Palo Alto school board candidates face off in first debate

Two incumbents, three newcomers seek to differentiate themselves

Enrollment, the budget, mental health, innovation -- the five candidates vying for three seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education debated the issues Tuesday night for the first time as a group at a forum sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly.

The two incumbents and three challengers found some common ground on many issues but were divided on others, from whether the district should open a 13th elementary school to the district’s capacity to support innovation in the schools given a multi-million-dollar budget deficit.

Jay Cabrera

Melissa Baten Caswell

Todd Collins

Heidi Emberling

Jennifer DiBrienza
From start to finish, the candidates sought to distinguish themselves. Unsurprisingly, the incumbents -- current board President Heidi Emberling and Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell -- pointed to their years of board work and community volunteering. Social entrepreneur Jay Cabrera emphasized the benefits of being a political outsider; investment manager Todd Collins, his history of "independent thinking and constructive problem solving;" and former teacher Jennifer DiBrienza, her in-the-classroom perspective.

The candidates began the evening by assessing how nimbly and comprehensively the district has been able to innovate -- or not -- especially given a strong community desire for more innovation that surfaced last year during the work of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC). Many community members supported the group's initial proposal to open a third, alternative high school that they argued would be able to innovate in ways they said the current system doesn’t allow for.

Collins, who repeatedly returned in his answers to the long-term financial implications of the current $4.2 million budget shortfall, said there is no money in the budget for future innovations. He later called the budget a "structural deficit that will only get worse" and called for more rapid reeling in of spending to save for potentially lean years ahead.

Collins disagreed with a comment he recalled DiBrienza made at a board meeting several months ago -- that "dollars alone can't be the reason that we don't pursue innovation."

DiBrienza stood by her statement Tuesday, arguing that "We can't not continue to innovate in the name of a budget."

"Budgets are moral documents," she said, "and budgets show what our priorities are so if this is something that is important to us from an educative standpoint and because us continuing to innovate will pull more students in who we aren't currently serving well, I think it is imperative that we continue to innovate."

DiBrienza said the board hired Superintendent Max McGee two years ago precisely for a promise of more innovation, some of which has been accomplished but some that the board has "gotten in the way" of, she said, without offering specifics.

Baten Caswell and Emberling highlighted existing innovative practices and programs that have been put into place at the district's two high schools during their tenures, from flipped classrooms (students watch lecture videos at home and teachers use classroom time for projects, discussions and more experiential learning) and blended learning (incorporating technology into instruction) to Palo Alto High School's popular Social Justice Pathway program and McGee's new Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program. Baten Caswell and DiBrienza said they support giving teachers the time and autonomy to develop and pursue new ideas for learning.

Collins, who served on a citizens committee whose foresight to stop the district from issuing a particular kind of bond ultimately saved taxpayers $850 million, was the most outspoken about the district's budget woes. He said the district made a "mistake" -- unintentionally, but a mistake still -- when it budgeted for a higher-than-usual property-tax revenue last year and agreed to an "over-generous" teachers' contract that promised three years of significant raises.

Baten Caswell, too, called the deficit a structural problem that was the result of a mistake the district made, but said she was confident the district would be able to address it moving forward.

Emberling maintained that the low rate of property-tax growth, which came in this July at about 3 percent lower than the district had forecast, was "surprising." She likewise said the board and district are making efforts to ensure this doesn't happen again in the future.

However, she added, it's also time to revisit an estimated $13 million in programs and services the district has added over the last several years.

"Now is a great time to take stock, do some evaluation and see how we can avoid a potential ongoing budget deficit," Emberling said.

DiBrienza said any necessary cuts should be guided by the district's three adopted goals for this year: high-quality teaching and learning, equity and access and wellness and safety.

Baten Caswell, Collins and DiBrienza said they also support revising the district's longtime "me too" model for administrative pay, which automatically provides non-unionized administrators the same compensation increases as negotiated with the teachers' union. Emberling did not explicitly state whether or not the district should change this practice, but said that the district should look at what comparable districts are paying top administrators -- data staff provided at a recent board meeting -- and then "make sure we’re competitive."

Collins called for rolling back "all or part" of raises provided to this group of employees. During the board's recent budget discussions, Trustee Ken Dauber has proposed rescinding senior administrators' most recent 4 percent raise to save the district about $650,000, with no support from his colleagues.

Cabrera advocated for tapping into the district's reserves, which McGee recently said he does not plan to do, and for revising a board policy that requires the district to maintain a reserve equal to at least 10 percent of the general fund.

The current board will be voting on the 2016-17 budget on Tuesday, Sept. 27, with more public meetings planned this fall on the 2017-18 budget.

The candidates also discussed enrollment management, class size and potential new schools. Baten Caswell and Collins said they do not believe the district's enrollment picture justifies opening a 13th elementary school, while the other three candidates expressed interest in the potential of opening a combination elementary-middle school. (The board is set to hear a staff report Tuesday on the feasibility of opening such a school.)

Emberling noted that overall elementary and middle school enrollment has actually increased over the last 10 years, according to a report presented to the board on Sept. 13, though the elementary schools have started shrinking in recent years. The report projects "stable" elementary growth over the next five years.

On class size -- a topic over which there has been ample debate in the community and at the dais this year -- most candidates agreed that smaller classes are better to increase connections between teachers and students.

Several also said the district should be using ranges and other metrics to measure class size instead of the current official class-size targets, which are average teacher-student ratios.

DiBrienza said putting caps on middle school classes and core high school courses "would not be a bad idea." Baten Caswell and Collins both said the district needs a new, more specific policy on class size.

In response to a question about how far the school district should go to provide students with comprehensive mental-health services on its campuses, particularly given difficulty accessing services in the broader community, most candidates looked beyond school walls for improvements.

"Our mission is education of our students," Baten Caswell said. "We're never going to be excellent mental-health providers."

Collins, who recounted his own family's challenges accessing mental-health services in the community, lauded a Stanford University-driven effort to open a youth mental-health clinic in Santa Clara County. Called headspace, the youth-designed and youth-friendly stand-alone clinic aims to remove barriers to seeking early mental-health support, before teenagers reach crisis points.

The candidates were also asked to evaluate the effectiveness of two actions the district took last year to improve student well-being by addressing academic stress — a directive from the superintendent that all teachers follow the district’s homework policy and a new contractual requirement for all secondary school teachers to use online software Schoology to post homework, assignments and test dates.

Baten Caswell and Emberling Tuesday said more teachers are using Schoology; Baten Caswell said she’s seen a change in how her own high schooler manages homework because of it.

The homework policy, which caps per-week homework time for each grade level but has been implemented unevenly, is more difficult to monitor and evaluate, the candidates said.

Collins called the policy "thoughtful, nuanced and potentially productive" but said the district failed to establish a way to ensure it is being followed. Baten Caswell and Emberling argued that a new survey that students fill out about each class at the end of every semester is providing teachers, as well as their supervisors and principals, with meaningful feedback about homework loads. (Emberling later said she knows of one high school teacher who is now re-evaluating her homework assignments after half of her students reported long homework hours on this new survey.

But Collins argued that giving feedback to individual teachers doesn't "go to the gist of the policy" — which is to limit the total number of hours per week students spend on homework.

Baten Caswell suggested that the district look at revising the policy, arguing that hard time caps don’t fit "an environment where kids finish things in different amounts of time."

During the last election, the lack of comparable counseling services between the district's two high schools was a topic of high interest. Some progress has finally been made, with Gunn High School piloting this year its own version of Paly's teacher-advisory system and the board quietly adopting as a focused goal this year having advisory at both schools.

Two high school student-journalists -- Gunn Oracle co-managing editor Matthew Hamilton and Paly Campanile co-editor-in-chief Kai Oda -- asked the candidates how they would more broadly ensure equity at the two high schools, which have different bell schedules, course offerings and facilities, among other differences.

Cabrera and Collins both said the community doesn't want cookie-cutter schools. Baten Caswell added that different shouldn't mean unequal.

"If you live in south Palo Alto, you don't get to choose to go to school in north Palo Alto and vice versa," Baten Caswell said, "so we need to make sure we have comparable opportunities."

She noted the benefits of site-based innovation, saying that independent efforts born at each high school -- such as Paly's freshman-cohort program, Together Every Achieves More (TEAM), or Gunn's engineering pathway Project Lead the Way -- have paved the way for similar programs at the other campus, she said.

Tuesday's debate was moderated by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, with questions from Weekly Editor Jocelyn Dong, education reporter Elena Kadvany and the two student-journalists, as well as audience members watching in-person and online.

Watch the debate here.

This was the first debate of the election season, with several others scheduled over the next few weeks:

• League of Women Voters and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs are sponsoring a debate on Thursday, Sept. 22, 7-9 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. This debate will be recorded by the MidPeninsula Media Center and broadcast later on community television channels.

• Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC) and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs are sponsoring a forum focused on low-income, minority and special-needs students and families on Saturday, Oct. 1, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Jordan Middle School's gym, 750 N. California Ave. Child care and translation will be provided.

• Barron Park, Ohlone and Fairmeadow elementary schools' PTAs are co-hosting a K-5 forum on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Barron Park, 800 Barron Ave. To submit a question for the candidates, email by Oct 3. Spanish and Mandarin translation will be provided.

• Gunn High School students will host the candidates for a debate on Thursday, Oct. 6, during school hours, 10:05-11:25 a.m.

• Palo Alto High School students will host the candidates for a debate on Friday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. in the school's Media Arts Center.


The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of the school-board election. To view it, go to


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


29 people like this
Posted by retired guy who follows the schools
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 21, 2016 at 11:07 am

retired guy who follows the schools is a registered user.

Just my two or three cents, and a video most people haven't seen. It shows an even deeper side of two candidates than this useful debate.

To make good decisions, our leaders need to have a heart. So I hope you’ll watch--if it’s not too upsetting--the first part of this board meeting from March 10th of 2015.

Web Link

This was only one day after the death of a Paly boy (I am sorry to say) who was the 4th student who passed away that school year. You’d expect board members to be sad or at least serious, out of respect for people grieving.

But the president (Melissa Caswell) gavels the meeting open, laughing happily. Then, after the superintendent speaks (saying it's a “dark hour” and offering lots of appreciations), you’ll see that starting at 4' 45" he and board members laugh and banter, make tributes, smile for a photo-op, watch a slide show, giggle and joke for the next 20 minutes--as if they’re throwing a party.

And just the day before, only a block away, trains and traffic were stopped, with squad cars and terrified PAUSD parents and kids. And the Paly boy was lots of people’s student, and friend, and son.

Finally Paly’s board representative, who’s been sitting right there, who knew the boy, and the board members know her, has her turn to speak (at about 24', 20") and because she feels the tragedy deeply breaks down in tears.

In the U.S. presidential election going on, there's a lot of archive film, and I find it very helpful. This clip is too. People show you a lot about themselves during the hardest times, including how much they really care. I remember watching all this and feeling sad, angry, and wanting a school board election to happen as soon as possible.

Sitting in the middle in dark clothes you can watch the two incumbents now up for re-election: Heidi Emberling and Melissa Caswell.

9 people like this
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 21, 2016 at 11:08 am

Kudos to PaloAltoOnline for hosting this. Below are some improvements for future.

(1) Be clear in your website and when the broadcast actually starts. Your email says 7:00 and banner on site says 7:30.

(2) Have a dedicated page rather than direct people to cluttered home page. Since there is no way to view video until it starts and there is confusion as to start time, viewers are left guessing. The dedicated page would say something like "the event has not started broadcasting yet".

It would be helpful to start broadcasting early, even if only of a notice indicating event has not started to allow viewers to get set up.

(3) In the closeups of candidates speaking, include their name placards or some other identification. Kudos to Joe Simitian for calling them by full name.

2 people like this
Posted by Jerry
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 21, 2016 at 11:31 am

Guy in the hat and hoodie is out.

7 people like this
Posted by Endorsements?
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2016 at 12:11 pm

It would be helpful if PAO would indicate which public individuals and organizations are endorsing the various candidates.

7 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 21, 2016 at 12:29 pm

There are things money can not buy and board members and administrators should focus on those things and look at innovative thinking and soul searching without spending money. Sometimes starting new programs and spending more money is not the best for kids anyhow. I thnk the district needs to go on a staycation and let the many really great programs they have started, thrive instead of always looking for a new thing to try out. Except for everyday math. get rid of that for sure at all costs.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2016 at 1:04 pm

I would like to know what each candidate thinks the school board in particular and PAUSD can do to alleviate traffic problems in and around schools?

I am also very disappointed that Srinivasan (sorry about spelling) dropped out. I know he endorses Todd, but I would like to hear more from him about his ideas on the uses for technology in school as well as whether he feels that putting pressure on colleges about the race for college apps is something that PAUSD can do.

20 people like this
Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Thank you "Retired guy" for posting the video of the school board meeting the day after we tragically lost a young boy who was a beloved son, friend, classmate, and youth in our community. Do our school board members care anymore? It is notable the quote from Melissa Baten-Cadwell that distances the schools from supporting the health and well-being of our children who are entrusted in their care much of their young lives.

I will further note that Ms. Baten-Cadwell was President of the school board during 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 when we sadly experienced student suicide clusters. I am very disappointed that she is as indifferent now as she was then.

Time for others to lead for the good of our precious youth.

11 people like this
Posted by Election
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 22, 2016 at 12:45 pm

Election is a registered user.

Worried this Moderator was not truly informed about the local issues. How many Board of Education meetings did he attend? How many Board Retreats? How many Board of Education Meeting Packets did he read from cover to cover?

A lot of time was spent on general, broad questions about things that are not going to happen (school vouchers). These questions favored candidates with lots of political training, and gave them a chance to grandstand. There were too many softball questions pitched to the insiders and incumbents.

You need some softball questions, but my worry is the structure of this election is there is no way to focus on performance of incumbents. Incumbents have enormous advantage with the press and they can speak at Board meetings broadcast live, giving them lots of extra grandstanding time.

If debate moderators only ask broad general questions that relate to all the candidates at once, there can be no public discussion or debate about the past performance of incumbents. Competitors cannot really attack their performance without looking measly. This is not all bad as it keeps things more civil, but it also allows incumbents to give one sided views promoting past performance, even negative actions, as accomplishments. Ms. Emberling's campaign materials sites as Accomplishments things she opposed. And her work with the OCR was adversarial and cost the District thousands in legal fees. She did not "work with" the OCR as she says under Accomplishments. Web Link

There needs to be a better way for the press to let the voters consider past performance of incumbents.

High School students did a great job and asked meaningful and specific questions.

3 people like this
Posted by throw them out
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 23, 2016 at 3:20 pm

Unelect the incumbents. Then we can work on getting rid of the very nice but totally in over his head McGee. To think he was a state supe boggles the mind. Clean slate needed.

12 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 24, 2016 at 9:14 am

I watched the forum, and only Collins had the gravitas out of all the current candidates to solve the budget problems. I felt the moderator asked too many softball questions, which did nothing to help candidates show they have the ability to solve the issues facing the school district, as well as moving the district forward. Many of candidates felt if they just use the words "innovation", "choice", "wellness", their superficial answers to placate the electorate.

I'm still hoping that the current board can demonstrate that they can solve the budget deficit without any financial trickery before I get my ballot in early October. Otherwise I won't be voting for Heidi or Melissa.

9 people like this
Posted by Agree
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2016 at 10:01 am

@common sense - agreed, it was amazing to me that the moderator or the reporters did not ask a single question about the teacher contract, the budget, or the me-too raises. They only came up during audience questions.

Collins seems to be the only one who owns up to the importance of the budget problem and has urgency the fix it. Emberling seems at sea on it; Dibrienza the same. Caswell acknowledges the problem - but she was the one who caused it by voting for the teachers contract in the first place, and now she is part of the "fix it over two years" crew, when the district's own projections show 5 years of deficits!

Like this comment
Posted by Low Academic Performance in Special Education
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 26, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Low Academic Performance in Special Education is a registered user.

Academic Performance results to be presented to Board Tuesday 9/27/2016 show Special Education students have the lowest achievement of all student categories in PAUSD. Only 38% meet standards in literary and math. The data tries to show this in a good light by comparing scores of other Districts, who are doing worse.

It is telling what the data left out. Data only shows "Meet" and "Exceeds" categories, but does not show break data for categories with lower rating. The EOY Writing does not break out data for Special Education scores, even that is the subject where Special Education students usually struggle and need the most support. DRA Reading does not break out four Special Education. It is strange DRA is included at all, because Special Education parents were told it was not used anymore and could not be used to demonstrate a child was struggling.

Results will be presented to Board Tuesday 9/27/2016 (Item 8 on Agenda, beginning at page 35 in Board Packet.)
Web Link

According to Superintendant McGee's memo, "These data are powerful evidence of the quality of education our students are receiving as PAUSD scores are the tops in nearly every category."

More like the data are powerful evidence Special Education results have not improved despite hiring more Administrators, hefty pay raises, Response to Intervention reports, and full inclusion policies that removed supports placing kids in mainstream. Some Board members claimed all students were completely supported under their full inclusion policy.

If students are failing in subjects which demonstrate basic literacy and where they are expected to need the most support, the Board's policies did not work.

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

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

A new home in Redwood City for Mademoiselle Colette's croissants
By Elena Kadvany | 1 comment | 8,242 views

Electric vs Gas Heat: Which wins?
By Sherry Listgarten | 18 comments | 3,836 views

Lights Out! Foods to Snuggle With in the Dark
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,684 views

What to do with all those cardboard boxes
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 1,470 views

Some answers, please, PG&E
By Diana Diamond | 6 comments | 860 views


Race Results Are In

Thank you for joining us at the 35th annual Moonlight Run & Walk! All proceeds benefit the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday fund, supporting local nonprofits serving children and families.

Click for Race Results