"The school district is so complicated — from K-12 curriculum to construction to architecture to bond management to bond sales to athletics, including equipment, fields, coaching staff — and you have to get a feel for the issues so you can give direction.
"It's not OK to say, 'I don't know construction, so I want to let someone else deal with that.' You can't do that," she recently told the Weekly.
First elected in 2003, Townsend is a veteran of school controversies that have included creation of the district's five-year-old Mandarin Immersion program — she was a consistent supporter — and the 'math wars' that periodically surface over curriculum.
She was in the minority on a controversial 3-2 vote in 2009 to adopt the K-5 mathematics textbook "Everyday Mathematics." And most recently, she was in the minority on the contentious 3-2 vote last May to revamp the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic calendars to begin the school year earlier in August so as to end the first semester before the December holidays.
"Every year there are always one or two issues that capture the community's attention," she said. "It's just a matter of framing them so you can move forward and everybody learns. I don't want there to be misplaced anger. We do our best work when we're done being angry, and we get into the details of things, and that's what we're doing."
About a recent angry flare-up over math and science laning at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, Townsend said, the facts need to be clarified before the board can act.
In December, a coalition of students and parents challenged the board to ensure the district's two high schools offer a basic, non-honors track in math and science that satisfies entrance requirements for the University of California and California State University.
"I think the staff will go back and look at what we're actually offering," she said. "To the board this is all rumor. We haven't heard directly from anybody. Are we really exceeding the standards or not?
"It's our duty to see whether that's the case because it's our obligation to give kids access to public universities as a matter of public policy.
"But you can't let anger rule the day," she said. "When you have a better understanding about what's actually going on, then there are solutions."
Townsend, who grew up in Wisconsin, has worked as a law-firm receptionist, youth counselor, probation officer, lawyer and professor of business law at Purdue University. Though not actively practicing law, she maintains her membership in the State Bar of California.
She got involved in Palo Alto schools as a newcomer from Indiana, when the older of her two daughters was in sixth grade at Jordan Middle School.
"We couldn't figure out what the math homework was," she said. "Being a diligent parent I saw that there was a math meeting at Jordan so I went to the meeting and found out there was no textbook. There were just these handouts that kids would lose.
"I raised my hand and said, 'What math book are you using?' and I felt all this heat turn toward me. I hadn't realized this was part of a bigger (math wars) issue. That's why I'm still leery of trendy math curriculums."
She served as PTA president at Nixon Elementary School and ran a Palo Alto PTA campaign to blanket state legislators with letters urging preservation of funding for "basic aid" school districts such as Palo Alto.
"It's just my general inclination to think that public education is so important," said Townsend, whose own parents never got beyond the eighth grade. Remembering her childhood in Wisconsin, she said, "My mother was always so happy when the school bus came."
Townsend's second term on the board — along with the first terms of members Melissa Baten Caswell and Barbara Klausner — had been due to expire in 2011.
However, following the resounding 2010 passage of a Palo Alto measure to consolidate City Council elections with even-year county, state and federal balloting as a cost-saving effort, the Board of Education voted to follow suit.
As a consequence, school board elections were moved from November 2011 to November 2012.
The terms of Townsend, Caswell and Klausner expire this year. Those of board Vice-President Dana Tom and member Barb Mitchell expire in 2014.