Debate: School board candidates question one other | News | Palo Alto Online |


Debate: School board candidates question one other


One portion of Thursday's debate featured questions from the candidates to each other. The questions and brief summaries of the answers are below, as well as the time stamp on the video so that readers can watch the comments themselves.

The video of this debate is posted at the Palo Alto Online YouTube channel.

Terry Godfrey's question to fellow candidates:

There's a great saying in this town: "There are only two kinds of kids we care about around here: those we're related to and those we aren't." With that in mind, please share one or two things you're proud of that you've done with and for our community's youth? (Time on video: 54:13)

Catherine Crystal Foster said that until recently she was executive director of Peninsula College Fund (PCF), a nonprofit that helps low-income and first-generation youth finish college. She helped expand PCF's service area to include Palo Alto's two high schools. She's also proud of her work with Palo Alto Partners in Education. As a member of PiE's first board she said it was difficult to convince people that pool fundraising to benefit all students in the district would create a whole bigger than the sum of its parts. Her elementary school had the highest participation rate, helping to fund things like classroom aides, art and other programs.

Jay Blas Cabrera said he graduated from Gunn in 1998, went to University of California at Santa Cruz and has boomeranged back to live with his family at Stanford. He was elected to student government at Santa Cruz where he was very active. He also helped to start a nonprofit in Oakland that teaches poetry, digital recording and digital editing skills for at-risk students.

Gina Dalma said she was on the Site Council at Ohlone Elementary School and has been involved in the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation process at Paly. The thing she's proudest of is starting a group for Spanish-speaking parents at Paly, a group that she said had not been previously represented. Its focus is getting information to ensure that Latino kids are successful and to close the achievement gap.

Ken Dauber said he was chairman of his son's Cub Scout pack, which was fun so he doesn't consider it work. He has particularly focused on advocating initiatives to improve the social-emotional well-being of students. He was on the district's Homework Committee as well as on the committee involving the district's Local Control Accountability Plan to ensure the district uses assets to serve kids who need help. He also served on the Project Safety Net Community Engagement Committee and has gone to "I don't know how many board meetings" to make the point that, even though our kids are doing well in many cases, they still need more from us. He said there are things we can do related to homework and test and project stacking that will affect kids' lives at school, and my passion has been carrying that ball forward. If we can make these concrete changes we can improve kids' lives.

Terry Godfrey said she's been in Palo Alto for 15 years and, for the past 10, has taken her professional experience as a senior manager to serve as PTA Council President, co-founder of Project Safety Net. And board chair of Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE). She chaired the Developmental Assets subcommittee of Project Safety Net, with a particular focus on creating caring neighborhoods and building the notion that the community values its youth through various activities. This past summer she worked with a "caring neighbors" youth team, which met weekly and did events across the city. She read an email she received over Labor Day Weekend from a teen expressing gratitude for the experience.

Jay Blas Cabrera's question to his fellow candidates:

What one program or service in the school budget that you believe should be reconsidered and possibly cut, and what one new program or service would you like to see added? (Time on video: 1:03:30)

Catherine Crystal Foster said she didn't know whether she could immediately identify something she'd like to see cut, noting the district has done "quite a bit of belt-tightening" and faces escalating pension costs. She would like to add three things in particular: more investment in evaluation work, more investment in innovative interdisciplinary curriculum and more investment in foreign language instruction.

Ken Dauber said he would cut the district's expenditures on outside legal fees, saying that those feels, particularly pertaining to litigating against special education families and the Office for Civil Rights have "exploded." One firm went from $25,000 to more than $250,000. There was one case in which the district was fighting with a family over its failure to provide Spanish translation of special education documents. We need to have a much more cooperative relationship with our special education families. Regarding increases, Dauber said Palo Alto should offer foreign language instruction to all elementary students, K-5, whether or not they're in an immersion program. Parents have wanted this for a long time, and it helps with language learning and general intellectual development.

Terry Godfrey said surveys show that parents want cuts to be far away from students. Cutting legal fees is a good idea, and also cutting the position of communications director. Godfrey said she was on a committee in 2008 that presented a $1 million proposal to offer foreign language instruction for elementary students, which got a "resounding 'no'" from the district. She would like to try again.

Gina Dalma said the first thing she would cut is "irrelevant teacher professional development" and the first thing she would add is "meaningful teacher professional development." The single most important investment the district can make is to make sure teachers are able to invest in themselves, have time to share with others and truly be leaders in their field. Teachers are our biggest leverage point for student success. Another important investment is making sure teachers are reading for Common Core, that they have relevant instructional materials, that we can evaluate. And foreign language instruction is a "no-brainer." In the 21st century, not having multilingual children is a deficit.

Jay Blas Cabrera said the budget information on the district's website is limited. It's essential to be able to go through the details and see where we can cut things to provide more for kids. Cabrera said he would cut the reserve fund, which he said is currently between 10 percent and 15 percent despite a state mandate for only 3 percent. He thinks the district should put a high priority on teaching coding, and should consider "re-doing Cubberley entirely."

Catherine Crystal Foster's question to fellow candidates:

How do you define success for our students? (Time on video: 1:11:47)

Gina Dalma said she defines success as the social-emotional and academic achievement of a child, when the child is driven to learn by their own passion and they feel their own energy in terms of their learning. When a child is ready to go home and do further research into something they're interested in, that is success.

Ken Dauber said in the last campaign he talked a lot about a broad community desire and shared vision to have schools where students thrive socially, emotionally and academically. The important word there is thrive. Our schools have great teachers, who hold our students in their hands, minds and hearts and the work we're doing is around greater fulfillment of that mission. The hard part is how do we make sure we stay in that place and how do we make sure we get better. Superintendent McGee said the new maker's studio -- that amazing space where kids are using computers and sewing machines -- we still need to evaluate it. We need to know, is it actually working? The key is, what's the bottom line? What does the data say?

Terry Godfrey said the kinds of students she likes to see are engaged, resilient and persist in their learning. She does not define success for them – they find their own success. She recently sat with a group of recent graduates heading off, respectively, to Vanderbilt, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Harvard, Pitzer, and UC Santa Barbara. This is an awesome table of kids who've found their own successes, found the spark. I'd like to define my kids' success however I think they're going to do it and I like living in an environment where we can make that possible.

Jay Blas Cabrera said he asked students at Gunn how they would grade the schools, and there wasn't a single person who said 90 percent or better. The average was probably in the low B range. We have that duty to our students to talk to students and get a grade. I define success by them telling us we're doing well.

Catherine Crystal Foster said students succeed when they can fulfill their own full potential in the classroom and in their lives beyond the classroom. We cannot define success for our kids. They need to define success in their own terms, their personal best academically and as resilient thinkers, as independent people. Our students can be successful when they can fail, when they've had the opportunity to fail and pick themselves back up again, when they've gotten the level of support that enables them to do that. Success is when our students are looking to soar and we can help them fly, when our students can learn to both compete and be cooperative, when they can learn throughout their lives.

Gina Dalma's question to her fellow candidates:

What are the educational innovations taking place outside our district that you are most excited about considering for Palo Alto? (Time on video: 1:19:11)

Catherine Crystal Foster said that because she's done all her professional work in child and education policy advocacy, she's seen a lot of other districts. For example, in New York, some public schools have partnerships with research institutions where they are located, and students can do more independent research a business or a university. In North Carolina there are some internship programs at the high-school level. In Philadelphia there are youth organizers doing participatory research where kids learn research and debating skills to create plans for the future of their schools. She has also seen early world language programs in elementary schools.

Terry Godfrey said districts against which we benchmark ourselves, such as Scarsdale, New York, have a corporate research and development lab where students can do independent work in a lab environment. At New Trier High School they have a final project at the end of high school that includes a community mentor and sponsorships that require the student to advocate for himself or herself with an external person. Locally, Godfrey said she's excited about hybrid classes at Gunn that blend online and classroom learning in subjects such as mobile game programming and history.

Jay Blas Cabrera said California is not ranked well in the United States for education. It's important to do broad community studies and look at what's going on in the rest of the world. Education in Europe and Asia is surpassing what we have in the United States, whether in language, technical skills or learning coding skills. He feels it starts with class size, reducing class size and increasing the cost per student.

Ken Dauber said we could do better at connecting the district to "centers of excellence and innovation" outside our district, citing both Stanford and Foothill. We haven't done as well as we could and should at that. He said a former board member described El Camino Real as the widest street in America. There isn't really a lot of connection between the district and the university, which has a wealth of knowledge on every subject on earth. We should also be nurturing a connection to Foothill and to technology companies. Many teachers are reaching out on their own. The role of the board is to say we want to build those bridges.

Gina Dalma said there's never been a more exciting time to be in the field of education, and we've got an institutional framework that allows us flexibility. If we are to achieve the goal of 21st century learning, we have a new funding formula the state's given us that forces us to look at our budgeting in terms of expected outcomes. We have new research on how the brain works and how students learn, plus we have education technology that changes the way we think about education, blurring the differences between what you learn at school and what you learn at home. This is an opportunity for Palo Alto to be on the cutting edge and create an environment we want. She cited innovative practices at San Jose's Downtown College Prep and also in Evergreen in East San Jose. Design thinking in school, empowering kids to solve problems – imagine that.

Ken Dauber's question to fellow candidates:

The district has repeatedly delayed the opening of a 13th elementary school to respond to the increase in students over the past 20 years. What is your view on when a new school should be opened, and where? (Time on video: 1:28:14)

Gina Dalma said we have the money, and Palo Alto is expected to have 16,000 students by 2525. We're going to keep on growing and we need to make sure we're providing the appropriate infrastructure for kids to learn. Overflow, which has been happening, is not to the benefit of students. She would build a new school in the southern part of Palo Alto.

Jay Blas Cabrera said the bottleneck is potentially in the middle school. There doesn't seem to be a clear answer to where to local an elementary school and there needs to be a community discussion. But one possibility is Cubberley, where there are no clear plans or views. What about making it a "mixed use" – bring an elementary school and a middle school. The future of education is potentially intergenerational.

Terry Godfrey said there are bond funds left that are designated for a new elementary school, which has been discussed over the years. Important elements are that it be a neighborhood school that has "peer streaming" (that is, kids go on to the same middle school and high school). We now have more growth in the south than in the north, and the west is also a pinch point with more housing being built by Stanford. She doesn't know where the school will end up, but there are definitely demographic changes with the south and west becoming more crowded.

Catherine Crystal Foster said our elementary schools are bigger than we'd like them to be. There's money for a 13th elementary school but a real mismatch between the available spaces we have and where the growth is, in the south and west. We also have a real (crowding) problem in middle schools. Growth in elementary school was flat last year and the early numbers from this year also show flat. That gives us an opportunity to plan a little before we put the 13th elementary school in place to ensure it's based on real numbers.

Ken Dauber said we should understand the urgency of opening a 13th elementary school because it's crept up on us through many years of delayed decisions by the school board. The average size of an elementary school has gone up by 30 percent in the past 20 years and yet we've only opened one elementary school in that time, at Barron Park. Research says the ideal elementary school size is 300 to 400 students and we're way past that for many of our schools. A new school also would mean fewer overflows and less traffic. He agrees that the question of location is one we need to address, but we need to do it quickly.

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Like this comment
Posted by in a nutshell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 9:16 am

Centralized vs De-Centralized Decision Making

Supports centralized (allowing for site-based ideas that work to be implemented districtwide)


Values consistency and the district should make sure that its philosophy actually is guiding the work of individual staff members. The key is evaluation. If we see inconsistent practices across the district we should evaluate them for their success, identify the ones that are working, and propagate them across the district.

Supports site-based autonomy with qualifications . . .


Decisions made by the board should be a 50-50 collaboration with schools. Does not want to see schools evaluated based on state standardized tests.


Need to evaluate it.


What does not work if autonomy leads to inconsistency that can lead to concerns, and sometimes resentments, among students and families, and if we have inefficiencies where we're constantly re-inventing the wheel every time we innovate in the district.

On student safety, health or legal mandates, it's imperative that we have consistency across the district.


Centralize decisions are needed relating to health, safety and product quality.

Like this comment
Posted by in a nutshell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 9:21 am

On the Achievement Gap


Solution: Need to have a community discussion, including increasing middle-school space and reducing class size and empowering the faculty and staff and people directly involved in the community.


Underrepresented minorities are performing worse in Palo Alto than they are in some other districts around our region, and that's a shame. PAUSD’s goal of 85 percent of kids at proficient or advanced at the end of five years is not OK -- it should be 100 percent.

Solution: It has to do with a belief system. We do not have the same expectations for all kids, and she would very seriously work to make sure we have the same level of expectations and rigorous curriculum for all.


We're doing worse than other districts.

Solution: Need professional development on giving students a growth mentality – how to tell students that they will do better if they work harder.


It is "really a shame on the district.

Solution: We need to address it aggressively starting in elementary school and evaluate what programs we offer are working


It is a problem.

Solution: We need to make sure kids have the support they need. Middle school is where the gap widens.

Like this comment
Posted by cut the legal fees
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 9:36 am

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by in a nutshell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 9:44 am

Person You Admire the Most

Cabrera: Nelson Mandela for his courage and prowess.

Dalma: My father. He said if you focus on education you not only impact your own well being but you can impact on the rest of the world.

Dauber: My wife. She's been a real voice for social justice, standing up for victims of sexual assault at Stanford University.

Foster: My dad. He's the highest integrity person I know. I've never heard him raise his voice or say a dishonest word.

Godfrey: My mom who raised great kids and worked very hard every day.

Like this comment
Posted by in a nutshell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 10:13 am



Cabrera: helped to start a nonprofit in Oakland that teaches poetry, digital recording and digital editing skills for at-risk students.

Dauber: chair of son’s Cub Scout pack

Foster: Peninsula College Fund (nonprofit which helps low-income and first-generation youth finish college expanded to PAUSD)

Godfrey: works with youth in neighborhoods and building the notion that the community values its youth through various activities (Developmental Assets)


Dalma: started a group for Spanish-speaking parents at Paly (focused on information and closing the achievement gap for Latino students), on Site Council at Ohlone Elementary School and involved in Paly’s WASC accreditation process.

Dauber: Working served on the Project Safety Net Community Engagement Committee

Godfrey: co-founder of Project Safety Net, chaired the Developmental Assets subcommittee of Project Safety Net (focus on creating caring neighborhoods and building the notion that the community values its youth through various activities), and PTA Council President


Foster: member of Palo Alto PiE Education Foundation’s first board

Godfrey: President and board chair of Palo Alto PiE Education Foundation


Dauber: At board meetings shining light on the achievement gap, homework policy, guidance counseling, and high-school graduation requirements and on committee involving the district's Local Control Accountability Plan

Foster: Gates Foundation, Children's Defense Fund

Like this comment
Posted by in a nutshell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 10:16 am

Work Experience

Not Working/Did Not Share Work Experience



Work Experience


Silicon Valley Community Foundation's investments in education – innovation


Peninsula College Fund (nonprofit which helps low-income and first-generation youth finish college expanded to PAUSD), Gates Foundation, and Children's Defense Fund


Senior manager, Intel and director of finance and strategic planning at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

Like this comment
Posted by in a nutshell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 10:22 am


Cabrera: Top priority: "interactivity, building a 21st century communication system" so that anybody can give input, vote on proposals and get directly involved in decision-making online

Dauber: Open instead of closed board meetings and the board should try to repair the relationship between the district and special education families

Foster: Increase transparency

Godfrey: Increase transparency and rebuild trust

Like this comment
Posted by in a nutshell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 10:24 am

[Post removed due to excessive posting.]

Like this comment
Posted by YES for 21st century communication system
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2014 at 11:59 am

in a nutshell,

Cabrera: Top priority: "interactivity, building a 21st century communication system" so that anybody can give input, vote on proposals and get directly involved in decision-making online

I'm not sure about the public voting on proposals, that's what the board is for but definitely to get input.

but YES to "interactivity, building a 21st century communication system"

The job of the communications officer should in fact be to build this system. Is the current communications officer qualified to help build this system? or is she too busy fielding requests to/from board members like a personal secretary.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 14, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Thank you for the links.

As someone who was unable to attend the debate, it is good to have these.

I had many questions and although some of them have been answered, many of the topics were not touched on. For those that were answered, I still feel that the responses were political non-answers. I see very little practical difference between several of the candidates and the agreeable platitudes all sound the same. I was also very dissatisfied with Joe Simitian's questions. I understand that he was trying to get the public to see the human side of the candidates, but really I am looking for real answers to the hot topics to let me know what way the candidates would vote on real issues.

I got the impression that all the candidates are very likeable people, willing to do the best for our children and our district, but that is not enough to give me information on who we should be voting for.

I hope that over the coming weeks we can really get down to brass tacks and find out who is willing to make a stand on some of these issues. I have one definite yes but choosing between the rest is not easy. I do not want a board made up of carbon copies of the type of people we already have. I want to see board members who are not always in agreement, who have different perspectives and are willing to make difficult choices and make some real changes.

A child's education at PAUSD is 13 short years. Those presently in high school will not reap many of the benefits of this election. Some of the issues are going to only affect those students who are yet to be conceived if we are talking about changes in elementary schools. Some of our present younger grades may be affected by high school changes. So many of the changes that should be made are for future students rather than our own or those on the board. Let's make sure we think of the future and get some real changes made to bring 21st century education to Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent too
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 15, 2014 at 11:52 am

[Post removed.]

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