Pending Board of Education approval, Don Austin will take over leadership of PAUSD for the 2018-2019 school year, beginning on July 1. The Board will review the proposed three-year contract on May 22.
According to Austin’s PAUSD employment contract, he will receive a starting salary of $300,000 and his relocation costs will be reimbursed up to $15,000. He will also reside in a District-owned home for $1,800 a month.
Austin is currently the superintendent of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District (PVPUSD) in Southern California, where he faced controversy over salary negotiations with the teachers union and an alleged intimidation incident.
According to Anne, a senior from Palos Verdes High School whose name has been changed at her request, the local teachers union requested an increase in salary with the reasoning that their school is ranked significantly higher than surrounding schools, yet the teachers are paid less.
The teacher salaries at PVPUSD range from $53,097 to $102,189 according to the PVPUSD 2017-18 school year salary schedule. Teachers at neighboring school district Long Beach have a salary ranging from $57,697 to $108,434 according to the Long Beach School District website. However, Long Beach School District is ranked 72nd in California according to Niche, while PVPUSD is ranked sixth.
According to Austin, the teachers refused to write recommendation letters for students after salary negotiations reached a stalemate.
“They decided to use the students as a bargaining chip. At that point, parents and student[s] were extremely worried. Emails were sent out saying that ‘everything would be fine’ and they are trying to work it out. As a student, I couldn’t understand why they would jeopardize our future because of their fight.”
Anne and Austin both said Austin attempted to mitigate the letter of recommendation issue by establishing a “rec letter day,” where the superintendent and other notable administration members would meet with students to write their letters. Austin said he personally wrote 90 letters for students.
“It helped the students,” Austin said. “It didn’t help the conflict in the moment, but everything can’t be equally important. In that case, negotiations are about math, and we had a disagreement on math, and I was not going to allow students to be involved in the math disagreement.”
According to Austin, the PVPUSD Board reached an agreement regarding the salaries before the college application deadlines, and many teachers rushed to write letters of recommendation.
“It was really a very short conflict in the grand scheme of things. The conflict was over negotiations, not a disrespect of teachers, and the kids were taken care of.”
Prior to the conflict regarding salaries, Austin was the subject of a letter describing an instance of “intimidation” written to PVPUSD officials by Sandra Goins, the executive director of the South Bay United Teachers Association, according to an article published by the Daily Breeze, a newspaper based in Torrance, Calif.
Goins alleged Austin of grandstanding, or acting in a dramatic or ostentatious manner to impress observers, and trying to fight by suggesting that they “step outside.” Austin said that the issue was misrepresented and over-exaggerated by Groins in the article.
“I disagree with her characterization of the things that I had not already addressed and so did the investigation, and it went nowhere,” Austin said. “It’s important to know that in our community that article received almost no attention, and it was seen for what it was, but without knowing any of the players, now when you are an outside person reading, looking in like Palo Alto, I understand that it receives some attention because you don’t know the people.”
Despite the controversy surrounding his nomination, many Palo Alto students and community members say the community should welcome Austin and avoid immediately passing judgement on his selection.
“I think it’s important that we start out here with an open mind, especially considering the effect it has on students to have a constant cycling of district officers and administration,” said senior class President-elect David Foster, who served as a student representative on the Superintendent Search Committee.
The search committee cited Austin’s numerous accomplishments during his time at PVPUSD as reasons for his recommendation.
According to the PAUSD press release announcing the recommendation for superintendent, Austin “revamped the mental health programs, established a comprehensive Facilities Master Plan and received California School Boards Association recognition for strategic planning, a Golden Bell award, recognition for multiple Gold Ribbon schools and top rankings in the state and nation.”
Despite the incidents Austin faced criticism for in PVPUSD, Anne still said he did many great things during his time as superintendent.
“As of what I know, our math curriculum was changed. We got new textbooks and online resources, which overall was very helpful. I also do remember seeing a more clean PVPHS website, which was also pretty nice to see.”
Austin also oversaw California’s first transgender homecoming when he served as Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services for the Huntington Beach Union High School District. Austin said Huntington Beach’s conservative community required him to use “precision of language” and make sure he was “communicating effectively.”
Austin helped set up a press conference on the night of homecoming with the transgender homecoming queen. Austin said he thinks the publicity the event drew educated the public.
“It really showed a lot of people how to handle a situation with care and the nice thing is that that student became a voice for students beyond transgender,” Austin said. “[She became a role model] for a variety of different things that students are working through, so she was able to say, Look, I did this. I did it very, very publicly and it was OK.’ It was a win for us.”
Many Palo Alto parents and community members have expressed concern about Austin’s experience in a conservative community, however, given Palo Alto’s largely liberal bent. PVPUSD and Huntington Beach Unified District are both primarily conservative. Austin also attended conservative, evangelical colleges. However, Austin said he always tries to uphold the values of the community he represents.
“I try to reflect the community I work in. That’s part of why it’s so important to get to know what is valued in Palo Alto beyond the obvious of academic achievement [and] student well-being.”
The first thing Austin hopes to do upon arriving at PAUSD is to gain an understanding of what is most important to the Palo Alto community, he said.
“I want to come up there and listen to students, staff and community and spend a little time getting to know everybody before we even start to talk about what we would possibly change,” Austin said. “I think PAUSD is one of the few places in the country that can really show the whole country what can be. [PAUSD] can be a place [where] you can actually change the way the system works. You can redefine what’s important. Not many places have that kind of potential, and I’m excited to explore those opportunities.”
The potential Austin sees in PAUSD is what is driving him to make the move, despite the impact the move will have on his family. He looks forward to working in PAUSD and is confident that the move will be worthwhile.
“It’s easy to forget the personal side,” Austin said. “We’re having to pack up a house and move to a place where we really don’t know anybody. My wife and I would not do that if this place wasn’t special and I really believe it is. We’re coming to give it our team effort. We’re partners in this and the school district is going to get my best effort every day.”