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.
Melissa Baten Caswell
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 storify.com/paloaltoweekly.