All six candidates for Palo Alto school board kicked off the race Monday evening by presenting their platforms at Duveneck Elementary School. The hopefuls spoke about various issues -- ranging from enrollment growth to repairing rifts in the school community -- during the forum, which was the first of 16 such events organized this fall by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs.
The candidates -- Melissa Baten Caswell, Claude Ezran, Wynn Hausser , Barbara Klausner, Pingyu Liu and Camille Townsend -- are vying for three spots. Board members Mandy Lowell and Gail Price are stepping down after completing two four-year terms each, while incumbent board President Townsend is seeking re-election in November's vote.
About 50 parents came to Monday's two-hour session to submit their questions and watch contenders question each other.
Barry Gleeson was one such parent.
"I know several candidates, but knowing them socially is different from knowing how they work," said Gleeson, who has two children at Duveneck.
Teachers had told him new board members can be ill-informed about district needs, he said.
"I want to figure out which one of the candidates really knows what is needed," he said.
Other community members turned out to evaluate the candidates, despite no longer having children in the district. Resident Michele Miller expressed her concern about underachieving teens, citing a figure discussed at the Sept. 11 board meeting that 20 to 30 percent of students are not well-served in the current high schools.
"In a district that's doing as well as we are, what are we doing to help these students?" she said.
All candidates agreed the board must deal with the district's steady enrollment growth -- there are 235 more students this year than last, according to numbers released this week by the district -- but offered different plans for how to do so.
On the subject of reopening a third "comprehensive" high school -- consideration of which the board reluctantly agreed to postpone at its Sept. 11 meeting -- candidates proposed several alternatives.
Hausser suggested expanding existing schools vertically.
"Let's put a two-story building behind Gunn and get rid of all those portables," he said.
Staggering attendance so some students come in earlier in the day and some later had worked for his high school and could work here, said Hausser, who grew up in New York.
Staggered days might be a good idea, Klausner agreed.
"We've got a seven-period day. (What about) adding a zero, an eight, and a nine," she said.
Ezran proposed a smaller high school focusing on "programs for those not college-bound, with arts, music, technical and vocational education."
But Baten Caswell said that steadily growing enrollment could surpass projections, making planning for a third high school urgent, despite the board's postponement of discussing the third high school. The plans should be set in motion sooner rather than later, she said.
Candidates also addressed the needs of students who aren't doing as well as others -- Miller's concern.
Ezran said a specialized high school could help meet the needs of lower-achieving teens. One-on-one tutoring after school could also boost achievement, he said.
"We could lengthen the school day for these students on a voluntary basis, with community volunteer (tutors) supervised by teachers," Ezran said.
Yet Klausner said it is teachers themselves who should help struggling students by altering the curriculum to address student needs. Greater flexibility can produce good results, as when Gunn math teachers successfully redefined the curriculum to make it more hands-on several years ago, she said.
Townsend said helping lower-achieving students was a board priority, and district staff members are already studying how other districts approach the problem.
Taking a completely different tack, Liu said he didn't perceive an achievement problem. The 20 to 30 percent was measured largely by fluctuations in the performance of individual students and not a cause for concern, he said. Rather, he focused on the district's high-quality education.
"When my daughter was in Paly, she told me, 'Dad, don't worry about (it). As long as I'm in Paly, we're the best,'" he said.
Audience members also asked how to heal community relations in the wake of district turmoil generated by conflict between middle managers and former superintendent Mary Frances Callan and by the Mandarin Immersion debate.
Hurt feelings could be healed by focusing on shared aspirations, Townsend said.
"I like the phrase 'building barns.' You find common goals and come together on that," she said.
It is time to move on, Ezran agreed.
"We need to stop asking our neighbors, 'Which side of the war were you on?'" he said.
But board members should be held concretely accountable to improve communications, Baten Caswell said. They should pick the most important recommendations from the summer report on district relations by outside consulting firm Geoff Ball and Associates, then monitor their own progress, she said.
At the end of the evening, the event had helped parents get to know candidates' platforms better, Gleeson said.
After hearing the candidates speak, he rose from his folding chair satisfied.
"I now know who I am going to vote for," he said.
The next PTA forum will be held Thursday, Sept. 27, at Escondido Elementary School at 7 p.m.