Melissa Baten Caswell, who has served as a member of the Palo Alto Board of Education for nearly a decade, announced Monday that she will be running for a third term in this fall's election.
Baten Caswell, first elected to the board in 2007, is a longtime schools volunteer, former business manager and parent of two children, one at Palo Alto High School and the other a college student. She said in an interview Monday that she decided to make a bid for re-election after waiting to see if anyone else with the "depth" of experience and history in the district she thinks the school board needs planned to run.
"It really feels to me like we have a bridge that needs some continuity in terms of institutional knowledge," she said, noting that she has had children in Palo Alto schools continuously for the last 16 years, longer than anyone else on the board or running this fall.
Baten Caswell's announcement brings the number of total school board candidates to four. She joins incumbent Heidi Emberling, the board's current president; private investor Todd Collins; and former educator Jennifer DiBrienza.
Trustee Camille Townsend, whose term is ending this November with Baten Caswell's and Emberling's, has said she will not be running. 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. If re-elected, Baten Caswell would become the second.
Baten Caswell said that her campaign priorities center on "build(ing) on what we have," from investing in innovative and engaging educational programs and recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers to making data-driven decisions.
She cited her role several years ago in reinvigorating the district's guiding document, the Strategic Plan -- she persuaded the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to help the district develop a new document and new process with stronger community input -- as a linchpin that continues to help the board make good decisions. Before this effort, the Strategic Plan was not being used consistently, and community members weren't aware of the goals it set for the district, she said.
Using data to hold the district accountable to the priorities laid out in the Strategic Plan is key to its success, and Baten Caswell said she plans to continue to push for that if re-elected.
"Part of having a strategic plan is knowing where you're going and the other part is having accountability measures that you keep checking back to," she said.
Baten Caswell said she would also like to invest further in "engaging" teaching and programs, from small-group instruction at the elementary level to project-based learning throughout the district. Existing high school programs like Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM) at Paly and Small Learning Community at Gunn High School or the new Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program "should be available to all students," she said. And she hopes to figure out how to coordinate and support ideas for innovation at the high schools that bubble up in a more "organic" rather than "planned" way, she said.
If re-elected, she hopes to focus on several efforts that she said have not yet fully come to fruition during her years on the board, including closing the district's longstanding achievement gap between minority and low-income students and their peers; improving services and support for special-education students and families; and transparency.
In all three areas, the board has the information necessary to improve, she said, including a list of recommendations from the Minority Achievement and Talent Development task force for how to reduce the achievement gap and a report from a Harvard University researcher identifying strengths and weaknesses of the special-education department.
Transparency can be increased by taking a hard look at the district's "underlying systems," within which it's currently challenging for not only community members but even board members to get information in a timely manner, Baten Caswell said.
Whoever is elected to the board this fall will also inherit the long-term impacts of a $3.7 budget deficit the board is now considering how to address following property tax growth that came in 3 percent lower than the district had budgeted. The change in revenue is largely due to $1.1 billion in exempt property from ongoing construction of the Stanford University Medical Center Project.
"We need to understand what the long-term financial picture looks like," with the continuation of such exemptions, Baten Caswell said. "We need to know when that's going to hit and we need to do our projections based on that."
In her time in the district, Baten Caswell has twice served as board president, as well as president for both school-specific and districtwide PTA Councils. She was a founding board member for Palo Alto nonprofit Youth Community Service (YCS) and also a board member for the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation and the Parent Advisory Board of the Downtown Children Center Preschool, according to her announcement.
She has also volunteered as a Family Resources Ambassador for the city, a member of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Community Advisory Board, a Girl Scout Leader, YMCA and AYSO sports teams and several City of Palo Alto task forces.
She has lived in Palo Alto with her husband since 1990. Both of her children attended Duveneck Elementary School, but her older daughter went on to attend private all-girls school Castilleja School for middle and high school. Her son stayed in the district and is a rising senior at Paly.
Baten Caswell spent many years working in strategy, finance, and high-tech marketing in New York and then Silicon Valley. She is currently developing an education-technology company, CollegeMojo, that has yet to launch.
Baten Caswell described herself as a good listener who hears all perspectives fairly before making a decision, and an elected official with a "proven track record of translating hope into action," her announcement states.
"I think I've made decisions all the way along, since I've been on the board and even in my volunteer experience before, that have been about excellent teaching and learning and having kids leave our distract as strong, engaged learners. I've been passionate about that from the beginning.
"I feel like I'm doing this for the community, but I'm also doing it because I'm passionate," she added.