With just 12 days remaining before the Aug. 15 extended filing deadline for candidates running for City Council and Board of Education, the November school board election is in danger of being cancelled entirely and the City Council race is looking uninspired.
The school board situation is particularly disturbing, in light of the fact that the last election in 2009 was cancelled when only the two incumbents ran for re-election. The last contested election was five years ago, unprecedented for a community in which the school system and the education and welfare of our kids are so highly valued.
It's certainly not due to overwhelming satisfaction with the status quo. There is no lack of critics of both the school board and the City Council. Vigorous and at times acrimonious debate has occurred in the community over many issues, ranging from the new school calendar to city approval of new development in excess of zoning limits.
The City Council election offers two open seats due to the decisions by Yiaway Yeh and Sid Espinosa not to seek second terms. Incumbents Greg Schmid and Pat Burt, finishing their first terms, have both announced they will run for re-election.
Former councilmember and termed-out county supervisor Liz Kniss and attorney Marc Berman were the only additional candidates until this week, when three unsuccessful previous candidates, Tim Gray, Mark Weiss and Victor Frost either filed or took out papers to run.
If no others step forward to file, that means that Kniss and Berman will face opposition from three candidates who have not previously been able to win any significant support in the community.
Especially with the loss of Espinosa and Yeh, the two youngest members of the council, we would hope for additional qualified candidates in the race. There are many Palo Alto residents who have served on commissions or in advisory positions and who are capable of stepping up to the council, and we hope to see a few more of those faces come forward in the next two weeks.
There is an even bleaker situation for the school board election, where three of the five seats are up for election and one incumbent, Barbara Klausner, decided against seeking a second term.
Camille Townsend, who is completing nine years on the board and who only narrowly won re-election in 2007, surprised many by announcing she would seek an unusual third term. Melissa Baten Caswell, elected to her first term in 2007, is also running for re-election.
Thus far only one person, Heidi Emberling, a Juana Briones parent, PTA leader and parent educator, has declared her candidacy.
Noticeably absent are any candidates from among those in the community who have been pushing the school board to respond more aggressively to address student stress and emotional well-being, although those are among the concerns Emberling has raised. The parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has both developed impressive data in support of its positions and made many uncomfortable by its assertiveness and blunt criticisms of district administrators, has so far not put forward a candidate. We hope they will, since that is the only way to ensure a public discussion on these issues and for all candidates to clearly articulate their views so they can be held accountable.
We are also anxious for a competitive school board race so that Palo Alto's philosophy of "site-based" decision-making can be more publicly discussed.
In her announcement that she would not seek a second term, Barbara Klausner cited this "strong culture of site-based decision-making and concomitant deference to the superintendent" as a source of frustration for her, as "key pedagogical and programmatic decisions are developed, refined and evaluated primarily within our schools, and the board, as reflection of our community's values, has adapted its role to fit that culture."
Klausner has raised a very important and largely heretofore unaddressed issue: What are the roles of the school board, superintendent and school principals with regards to policy matters, how did this culture of pushing important matters down to individual schools evolve, and is this practice serving us well? How can board members provide leadership on important educational issues if our established process is for those issues to be worked on at the school site level and then wind up in front of the board when fully developed?
Elections and campaigns are important, sometimes more important than who wins. They require incumbents to defend their records and votes, and allow challengers a forum for critiquing the performance of those in power.
Of all places, in a city and school district where hundreds of citizens volunteer on dozens of boards and committees for the betterment of the community, Palo Alto voters deserve vigorous and substantive debate over our past and future.
We hope in the next 12 days a few of these citizens decide it is their time to take their participation to the next level.