Two-term member calls experience an asset in face of fiscal uncertainty
If re-elected next month, school board President Camille Townsend would be the first Palo Alto board member in more than 40 years to serve more than two terms.
But the veteran of school-funding wars counts her experience as an asset in light of the fiscal uncertainties facing public education in California.
"It takes experienced people to anticipate where the issues will be and get involved at the state and local level to provide the budget necessary to run our school district," she said.
She has worked to augment district funds with passage of a parcel tax and a bond measure, she said, noting that the $378 million bond construction program is "on time and on budget."
She also cites district progress on raising graduation requirements and narrowing the achievement gap during her tenure.
Townsend cut her teeth on school-finance issues in 2002 when she spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to then-Gov. Gray Davis after he proposed taking $126 million in local property-tax revenue from districts such as Palo Alto, which are funded under the so-called "basic aid" formula. Bombarded with opposition, Davis ultimately withdrew his proposal.
She was elected to the board in 2003, serving as board president in 2006-07 as well as in the current year. She was elected to her second term in 2007.
Townsend was an early backer of the Mandarin Immersion program, supporting it through two controversial board votes in 2007.
She parted company with the board majority in her opposition to the 2009 adoption of the Everyday Mathematics curriculum for Palo Alto elementary schools.
Townsend said Palo Alto had failed to use due diligence in researching the pros and cons of Everyday Mathematics.
"I have no confidence that we can be successful with this," she said at the time. "To bring in a math book with this level of dissent when we know we can do better gives me great pain."
More recently, she voted against the change in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic calendars, which moves the school-year start date to mid-August so as to finish the first semester before the December break.
She argued the district had never made a case for why the change would help students, and sided with a group of parents who argued the new calendar will exacerbate, not reduce, student stress.
Townsend defends the district's strong culture of site-based decision-making as the best way to foster innovation.
"Coming from the Midwest, everything was top-down," she said. "A unique and wonderful thing about Palo Alto is that teachers are allowed to create classes around their passions."
She cites a biotechnology class that began at Gunn and spread to Paly and innovation in Paly's strong media-arts program.
On the hot topic of high school counseling, Townsend said that without a policy of site-based decision-making, Paly never would have developed its teacher-advisory system.
"But we need to do better in bringing collaboration between the schools, and that takes money so teachers can talk to each other. And certain services must be offered for both high schools," she said.
Townsend, who grew up in Wisconsin, has worked as a youth counselor, probation officer, lawyer and professor of business law.
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 and did not appear to have a math textbook.
"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 use."
She served as PTA president at Nixon Elementary School.
"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. Townsend and her siblings have made it to college and beyond.
"Thank God for the public schools," she said.