News

Palo Alto school trustee to run for re-election

Melissa Baten Caswell enters race; pool of candidates grows to four

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.

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Comments

2 people like this
Posted by experience
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 1, 2016 at 2:44 pm

Go, Melissa!


77 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2016 at 4:01 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I do not support Melissa or any other incumbent in the November election. They have been fiscally irresponsible by scheduling a much higher than inflation retroactive raise. as well as a current raise and a future raise to staff, only to discover a major flaw by administration in forecasting revenue, despite concerns expressed from the one responsible member of the board, Ken Dauber. In a year where revenue is higher than ever before, there is now a multimillion dollar deficit.

The board (other than Dauber) approved spending almost every dollar of the surplus for staff, ignoring any other major need, specifically more teachers to reduce an unacceptable student-teacher ratio. Even with the erroneous projections, the raises resulted in a projected deficit in the future unless property tax revenues grew 7-8% per year.

And how does the administration want to fix this? By not hiring additional teachers needed to keep the student teacher ratio at current, already too-high levels, and by taking money out of the rainy day fund. If they can't balance the budget with record revenue, what will happen during the inevitable downturn?

Please support efforts to balance the current budget by cutting administrative costs and eliminating admin raises (which have not yet been approved). Do not take money from the reserve. We need that for a year when revenue drops.


42 people like this
Posted by Please do not make a fool of yourself
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 1, 2016 at 4:07 pm

[Portion removed.] At the beginning she was ok, but after the OCR issues she really turned deaf, blind, and sarcastic. It is time for her to go and leave the spot for someone else who is not part of the mafia that PAUSD has become, except for Ken Dauber. This is the perfect time for her to leave with dignity, otherwise we need to do something to get her out. Enough is enough, I guess this was the reason she voted yes to the raise to all employees, now is payback time, and as an employee I will have to vote for her because she made sure employees got the raise even if the budget became short. Who cares the votes she gets is really what it counts. [Portion removed.] Melisa and Heidi: iI you really care about PAUSD students give up your seat to someones else who knows what he or she is doing and that do not believe that because he or she has been there longer; they can bullied new board members. We need a change now. Our district is in crisis and if will continue if you stay.


5 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 1, 2016 at 4:47 pm

@Please do not make a fool of yourself

I wish a few things as well:

1. I wish you could spell Melissa

2. I wish you had identified yourself and written a more civil and constructive note

[Portion removed.]

4. I too wish school board members wouldn't run for 3rd terms. 8 years is plenty long enough to serve.

5. I wish people wouldn't blindly support one school member and slam all of the others. Things are never black and white nor what they seem.

6. I wish people would realize that school board members are working on a volunteer basis and are performing a service to the community by taking on this thankless oversight role

7. I still wish you a good day


8 people like this
Posted by my vote
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2016 at 6:15 pm

Thanks goodness for that. After Camille announced she wouldn't run again, I was afraid we would lose so much experience this November. It's great to see such a committed, capable parent willing to give up so much to time for this community.

The board would have been far less without you, Melissa.


44 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2016 at 6:50 pm

My own opinion is that the most fundamental and basic prerequisite to being a Board Member and Superintendent is being able to budget. In the last 4 years the school district has seen incredible growth in property tax revenue and most recently a increase in the parcel tax. Yet not only could they NOT meet their promise to reduce class sizes, they actually created a structural deficit of almost $4 million dollars this year and growing to almost $10 million dollars by 2019.

It's time to bring in more competent citizens who will provide the type of oversight needed to clean up the budget mess that 4 of 5 board members and Superintendent created. NO on Melissa & Heidi.

I would change my mind if they clean up the deficit, and lower the class sizes while continuing to add to the rainy day reserve and reduce the pension liability exposure that the school district faces.


19 people like this
Posted by Greater Fools
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 1, 2016 at 7:01 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by when you do the math
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 1, 2016 at 8:24 pm

Marie and Common Sense,

FYI ALL 5 board members approved the budget which awarded teachers the raises you two oppose. ALL 5 agreed to spend almost all of PAUSD's surplus on staff. [Portion removed due to inaccuracies.]

Where they differed is in the mix - the percent of the raise each year and the number of new teachers to hire. Four, including Melissa Caswell, opted to spend more on current teachers in order to retain experienced teachers, to raise starting pay in order to attract the best of the new teachers out there because of PAUSD's competitive wage, and to hire some new teachers. One hoped that a slightly smaller raise in the first two years would do and, with the leftover change those two years, pushed PAUSD to commit to hiring 35 new teachers starting this summer.

Both plans put students at the center.

[Portion removed due to factual inaccuracies.]


44 people like this
Posted by A Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 1, 2016 at 8:44 pm

What a shame. She's actually been 9 years on the board (benefited from the change from off-year to on-year elections), and in many ways it has been a terrible nine years - filled with discord, controversy, and self-inflicted harm.

In the history of PAUSD, only 3 people have served as long as Melissa wants to (Camille is one, the other two are were in the '40s-'60s). Her claim that the district needs her "institutional knowledge" is just sadly self-serving. In fact, her staying on just crowds out other good candidates who want to serve, but don't want to run against an incumbent.

Melissa, please, make way for others who can bring some new energy and new ideas.


19 people like this
Posted by Board watcher
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 1, 2016 at 8:53 pm

"When you do the math" baldly states as fact something that just isn't true: that Dauber proposed not tying the third year of the contract to a property tax trigger. He proposed reducing the amount of the raise in the first and second years, not making the third year irrevocable.

That said, it's probably true that the biggest threat to Caswell's reelection is the question about why she didn't press for a more responsible contract. It will be interesting to watch the spin, including misrepresentations like this one.


33 people like this
Posted by Wish I could rescind past votes
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 1, 2016 at 9:27 pm

Caswell was a driving force in why the facilities bond went in the direction of creating larger high schools. And there was no oversight of how well our bond money was soent - the oversight committee didn't do that (not in their purpose) and didn't really let the public know. We had no one making sure the money was well spent. Toward the end, she was a driving force in failing to support transparency and honesty during the OPM mess, and for that reason, She has become far too insular. She is better at making commentary that sounds like it is substative than being that in reality. I will not be voting for her again. But the election is a good chance to talk among neighbors about her record.


29 people like this
Posted by Board watcher
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 1, 2016 at 9:30 pm

I see that PA Online removed the most egregious falsehoods. The budget didn't grant the raises, the contract did, but let's not quibble.

Far more interesting is that both Caswell and Emberling successfully opposed every effort by Dauber and Godfrey to shift money from adminstration to teachers, including from hiring more HR staff. It echoed the effort by Godfrey and Dauber to eliminate the PR position, which also failed. There's quite a record of Caswell defending admin hires over teachers, which could feed into a narrative of being too cozy with district staff. A potential problem for a trustee looking for a third term.


28 people like this
Posted by Don't do it on my account. You are horrible at your job.
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 1, 2016 at 10:21 pm

"I feel like I'm doing this for the community, but I'm also doing it because I'm passionate," she added.


Oh, please.


5 people like this
Posted by Friend of Hers
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 2, 2016 at 12:29 am

[Post removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by candidate qualifications
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 2, 2016 at 3:32 am

candidate qualifications is a registered user.

[Post removed at request of poster.]


1 person likes this
Posted by when you do the math
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2016 at 7:55 am

[Portion removed due to inaccuracies.]

ALL 5 board members were blindsided by what Marie calls "a flaw by administration in forecasting revenue," even Ken Dauber who blogged in May that there is "plenty of money ...due to our recent high property tax revenues, driven by an 11.26% increase this year."

ALL 5 board members were unhappy and concerned when they discovered that PAUSD missed its revenue mark this year by 1% / 2% of total / property tax revenues. Ken Dauber acknowledged that "the critical issue is the one that Ms. Baten Caswell raises" - is this a one-year or multi-year revenue problem? [Portion removed.] She pressed the district to go back to the County to find all of them. Web Link

In 2008 ALL 5 board members - including Melissa Caswell - approved putting a school bond that invested in our current schools, instead of building new ones, on the ballot. The Weekly endorsed it, calling the bond measure a "well-crafted, vitally important measure to ensure that our schools will continue to be the best they can" which "deserves your YES vote." Web Link The community's response to investing in the schools we already have? A huge 78% "yes" vote which the Weekly called an "overwhelming June 3 vote of confidence."



Like this comment
Posted by background
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 7:57 am

"He proposed reducing the amount of the raise in the first and second years, not making the third year irrevocable."

Yeah, but he didn't say that it would be revocable either: Web Link
There is no mention of re-opening negotiations based on property tax shortfall in his proposal.


Also. If you read the contract, you can see the changes: Web Link

The original definition of section that now includes the safety valve of "IV e" was:

"e. In the event that the property tax growth for 2017-18 is more than 3% of the property tax growth used in the Board Adopted Budget (as determined by the County Assessor report of February 2018), the parties agree to reopen negotiations on three percent (3%) increase to the Teachers’ Salary Schedule for 2017-18 by February 15, 2018."

i.e.: There was originally no safety valve - the revision was only ever upwards. The safety valve was only negotiated in afterwards, which resulted in the following against a higher salary increase:

"e. In the event that the actual property tax received for 2016-17 ((as determined by the County Assessor report of February 2017) is more or less than one and one half percent (1.5%) of the amount of the property tax used in the Board Adopted Budget for 2016-2017 each party has the option to reopen negotiations on the three percent (3%) increase to the Teachers’ Salary Schedule for 2017-18 by March 15, 2017."

So, it's pretty clear the union agreed to the safety valve on the assumption of a higher increase - they didn't believe there would be a shortfall. You can argue the point but not the text.

If the board had offered less it's highly likely the union would have insisted on the original "lock in" rather than a "safety valve" and the district would now be far worse off.

It's highly unlikely the union would have assumed the risk with no gain based on Dauber's proposal.

So, to those who are saying that Melissa somehow mis-managed the contracts, the safety valve has already kicked in and will continue to do so with contract negotiations re-opened.

Hopefully Melissa will continue to do well and consider everyone in the district after her re-election.


15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 2, 2016 at 8:03 am

@when you do the math - sounds like your slogan for Melissa is, "No worse than the others!" Quite a recommendation!


20 people like this
Posted by Spin Zone Warning
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 2, 2016 at 8:08 am

"So, to those who are saying that Melissa somehow mis-managed the contracts, the safety valve has already kicked in and will continue to do so with contract negotiations re-opened. "

Wow, that's quite a spin. "Don't focus on the 9% raise we just gave - just look at that 3% raise we might be able to wriggle out of next year (with furious teachers)." Yes, this contract was a real work of genius, I'm sure they are all very proud. Nice job, Melissa!


Like this comment
Posted by background
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 8:35 am

When considering the alternative, then, yes, it was a real work of genius.

"Nice job, Melissa!"

That's something we can agree upon!


22 people like this
Posted by Spin zone indeed
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2016 at 8:56 am

The fact that Ken Dauber was sitting next to Melissa Caswell advocating for a smaller raise for teachers is a huge problem for her. Now the furious attempts to rewrite history begin:

Dauber wanted the third year to be irrevocable! (He never said that, unfortunately, so that's a tough one).

The teachers union would never have accepted a 3-3-3 contract with a safety valve, so he must have secretly meant it! (No evidence for that whatsoever, so that's another tough one).

Dauber voted for the budget, so he agreed with the raise for teachers! (Except that there was no way to roll back the raise once the contract was approved, so that doesn't work).

The contract has a safety valve, so it's all good anyways! (Except that the "safety valve" doesn't affect the 9% already given, so it's not much of a safety valve).

I hope that Caswell herself decides to acknowledge that she made a mistake, rather than try to spin reality to avoid accountability in the election.


1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 2, 2016 at 8:57 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by backround
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:01 am

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Spin zone indeed
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:10 am

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by offput
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:20 am

[Post removed.]


15 people like this
Posted by Stop the Bickering!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:20 am

"Melissa went up against Dauber at her last election - the result wasn't even close. That should tell you all you need to know."

This is exactly the problem. Us vs. Them. Melissa is good because Dauber is bad - how's that again? This is the dynamic that has been ruining the Board and the community for the last bunch of years. It's tired, is wrong, and it needs to stop. This is one of the very important reasons Melissa should move on - we need to get past this divisive, personal feuding!


Like this comment
Posted by backgound
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:42 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Stop the Bickering
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:45 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by background
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:57 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by when you do the math
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2016 at 10:04 am

[Post removed.]


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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