The first candidates to officially throw a hat into the ring for two of three Palo Alto Board of Education seats opening up this fall are Gina Dalma, a Palo Alto parent and Silicon Valley Community Foundation advisor who ran in the 2014 election; and Todd Collins, a longtime community volunteer, district parent and private investor.
Collins announced his candidacy on Monday, and Dalma confirmed to the Weekly that she will be running. Collins and Dalma will be vying against a still-unknown field of candidates in the running for seats currently held by President Heidi Emberling and board members Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend.
Both candidates put an emphasis on data-driven action, but bring very different backgrounds to the table. Where Dalma has worked in and around education for many years at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a Mountain View-based nonprofit that seeks to address social issues through research, advocacy, fundraising and other initiatives, Collins has spent his career in technology, management consulting, business analysis and private investment.
Collins, who calls himself a person focused on "getting things done," has served on the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) executive boards at both Terman Middle School and Gunn High School schools his two older, college-age children attended.
Since 2010, he served as a member and for four years was chair of the school district's Strong Schools Bond Citizens' Oversight Committee, which monitors the activities, progress and compliance related to the $378 million bond voters passed in 2008 to support facilities upgrades and expansions at Palo Alto's schools. The group also oversees an annual outside bond program audit and issues an annual report on the bond to the community.
Collins said his "biggest accomplishment" working in the schools was serving on a separate citizens committee whose foresight to stop issuing a particular kind of bond ultimately saved the district $850 million.
In 2012, members of the Strong Schools Bond committee realized that Palo Alto Unified, like many other school districts in the state, planned to issue again capital appreciation bonds, which defer payment of all principal and interest for up to 40 years but have high, compounded interest rates. When payment is eventually due on these bonds, it includes the original amount, all accrued interest and interest on the interest, Collins said, rather than regular payments made over time.
Many California school districts pitched capital appreciation bonds to taxpayers as a means to keep their tax rate the same while still getting the funds necessary to build new schools, Collins said. For the school districts, it was a "buy now, pay later" mentality.
At the then-tax rate of $44.50, the cost of debt repayment would come out at more than $1.9 billion, according to an open letter from Collins and 12 others on the committee. The group urged the board to raise the tax rate to avoid "pass(ing) the burden of bond repayment to our children and grandchildren, who will be paying for buildings being built today until the year 2055."
The school board approved the recommendation, just before other California school districts' use of capital appreciation bonds became a subject of public controversy and the state legislature eventually cracked down on the practice, passing strict controls on issuing the bonds in the future.
Collins said this effort is an example of the way he likes to operate: getting things done in a way that avoids unnecessary distractions.
"We have gone through 10 years of probably more controversy and dissension and getting stuck on more issues than anybody should have in a lifetime," he said of the school district.
The community became divided over issues ranging from investigations opened by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and changes made to the school calendar to starting a Mandarin immersion program and the high schools' differing counseling models.
"These are all important and legitimate issues, but we have tended to take up sides instead of working together to understand and address them," Collins said.
If elected, he hopes to change that.
"I think I can help our board and our management team be effective at taking on the issues, actually getting things done, making sure the solutions are working and moving onto the next issue," Collins said.
In his campaign announcement, Collins said he will work to ensure the board and district are "transparent and responsive to the community."
"I know how to be an effective board member: set goals, follow up, enforce accountability; develop an informed point of view and don't be afraid to speak out; ask important, even 'dumb,' questions, and insist on good answers," he said in his announcement. "I know how to both challenge and support senior leadership, with a balanced approach focused on getting things done."
Recently, Collins spoke out to challenge the research and data analysis methods behind a rousing proposal to open a new, innovative high school in Palo Alto analysis conducted by other members of an enrollment management committee he, too, was part of.
In January, after nine months of work, the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) as a whole made several recommendations around how to best address enrollment at each level in the district, furthering but not concluding yearslong conversations around whether or not the district needs a new elementary, middle and/or high school. Collins, who served as chair of the group's elementary subcommittee, became a vocal critic of the secondary subcommittee's work.
He publicly challenged the secondary group's analysis and findings at a Nov. 10 board meeting, sent board members a 16-page critique of their work and the next month posted online an open letter to the board that voiced concern "about issues that have come to light about the EMAC's composition, analysis, and impartiality."
He also penned a guest opinion piece in this newspaper calling on the board to establish a new, more representative task force to take on what EMAC members all parents and mostly with no educational experience could not accomplish.
Collins' top priorities governance and execution, and choice and innovation closely follow the enrollment committee's work, which energized a segment of the community hungry for a different kind of education in Palo Alto, particularly at the high schools.
"As we found in EMAC, there's certainly a perception and to a lesser extent a reality that we don't have as much innovation in our schools as we would like, particularly as we get to the secondary schools," Collins said.
Helping to foster current innovations already in place at the schools, as well as new approaches is a priority for Collins, he said. He did not support a proposal floated by EMAC early in its process to open a new high school, he said partly because of a flawed process and also because the data doesn't support the need for a new school.
"But some innovation does benefit from 'a space of its own,'" he said, offering a proposal to convert space at the district office into a "satellite campus" to house existing programs like Palo Alto High School's Social Justice Pathway, as well as new efforts.
"This could be a great compromise, since it would allow those programs to establish their own physical identity and bell schedule, while keeping in touch with the many, many benefits of a larger school," he wrote in an email to the Weekly.
Collins, an East Coast native, holds a bachelor's degree in government from Harvard University and a master's in business administration from Harvard Business School. While he eventually took another professional path, growing up with two teachers as parents meant he always envisioned a career in education. His mother was a longtime public school teachers and his father a college professor.
"One of the things I enjoy doing with the school district is I enjoy talking to teachers because their take on the world and their take on the student experience is fundamentally different from all us outsiders," he said.
Collins moved to Palo Alto in 2004 with his wife, Elisabeth Einaudi, an administrator at the Stanford Medicine, and three children.
What brought the family to the Palo Alto school district was Collins' youngest child, a 16-year-old boy who is severely autistic. While many families flock to Palo Alto for its high-ranked schools, his family's "most important criteria" was a quality, supportive special-education department to support his son, he said. Collins' son attended Barron Park Elementary School for several years before moving to the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose.
"Our experience with the challenges and opportunities of a special needs child gives me empathy and insight into this critical area of our District's work," Collins writes on his campaign website.
Collins said he's been asked to run in prior school-board elections, but never felt compelled to until this year. He sees a great district that could be better, one still stumbling through a period of many "distractions."
"I kept saying, 'This is something I've seen before; this is something I know how to do.' I felt like I had a contribution that I could make," he told the Weekly.
Since the 2014 election, Dalma said she has "refined" but not changed her main priorities. She remains committed to helping the district and board make better use of data, to improving professional development and to providing "excellence in education" for all students.
In her 2014 campaign, she stressed the importance of putting the right metrics and systems in place to better evaluate district programs and efforts, and encouraging a culture that uses data to make good decisions.
"It's not only having the data; it's really using the data to drive action boldly," she told the Weekly on Monday.
Her work at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation has informed these priorities. She is currently serving as special advisor to the CEO for public policy, overseeing the organization's lobbying efforts in Sacramento and emerging efforts in Washington, D.C. She is responsible for policy work related to the organization's top priorities, which is primarily education but also includes affordable housing, immigration and family economic security.
Prior to this position, Dalma was Silicon Valley Community Foundation's senior program officer for education and, before that, director of innovation. She also co-led the organization's Silicon Valley Common Core Initiative, which provides resources around the new state standards.
Dalma played an instrumental role in the recent passage of a state bill, sponsored by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, that seeks to address math misplacement, the practice of placing students of color in lower math classes despite objective measures like grades and test scores. This can derail students' paths to higher education and can sustain the achievement gap, she said.
The new bill requires California school districts to put in place by the 2016-17 school year a placement policy that is "objective and transparent," Dalma said.
Dalma is also an involved parent volunteer and advocate. A native of Mexico, Dalma started a group for Spanish-speaking parents at Paly two years ago. She said when her son, now a junior, arrived at Paly, many school communications were only provided in English. A growing group of parents meets once a month to informally discuss issues the community faces in Palo Alto.
During the 2015-16 school year, Dalma also served on the superintendent's Minority Achievement and Talent Development Advisory Committee, a group that worked to move the district forward on an issue that Dalma said in 2014 hadn't ever before seen a "real push." The group made a comprehensive series of recommendations to the board that are in the process of being rolled out, from new support systems for historically underrepresented students to the hiring of the first-ever district-level equity coordinator.
Dalma said Monday that the district is still in need of a strategic, intentional implementation plan that will ensure the group's recommendations don't sit on a shelf.
"We don't hire somebody and then say, 'go forth and conquer' without an implementation plan," Dalma said. "We need district leadership to ensure that remains a priority."
Dalma holds bachelor's and master's economics degrees from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México in Mexico City and the University of London, as well as a master's in international policy from Stanford University. In Mexico, she held several positions in the federal and state public sectors related to urban economic development and regulatory economics.
She and her husband Gabriel moved to Palo Alto more than 20 years ago. They have two children who have gone through the district and are currently attending Palo Alto High School.
In the 2014 election, Dalma received 14 percent of the vote, or 5,077 counted.
She told the Weekly during her 2014 campaign that while she has not spent "hours and hours volunteering in classrooms," her work at Silicon Valley Community Foundation has brought her to school districts around the country. She is also a member of the California Department of Education's STEM Taskforce Advisory Committee, the National Common Core Funders Steering Committee and an advisory board member for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.
"What I bring is hours and hours looking at programming, evaluating programming and evaluating systems where programs actually work in terms of increasing student achievement," she said.
Read a 2014 profile of Dalma here.
Other potential candidates
Townsend has said publicly that she does not plan to run, while Emberling and Baten Caswell have not officially confirmed their candidacies. Baten Caswell, who was first elected in 2007, wrote in an email to the Weekly that she has "not made a final decision, but I am seriously considering a run for another term." If she runs again and wins, it would be her third term.
Emberling, who edged out current board member Ken Dauber for a seat in the 2012 election, is finishing up her first term.
Townsend, a district parent and attorney first elected in 2003, is nearing the end of her third term on the board. (There are no term limits for school board members.) She won re-election in 2007 and again in 2012.
When Townsend was re-elected in 2012, she became the first Palo Alto board member in more than 40 years to serve more than two terms.
While rumors have been circulating about other potential school-board candidates, none have officially launched campaigns as of yet.
Several who were rumored to be running confirmed to the Weekly that they are not, including: Susan Usman, Palo Alto Council of PTAs president; Barbara Best, former JLS Middle School PTA chair; Cara Silver, senior assistant city attorney for the City of Palo Alto; and Jon Foster, a Silicon Valley chief financial officer and chair of the city's Utilities Advisory Commission.
Foster's wife, Catherine Crystal Foster, who ran in 2014, has said she does not plan to run again this November.