A total of six candidates are officially vying for three open seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education in this November's election, with two new candidates filing before a Wednesday deadline.
Srinivasan Subramanian, an engineer and parent in the district, and Jay Cabrera, who billed himself as an outsider when he ran in the 2014 school-board election, filed this week, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters confirmed.
They're competing against incumbents Heidi Emberling and Melissa Baten Caswell as well as newcomers Todd Collins, a Palo Alto parent and private investor, and Jennifer DiBrienza, a parent and former teacher.
Stephen Schmidt, a lawyer and parent in the district, also pulled papers, but told the Weekly that he decided not to run.
Emberling and Baten Caswell's terms are up in November, as is Camille Townsend's. Townsend has said she does not intend to run for re-election.
Subramanian, a principal engineer at Cisco who came to the United States 30 years ago from India to pursue a master's degree in computer science, is a strong advocate for using more technology in the classroom. The parent of two is "passionate about evolving education in our public schools by investing in innovative technology to help all students develop 21st century skills and become enthusiastic lifelong learners," his official candidate statement reads.
Subramanian said in an interview with the Weekly that technology could help the district improve in many areas, from reducing academic stress to increasing transparency at the board level.
Student stress is what got him more involved in the school district several years ago. After his older daughter graduated from Palo Alto High School in 2012 (his son is a senior there this year), he started noticing the ramping-up of the college admissions process and students who were getting good grades, but were not passionate about school. He started going to board meetings and speaking out during open forum about these and other topics.
He arrived at a solution: "Teaching needs to evolve," he said. "I think we've been teaching the same way that I learned."
And technology can help, Subramanian said. Instead of students hoping to get the teachers with the best reputations each year, those teachers could video record their lessons and share them with other teachers and students, he suggested. Lessons could be posted on the district's online learning-management system Schoology so they are widely and easily available, he said. If instruction was "more prepackaged and consistent," teachers could focus the classroom experience on critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which he said were lacking in his own children's education.
Palo Alto schools should also move away from traditional assessments, which Subramanian said contribute to students' eroding passion for learning.
Technology can also help the board itself be more transparent and engaging, Subramanian said. He said it "took a lot of guts" for him to start speaking during open forum at board meetings, and if elected, he would work to engage community members beyond the usual suspects who attend board meetings or volunteer through their schools' PTA groups.
When asked how he would handle specific issues the new board will face this fall, Subramanian said he "come(s) from a different perspective" with no "preconceived notions." His metrics for addressing any issue will be first, staying student-centered; second, investing in teachers; and third, maintaining fiscal responsibility.
Subramanian came to the U.S. in 1986, after graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. While pursuing his master's degree at North Dakota State University, he taught undergraduate mathematics and computer science courses. He eventually moved to Palo Alto, and both his children have attended the Palo Alto Unified School District from kindergarten through high school.
Subramanian, who recently became an American citizen, has served as executive vice president of the Paly PTSA, as a parent representative on the Paly site council and also participated in the school's Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation process. He is also a 2015 graduate of Leadership Palo Alto, a 10-week leadership program organized by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.
In an interview given after deadline for this story, Cabrera described himself as a social entrepreneur and outsider political candidate who is committed to "always be there on the ballot (so) people have the option to vote for an alternative" candidate.
A 1998 Gunn High School graduate, Cabrera has run unsuccessfully for public office several times, including for mayor of San Francisco, mayor of Santa Cruz and Palo Alto school board. This spring, he ran unsuccessfully for Rich Gordon's state Assembly seat. In the June 7 election, in addition to his Assembly bid, he took out papers to run for the U.S. Senate, and two seats in two different districts of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the 2014 school-board election, Cabrera received 2.75 percent of the vote, or 998 votes.
Cabrera grew up in Palo Alto, attending Nixon Elementary School, Jane Lathrop Stanford (JLS) Middle School and Gunn. After graduating from Gunn, he attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied environmental science and biology, was elected to student government and worked on sustainability issues.
Cabrera, who is running as a "low-money and small-contribution candidate," said he is a "visionary candidate" who wants to reinvent the high-school educational experience by making it more like college. This means more real-world learning and life skills (he said he has surveyed current Palo Alto high schoolers and the top thing they said their schools are lacking is instruction on relevant life skills) as well as student choice and empowerment. High school students should have the freedom to either explore academically, or focus in on what they know they're interested in pursuing, like college students do, Cabrera said.
He also proposed lowering the voting age to 15 years old so that high schoolers can become civically engaged earlier, and thus are more prepared for college and beyond, he said.
Cabrera is also a strong proponent of teaching coding earlier, in elementary school, and making it more mainstream to better prepare students for a "21st century economy," his official candidate's statement reads.
In his last run for school board and now, Cabrera has pointed to technology as a vehicle to increase transparency and civic engagement, as well as to improve governance and instruction.
When asked what he thinks are the most significant issues the new school board will face this fall, Cabrera did not have an answer, but rather emphasized his outsider candidacy.
"I could make something up but I would prefer to see what's actually coming up and pick and choose which ones I thought were the most important," he said. "And again, I see myself as an outsider. A lot of people who do run for school board run as an insider. They go to school board meetings every single week; they basically know everything going on on the school board, which is not a bad thing at all, but at the same time I think there is a utility or an interest in having an outside perspective, someone who hasn't been immersed in every single detail of the school board and all the issues."
Cabrera currently serves as executive director of Community LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit whose main program teaches students poetry and video-production skills. He said he's also working on various political projects, and hopes to form a "broad, nonpartisan political coalition" that would organize interactive, even fun, informational forums to brief voters on what's on the ballot this November, from the local to federal level.
This story was updated to include information from an interview with Jay Cabrera given after initial posting.