher on the Board.
Coming from her background as a teacher, DiBrienza said she sees promoting teacher professional development as one her top priorities.
“Just as the District has a growth-mindset approach for our students, we must also have one for our teachers. Being a teacher is hard work, and it is a complex job. In order for teachers to be most effective, they must continue to learn and develop throughout their entire career.”
Furthermore, DiBrienza’s said her opinions on other District issues, such as reducing the achievement gap, heavily rely on her experience as a teacher.
DiBrienza also views the achievement gap through a teacher-focused lens. She said she sees the importance of implementing Common Core standards and making teachers more accessible.
“The Common Core standards not only look at content standards, but they look at practice standards, and I think that that’s really important for Districts to meet those needs and be teaching those practice standards,” DiBrienza said. “That’s going to make it harder to let a kid fall through the cracks, and it’s going to make it easier for a teacher to see where the gaps are because kids are communicating more; they’re defending their thinking, and they’re explaining their answer. When you require that of students, you’re getting more at what it is they are not understanding.”
Some, including the Palo Alto Weekly, worry that DiBrienza’s teacher-centric position will not transfer well to management. They worry that DiBrienza may attempt to deal with problems behind the scenes rather than in the open.
However, beyond just bringing a teacher’s perspective DiBrienza, who has a Masters degree in education from New York University and works as an education consultant, said she can bring crucial data and research analysis skills to the Board, and like Collins she said the current Board has failed to adequately use data, especially when they approved moving the District to full-day kindergarten.
“When the Board agreed to extended the day, the research brought by those advocates was cited as one of the supports for their decision,” DiBrienza said. “Looking through a research paper and analyzing the methodology used and the conclusions drawn is essential in understanding the validity of said conclusions. I don’t believe that was done appropriately in this case. While there could be valid reasons to extend to full-day kinder, the research presented was not one of them.”
Seeking to add to her accomplishments as a Board member, incumbent and current Board president Heidi Emberling emphasizes completing the goals that she set during her first campaign most notably prioritizing the social-emotional health of Palo Alto students.
When Emberling ran for her first term on the Board in 2012, she said she saw the District’s need to refocus from academic achievement to the social-emotional health of students. She said she wants to be re-elected to the Board in order to continue pursuing this and other goals from her last term.
“In my first term, I focused my work on raising the importance of youth health and well-being, right alongside academic excellence and achievement. I’d like to continue that work, focusing on improving students’ everyday experience in our classrooms and schools.”
Emberling emphasizes her record on promoting social-emotional learning during her first term. Over the past four years, the Board did such things as approving the addition of a Wellness Centers at Paly and Gunn, moved Gunn to a teacher advisory system more like Paly’s, approved mindfulness classes and revised the strategic plan with social-emotional health as a “pillar.”
Emberling, who sees redoing the strategic plan as a crowning achievement of her time on the board, said the District can still do more to achieve the values enshrined in the plan. Emberling said she wants to prioritize dealing with stressors for students, such as homework, test and project stacking and “promoting balance in terms of courses taken and extra-curricular interests.”
Furthermore, Emberling said increasing student participation on the Board will help to emphasize social-emotional health because she said students will bring more focus and understanding of issues to the District. “I voted to grant our student Board members preferential vote, and I want students to weigh in on issues that affect their everyday experiences,” Emberling said.
Like Baten Caswell, the Palo Alto Weekly criticized Emberling for the Board’s lack of transparency while she was on it and for her tepid response to the budget shortfall.
One way Emberling said Palo Alto can keep and promote high-caliber teaching, a top priority for her, is through promoting professional development, which she views as critical to the culture of self-improvement in PAUSD.
“We have to invest our resources in the places that matter most for our students: their teachers,” Emberling said. “We put aside $5 million into a Professional Development fund and hired a Director of Professional Development. We need to continue to look at meaningful evaluation, mentoring, and recruitment and retention to keep our District an attractive place to work and develop your career.”
Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera
Running for elected office for the eighth time and Palo Alto school Board for the second time, Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera, who does not accept donations over $100, said society is turning into what he calls a “moneyocracy” and candidates such as he are needed stop this process and transform the community.
Cabrera, who has run for everything from U.S. Congress to Mayor of San Francisco,said the entire American electoral process as in need of reform. He has called donations “legal bribes” and said donations create a society where money rules all. In his railing against the system Cabrera points to the $60,000 donated to candidates in this school Board election and the fact that the school Board is completely comprised of white people as evidence that big money is pushing out small-money candidates.
“The population of Palo Alto Unified School District is almost 35 percent Asian-American … yet the school Board is entirely white, and I think this is a direct effect of [large amounts of money in politics that] people from these low income communities … just don’t run for office,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera, who received just 2.8 percent of the vote when he ran for school Board in 2014, said his chances of getting on the school Board are slim, but he said he needs to run anyway to highlight the issue of money in politics.
“I want to prove that you can win without money, but it’s going to take multiple elections, and this election is not necessarily the one.”
Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera
Cabrera’s condemnation of the election system is not limited to donations. He said this school Board election should not be about electing the best candidates, instead he believes this election should be about electing the most diverse Board.
“For me, the best Board to serve the students at the highest level is the one that would be the most diverse, so then you have a diversity of discussion, and you’re really able to see all the different components that would affect the students,” Cabrera said. “In that context I feel like I bring a extremely different point of view than the other candidates and would serve the students and would serve the school Board very well by not just electing another white parent.”
In line with his outsider point of view Cabrera said everyone above the age of 15 should be allowed to vote in order to increase student participation and that the District should use reserves to help pay for the budget shortfall.
“I think [it] is extremely important to reduce the voting age from 18 years old down to 15 so that every single high school student is getting three years of direct civic engagement,” Cabrera said. “I think that could change our society in so many ways where you’re actually learning as a student, how to engage in our civic processes, not after you leave your parents’ house.”
Critics of Cabrera point to his outsider viewpoints and tendency to run in any election he can. These critics worry that Cabrera is not a serious candidate and that he won’t have any actual chance of winning the election.
While, Cabrera has not served on the school Board or on the Board of a business like many other candidates, Cabrera is a Gunn graduate and has some school management experience from his time as the Internal Vice Chair of the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Student Union. Cabrera said his time as the Vice Chair of the UCSC Student Union gives him the mangement experience necessary to be a Board member.