Incumbents touted the academic and fiscal strength of Palo Alto schools while challengers said the school district could be doing better on a range of issues in a school board candidates' forum Monday night, Oct. 15.
Three of the four candidates said they would back a longer probationary period for teachers before tenure is granted while the fourth, Ken Dauber, said he would support data gathering to see whether the current two-year probationary period is or isn't working. Extending the two-year probationary period would require a change in state law.
Four candidates -- challengers Heidi Emberling and Ken Dauber and incumbents Camille Townsend and Melissa Baten Caswell -- are competing for three seats on the Palo Alto school board in the Nov. 6 election.
Dauber came across as the strongest critic, saying the board needs to "bridge the gap between sentiment and reality" on a range of issues related to academic stress.
"We need to move beyond the idea that there's a problem and we need to do something about it," he said.
Caswell, Emberling and Townsend pointed to anti-stress programs that recently have been put in place.
"Sometimes you just have to let people do their work," Townsend said.
Citing the district's new homework policy, adoption of the wellness program Developmental Assets and activities of the community coalition Project Safety Net, Townsend said, "The district has taken a lot of action in the last few years."
In Academic Performance Index scores that last week ranked Palo Alto sixth in the state, the biggest gains came from low-income and minority students, she said.
Dauber said he and a parent group he cofounded, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, could take credit for prodding the board on some of the new anti-stress policies.
"We've made some progress on this and I've been involved," he said.
Dauber said the district's culture of site-based decision-making has gone too far, stifling the spread of best practices across the school district.
"Too often (deference to site-based decision-making) means we deliver uneven quality," he said, mentioning the differing counseling programs at the two high schools, the time lag before the JLS sixth-grade orientation spread to the two other middle schools and the "patchy" implementation of the technology tool "Schoology."
Caswell said there's a "delicate balance" between site-based decision-making and centralized control. Citing her management experience in technology companies she said professionals do their best work when they're given clear goals and metrics, not when they are "micro-managed."
"The district should set policy and metrics very clearly, make sure people understand them, and let innovation happen at the sites," she said.
Caswell and Townsend acknowledged the board could have done better setting clear policy and metrics in some instances, but noted agendas for board meetings have been changed to push for more clarity.
Dauber advocated more frequent board votes, rather than inconclusive discussions, as a means to provide clear direction for the superintendent.
Asked to sum up the single item at the top of their to-do list to boost student learning, Dauber said: To ensure the district is listening to students through the use of data.
Emberling said: To make sure all students feel connected to a caring adult on campus and have a positive connection to school.
Townsend said: To keep doors open for students, including a higher bar for graduation, so they will have the classes they need.
Caswell said: To make strategic investments to ensure students have the opportunity to try new things, find their passions and become leaders.
Monday's forum, the seventh of nine in the school board race, was moderated by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly.