While seeming to find common ground on many of the key issues facing the Palo Alto school district, the five candidates for school board Tuesday night, in their second debate of the election season, strove to distinguish themselves by detailing their previous professional and schools-related experience.
The five candidates -- Terry Godfrey, Catherine Crystal Foster, Ken Dauber, Gina Dalma and Jay Cabrera -- repeatedly agreed with each other on the district's need to push for more evaluation of programs in order to scale them up or cut them, to expand foreign language education into all elementary schools, to look at ways to further combat student stress, to make investments in such areas as professional development, educational technologies and realigning the budget to be more student-centric and cost effective.
But when asked by an audience member to name one quality or skill as well as one action the candidate would take in office that the others wouldn't, candidate Dalma said: "I would talk to other school districts in our region that are doing phenomenal work with kids of color and socio-economically disadvantaged (students) and bring it back home so we can close the achievement gap.
"We need to make sure we are pushing the boundaries. We cannot rest in our laurels as a school district," she said.
This notion has become a recurring theme for Dalma, senior program officer at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, who said that Palo Alto, despite being "the most creative community in the world," is not using all its assets fully.
Later in the evening, candidate Foster agreed that the district's greatest weakness is that "we are so good."
"There's a saying: 'The biggest obstacle to being great is being good.' It creates a little less urgency, a little less impetus to innovate sometimes."
Others stressed past work they've done, with Godfrey touting her work as finance director for Intel Europe, where she did data analytics, finance and human resources for the organization, over her work as PTA Council president and president of Partners in Education (PiE).
"Our job (as board) is to set policy, strategy, tone and manage the resources," she said. "I think those large structural kind of things that take that kind of thinking from an organizational and design and finance perspective is what I bring. The hours of PTA and PiE are helpful ... but that's not really my core skill."
Google software engineer and parent activist Dauber, who also ran for a board seat in 2012, squarely positioned himself as the seasoned community participant who has fought for and achieved concrete changes in Palo Alto schools. The cofounder of group We Can Do Better Palo Alto said he has attended almost every board meeting in the last several years and has a deep understanding of how the board operates.
"The best evidence about what kind of board member I would be, I think, is the many, many hours I have spent in this room working on policy and bringing initiatives to the board backed with data and evidence and testimony from students and parents who it would affect," he said. "I am really committed as a board member to getting things done and getting things done that demonstratively work for kids."
He cited his work on the district's homework policy committee, to which he brought "a wealth of academic evidence and brain science that really led to consensus on that committee around time guidelines and homework limits for the first time in the district."
Foster -- who has worked in child advocacy, served for seven years on the board of the Palo Alto Community Fund, worked as executive director for local nonprofit Peninsula College Fund and consulted on education for major nonprofits like The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation -- emphasized her long and wide-ranging educationally focused resume.
"In terms of what I would uniquely bring, it is ... years and years of time spent working not only at policy level but actual programs where the rubber hits the road in terms of how kids achieve and learn in school," she said.
She said in terms of different action she would take as a board member, she wants to particularly focus on Palo Alto's middle schools as "place(s) where we need to do more work on our vision" and "turn the curve on the achievement gap."
Gunn High School graduate Cabrera, the only non-parent in the race, again billed himself as an alternative to the typical school board candidates, as well as one who will push for "bringing the governance structures of our community into the 21st century and utilizing technology for decision making." He has said he'd like to have any proposals the board is considered put online so community members can comment, ask questions and interact with the board in real time.
All five candidates were given an opportunity to ask one other candidate one question, drilling down on evaluation processes, the prospect of opening a 13th elementary school, Common Core implementation, technology and the difference between Gunn and Palo Alto High School's counseling programs.
Dalma asked Dauber if he, despite a slowing of enrollment growth, would still advocate for the creation of a new elementary school if elected. He said he would, citing research that shows the "optimum size" for an elementary school is between 300 and 400 students.
"Only two of our elementary schools are that size," he said. "In 2008, we set aside our size policy, which set a limit of 450 (students) for elementary schools because we couldn't sustain it anymore. Our schools now are too crowded; our playgrounds are not of the optimum size for teachers to pay attention. It's time to open a 13th elementary school."
Dauber returned a question to Dalma, asking what strategies she has to make sure the implementation and assessment of the new Common Core state standards works for the district. Dalma, a member of the National Common Core Funders Steering Committee, said she's been working with 27 districts across the country to roll out the standards.
"First, we need to make sure were focusing on the vision: What do we want to achieve with Common Core? We need to make sure that at every level of the school district we're owning that vision ... at teacher level, at site level, at district level," she said.
She added that the implementation of Common Core standards is not a short-term transition, but one that will take five years and requires doubling down on teacher professional development, education technology, student programming and formative assessments.
One audience question returned the candidates to a familiar topic -- how they would approach the district's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigations -- and specifically, how they would support special education students in the wake of the district's numerous bullying complaints.
Dauber set himself apart as the only candidate who declared intent to repeal the board's resolution to fight the OCR on its investigations, which the board unanimously adopted in June.
Dalma said she would "take a couple steps back from the board's resolution against OCR and really establish a partnership with OCR and make sure that we're moving forward and we are working to make sure we are providing a learning environment for all our children."
Foster, who was the only candidate at the first debate last Thursday who said she would have voted for the resolution, albeit reluctantly and only if the allegations in the resolution were true, centered her response about the need to implement and advertise the district's new bullying policy but said it's "very important to work cooperatively with OCR, whose role in great part is to provide technical assistance and support to districts in protecting all kids."
Tuesday's debate took place in a smaller venue -- district headquarters -- than last Thursday's debate at the Oshman Family JCC. Gloria Chun Hoo of the San Mateo County League of Women Voters moderated the debate, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs.
The candidates will next debate on Saturday, Sept. 20, 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.