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.
Melissa Baten Caswell
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 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.