In their first debate of the fall campaign season, most of the five candidates vying for two seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education Thursday said they would not have handled recent civil-rights controversies as the current school board did.
The candidates agreed that the board should have been more transparent in its handling of a string of investigations of the district over the past two years by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
All but one of the candidates, Catherine Crystal Foster, said they would have opposed a resolution passed unanimously in June by the current board -- seeking redress against the Office for Civil Rights and alleging that the agency has refused to correct errors in its investigation processes, which board leaders called "purposely confrontational and disruptive."
"I would have voted no, and I also would have voted no on investing in fighting the OCR process," candidate Gina Dalma said. Dalma, a senior program officer at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, manages the foundation's education investments.
But Foster, saying it was "very concerning that the school board felt it needed to pass that resolution," added that without knowing all the confidential information in front of the board at the time of the vote, "I don't feel I'm in a position to opine one way or the other."
She added that if the allegations in the resolution were true, she reluctantly would have supported it.
Foster, an education policy consultant to nonprofits and foundation, is former executive director of the Peninsula College Fund, which helps low-income and first-generation students graduate from college.
Foster also appeared to be the only candidate who agreed with the school district's decision in February to quash a proposal by Palo Alto High School English teachers that would have de-laned 9th grade English. The teachers worked for 18 months on the proposal, leading to their significant disappointment at the outcome.
The other four indicated they would have supported the teachers, who had argued that under the current self-selection process for the regular or advanced lane, those who opt for the basic lane -- disproportionately minority students over time start seeing themselves as less capable.
All students, given proper support, should be able to thrive in the advanced lane, the teachers had argued.
"I supported the teachers' proposal for the pilot de-laning of English," candidate Ken Dauber said. "The teachers had worked very hard over a period of years to address the concerns of the accreditation committee about low expectations in the basic lane of English that minority students were concentrated in."
Dauber, a Google software engineer, co-founded the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto and ran unsuccessfully for a board seat in 2012. He has regularly addressed the Board of Education on issues relating to transparency, the achievement gap and academic stress and was a member of the district's Homework Committee.
But Foster said the teachers' proposal had not been fully vetted by the superintendent, "blindsiding the special-education community." In addition, she said, Gunn (which maintains lanes in freshman English) has a smaller achievement gap than Paly, so changing Paly to be less like Gunn raises questions. The district needs to "double down" on addressing the achievement gap but the de-laning proposal "simply wasn't ready," she said.
Other than one those two issues, sharp differences among the candidates -- likely to emerge as the campaign heats up -- were difficult to detect in Thursday's genial discussion, which was moderated by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.
The five candidates were in broad agreement on the need to recalibrate the district's balance between centralized authority and site-based autonomy.
Candidate Terry Godfrey said the district would "do itself a service to define that model." Most of the thousands of decisions made each day should be made at the level closest to students, Godfrey said. But citing the model at Intel, where she worked as a manager for years, Godfrey said decisions bearing on health and safety should be more centralized.
Godfrey, who has a background in corporate finance with firms including Xerox and Intel, has chaired the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, was a founding member of Palo Alto Project Safety Net and most recently chaired the board of Palo Alto Partners in Education, a parent-led foundation that raises money for Palo Alto schools.
Candidate Jay Blas Cabrera said the district's role is to provide resources to "support the autonomy of the schools. What I don't want to see is a little mini-No Child Left Behind," he said. Cabrera, a 1998 graduate of Gunn High School, has run unsuccessfully for public office four times before including for mayor of San Francisco, mayor of Santa Cruz and California Assembly.
Dalma and Dauber stressed the need to evaluate site-based innovations to determine whether they should be spread.
"Innovation truly comes at the very local level," Dalma said. "But unless we're documenting it, evaluating it, understanding what it means in terms of student achievement and if it's scalable, then innovation won't serve -- it will only serve that specific set of kids."
All five candidates said they support tenure or "strong due-process rights" for teachers, but agreed that the current two-year probationary period mandated by state law is too short to determine whether a teacher should be granted tenure.
All five also expressed enthusiasm for the new Common Core State Standards, the need to address rising enrollment by opening a 13th elementary school and the need to be a better partner with the City of Palo Alto on the future of Cubberley Community Center.
The candidates all called for stronger and earlier interventions to address the achievement gap, for foreign language instruction for all elementary students and for stronger measures to address academic stress.
Dauber said the district could make real progress against stress if it enacted a plan he has advocated for years, which includes enforcing homework guidelines, ensuring that test and project deadlines are spread out, and reforming guidance counseling. "If we do this, we'll get progress and, if we don't, students will continue to suffer," he said.
Simitian surprised the candidates with the question, "What book have you read that changed your life?"
Their answers were: for Dalma, Alain de Bottom's "The Art of Travel"; for Godfrey, Fannie Flagg's "Standing Under the Rainbow"; for Dauber, Bruno Latour's "Science in Action"; for Foster, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude"; and for Cabrera, a book called "The Universe."
Thursday's debate, sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly and the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, drew nearly 250 people to the JCC.
The candidates will face off again on Tuesday, Sept. 16, in a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs. The event will begin at 7 p.m. in the boardroom of school district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.
On Saturday, Sept. 20, the candidates will appear at a forum organized by parents of special education students and students of color. The event will be from 10 a.m. to noon in the cafetorium of Jordan Middle School, 750 N. California Ave.
A video of Thursday's debate is available on Palo Alto Online's YouTube channel.