Palo Alto school board candidates meet in second debate

Five board hopefuls discuss Cubberley, student wellness and governance

The five Palo Alto school-board candidates sat together at the board's own dais on Thursday night in the second in a series of debates scheduled before the Nov. 8 election.

Current trustees Melissa Baten Caswell and Heidi Emberling, self-described "outsider" Jay Cabrera, investment manager Todd Collins and longtime educator Jennifer DiBrienza continued to seek to differentiate themselves at the forum, hosted at the district office by the Palo Alto League of Women Voters and co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs and Midpeninsula Media Center.

Jay Cabrera

Melissa Baten Caswell

Todd Collins

Heidi Emberling

Jennifer DiBrienza
The candidates took questions from an audience of more than 30 people who asked about several issues that weren't discussed at the first debate of the election season two nights before.

One audience member asked what the candidates' visions are for one of the largest remaining available parcels of land in Palo Alto -- Cubberley Community Center, which the district jointly owns with the city.

Baten Caswell and Collins proposed moving the district office from 25 Churchill Ave. to Cubberley and repurposing the Churchill Avenue site for Palo Alto High School or as a space for innovative programs.

Emberling pointed to other joint-use sites in Palo Alto -- such as Rinconada Library, Lucie Stern Community Center and Walter Hays Elementary School -- as successful models for what might lie ahead for Cubberley.

Baten Caswell and DiBrienza both said whatever joint use for Cubberley the school district and the city agree on in their ongoing planning process, it should be flexible enough to allow Palo Alto Unified to use the 35-acre site to accommodate potential enrollment growth in the future.

Collins, a member of the district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) committee, disagreed, repeating a belief that declining enrollment projections make it "unlikely" the district will need to reserve space at Cubberley for an additional school "certainly not in the next 10 years and probably not in the next 20."

Several other audience questions probed the ever-present topic of student wellness. Candidates were asked how schools can better strike a healthy balance between academic excellence and love of learning.

More specifically, they were asked if they support capping the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes high school students can take or even eliminating AP classes altogether. (No candidates supported the latter).

Palo Alto and Gunn high schools implemented a new requirement during the last school year that any student who wants to take more than two AP classes must meet with his or her counselor and parents and fill out a detailed form listing their academic, extracurricular and personal-time commitments.

All of the candidates said they value AP courses as challenging and engaging opportunities for students to dive more deeply into topics of interest to them. Only Cabrera suggested limiting them in any way (he said a cap of two or three might be appropriate).

Collins, however, cautioned that "there is a pernicious effect of an arms race" when it comes to the number of advanced courses students take -- a phenomenon worth looking at more closely, he said.

In response to an audience question, most of the candidates said they do not support de-laning classes, or combining different levels of courses, at the high schools, although the current board did approve last year a pilot proposal to de-lane Algebra 1 and Algebra 1A at Gunn. Gunn math teachers asked to merge the two courses given their similarities.

"The innovation that teachers want to provide to our students starts with a pilot and then gets moved throughout the district if it’s shown to be successful," Emberling said, pointing to the Gunn math pilot as an example.

DiBrienza said she would not back a de-laning proposal if it came as a top-down directive from the board, but if teachers wanted to try it -- as those at Gunn did -- she would support that.

Governance also surfaced as a topic at the Thursday evening debate. The candidates revisited the topic of financial management in light of the district’s current $4.2 million budget deficit. Emberling reminded the audience that the shortfall is a small percentage of the district’s overall $230 million budget, while Collins continued to sound alarms about a more dire financial future.

"We've overspent and we're using borrowed money and reserves to fund our schools today," he said in his closing statement. "This isn’t a fun message to deliver and it doesn’t make me popular ... but I think it’s the truth."

Both Baten Caswell and Collins advocated for looking to administrative and operational expenses for cuts. Cabrera repeated a proposal to tap reserves, which Superintendent Max McGee recently said the district does not plan to do.

DiBrienza, for her part, defended the value of site-based administrators or principals, whose salaries are included with senior administrators at the district office in a system that automatically provides these non-represented employees with the same compensation increases negotiated with the teachers’ union.

"They (the principals) are the ones that create the culture; they are the ones that set the expectations for instruction in the classrooms. There’s very little more important than that," DiBrienza said.

She said at Tuesday's debate, however, that she does not support continuing the "me too" compensation practice.

Another audience member queried the candidates on their decision-making processes, particularly when it comes to following -- or breaking with -- recommendations from district-convened committees of community members who often spend months researching an issue.

Collins and DiBrienza, who both have direct experience with this -- Collins as a member of the enrollment task force and DiBrienza as a current member of the Elementary Mathematics Adoption Committee, whose recommendations the board recently rejected in part -- described the process as problematic and even inefficient.

"Right now the systems are such that when we have a decision to make, we often ask for guidance from the community," DiBrienza said. "Lately there have been some times when the board has not gone with those recommendations and they have that right to do (so), but I think this is part of the problem in our district.

"There are many people that feel frustrated that their opinion is asked or their work has been asked for and they have not been listened to."

Collins said he has felt that frustration himself, calling the committees "wicked inefficient" and even "painful" to serve on. The district should not only clearly communicate to committee members their charge -- to issue recommendations to the board, not have the final say -- but also put in place more clear guidelines and processes for their work, he said.

The two incumbents noted that committees are formed to give advice to the board -- advice that "needs to be well considered, but it’s not a rubber stamp," Baten Caswell said.

The candidates will gather for four more scheduled debates in the coming weeks, two with particular focuses:

• 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.


23 people like this
Posted by Outcumbents
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 23, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Vote out the incumbents who gave us the budget disaster.

17 people like this
Posted by Avoid More Disasters
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2016 at 1:02 pm

Avoid More Disasters is a registered user.

I wish we could get rid of ALL the incumbants with the exception of Ken. The others do not think or act responsibly!

17 people like this
Posted by retired guy who follows the schools
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 23, 2016 at 2:24 pm

retired guy who follows the schools is a registered user.

Fellow posters, please skip my over-long post, here, if you read it already, after debate #1!

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

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 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 ASAP.

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

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 23, 2016 at 3:42 pm

@retired guy - thank you for continuing to post this. I re-watch the video pretty much every time you do. I agree, it is chilling. I don't expect elected officials to be perfect, but I do expect them to feel and show empathy. Melissa and Heidi (and Max) failed that test here.

6 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 23, 2016 at 3:47 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

@Retired guy, thank you for the link to the school board meeting.

Like this comment
Posted by Caroline V.
a resident of Portola Valley
on Sep 26, 2016 at 3:48 pm

Once again I thank Palo Alto weekly for the opportunity to inform the candidates, our community, and shareholders what is really going on in our education system, how this is affecting our students, in the hope we can bring the necessary change.

In 2011 members and professionals within the PAUSD compiled these suggestions in the Prevention Suicide Toolkit:
Web Link

Despite the increased government funding, the expansion of mental health services, and efforts to reduce the stigma and prevent teen suicides, the data of the recent EpiAid study confirm an increase in anxiety, depression, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, alcohol and drug abuse.

The Santa Clara County Epi Report:Web Link

- 53% of PAUSD students were psychologically bullied, 19.2% violently victimized, and 30.2% cyberbullies.
- students report mental distress and expressed it as anxiety, depressive mood, sadness and hopelessness.
- students missed school because:
- didn’t sleep
- felt sad, hopeless, anxious stressed, or angry
- illness including
- were bored
- - poor relationship with school

Project Safety Net has done a wonderful job using collaborative efforts to bring people together like this one last August “Breaking Down Stigma Building Support for Youth Mental Health Conference”. These community efforts have promoted the need for mental health services and has collected the necessary funds to pay for these programs; however, no one is addressing what causes the increased anxiety, increased depression, increased suicidal ideation, and increased suicides.

A few PAUSD students have expressed that the community services promoting art and physical activity truly helps them with their anxiety, depressed mood and suicidal ideation. One LGBT student came forward and expressed how LBGT community services helped him. Palo Alto Online has shared the personal journey of a Palo Alto Teen dealing with depression and anxiety disorder in “Unmasking the truth - beyond the stigma of mental illness”. Sharon Chen, former PAUSD student
disclosed her experience as a gifted student, disclosed the lack of GATE programs, and expressed how the current social-emotional educational discussions could help gifted students. Elena Kadvany interviewed 4 PAUSD students and posted their comments and their engagement in mental health; Web Link Palo Alto students speak out.

As a mother, healthcare provider, and community member of over 30 years, I have offered to help students come forward to talk about the factors that cause their anxiety, their sadness, their depressed mood, their hopelessness, and their suicidal ideation. I I have heard the testimonies of students, parents, administrators, and campus healthcare professionals for more than 3 years now and I know what is going on. I am also a survivor of the mobbing. It took more than 2 years to recuperate and It has taken me over 4 years to feel comfortable to talk about it; therefore, I have requested to give a presentation at the Project Safety Network community meetings.

I was retaliated against for disclosing the abusive and illegal conduct that takes place at SJSU/CSU in collaboration with Bay Area public school districts and healthcare settings. As a healthcare provider I had to abide by the AOTA Code of Ethics and the OT Practice Act. I was also subjected to academic and workplace “mobbing” . Mobbing is group bullying used systematically over time and intentionally with the ultimate goal to expel the victim out of a group and/or the workplace. Mobbing is also used to threaten the co-worker and peers who knows about the mobbing and/or knows about the abusive and illegal conduct that currently takes place in our education and healthcare system. Unfortunately what happened at SJSU/CSU is happening in K-12 and many non profit organizations.

Mobbing has become an epidemic in the Bay Area, but only a few know what mobbing is, and hardly anyone will speak out because the 5 step mobbing process used to push the victim into a defenseless and powerless position will also make it look as if it was the victims’ fault.

Many of us are silenced by high litigation costs, lack of media reporting, and fear of further retaliation. I am one of those who has not found legal representation on a contingency basis, so I have not been able to get due process through the court system; however, I hope to exercise my Constitutional rights and hope US attorney Brian Stretch, US District Judge Mueller, and US Attorney Samuels will conduct an independent, transparent, and through investigation to stop the abusive and illegal conduct that takes place at SJSU/CSU in collaboration with Bay area school districts and healthcare facilities.

The last Whistleblower/Retaliation Case against the CSU Board of Trustees won in court cost over 1.5 million dollars. I have filed my complaints to all appropriate state and federal agencies since 2012, but unfortunately to this day, not one has conducted the appropriate investigation with truth in evidence, subpoenaed evidence, and testimony of my witnesses as described in our laws and Constitution.

Now after 3 years I have heard the testimonies of many students, parents, healthcare professionals and administrators who echo my experience and who confirm my concerns; despite our laws and Prop 30, there is no safety, no equity, and no quality in education and anyone who discloses the abusive and illegal conduct and the deficiencies under the current administration is being retaliated against.

California has education laws, government laws, and the Constitution to warrant safety,equity, and quality. California has the laws and state and federal requirements in place to prevent bullying, harassment, intimidation, discrimination, hate crimes, sexual assaults, and improper conduct by government employees; however, the truth is these laws are not enforced.

The truth is: there is no anti-bully prevention as advertised:
Web Link

and why did PAUSD changed its vocabulary in the administrative process AB 5145.3 ( reporting harassment, bullying, intimidation, discrimination) and replaced “shall” into “may”.

Bullying uses harassment, intimidation, humiliation, gossip. Bullying will cause anxiety, depression, and when help is not effective or when the abuse is covered up, bullying will lead to hopelessness, suicidal ideation, suicide, and mass shootings; therefore, I hope Project Safety Net will allow me to educate our community; share the academic research and literature on mobbing, share the devastating effects of bullying and group bulling; in the hope that students will come forward and tell their own story.

The abusive and illegal conduct can be seen over and over again in both k-12 under the administration of Superintendent Torlakson, Superintendent Gundry, Superintendent Campbell, Superintendent McGee and under CSU Chancellor White, CSU Board of Trustees, UC president Napolitano and UC Regents for higher education.

The lack of safety, equity and quality in education; the manipulation of credentialing, the manipulation of accreditation; the influence of politics, lobbyist, and labor forces are all confirmed in these lawsuits: Vergara v.California, Spalding v.UC Regents, Cruz v. California, Friedrich v. CTA, SFcity college v. ACCJC, Runyon v. CSU Board of Trustees, Caroll v. CTC…..

The you tube videos and the PDF released by the Senate Commission of Oversight also implicate lack of good faith efforts by the current administration:

Kathleen Carroll v. CTC:
Web Link

The 99 page PDF released by the Senate Commission of Oversight and Outcomes “Department of Fair Employment and Housing: Underfunding and Misguided Policies Compromise Civil Rights Mission” disclosing the lack of Civil Rights investigations, the manipulation of investigations, and lack of good faith efforts by this administration to abide by the law and even indicating that they fail to abide by their responsibilities. Senator De Leon closed the Oversight Committee in December 2014.

The truth is:

California has a huge debt. This is the second year California failed to repay its federal loans. Despite our debt, our administration continues to expand government jobs and government funded programs without transparency and accountability.

California has the laws in place to prevent abusive and illegal conduct. Our education systems and government have the responsibility to warrant safety, equity, and quality in education and in healthcare. They also have the responsibility to prohibit discrimination, harassment, intimidation, retaliation, bullying, and sexual assaults, and misuse of funds. Our elected and appointed officials can withhold funding when the administration controlling our education systems does not abide by the rules, does not respect our laws, and does not fulfill its promises.

Is it not time that we demand that our administration respects our laws, uphold its responsibilities, and warrants the safety, equity and quality in education for every student?

Is it not time that we stop the cover up and hold our administration accountable?

1 person likes this
Posted by Whoa!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2016 at 5:50 pm

That post above reminds me of the mold lady's rants in other threads, and it might be best to ask voters to get Heidi Emberling and the other incumbents out of there. All the incumbents have demonstrated that they don't know what they have been doing for eight years, while Emberling, in particular, is utterly void of accomplishments. Seriously, can anyone name one thing?

2 people like this
Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 29, 2016 at 11:22 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 that Melissa Baten-Cadwell has lacked leadership on the serious issue of student wellness and 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.

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

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 6,986 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 2,352 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 2,259 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 768 views

Is racism also a local problem?
By Diana Diamond | 17 comments | 460 views


Register today!

​On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More