Palo Alto school-board candidates delve into elementary-school issues

Fourth debate of election season focuses on K-5 topics

The five candidates vying for three seats on the Palo Alto school board discussed issues affecting elementary-school students and families, from fundraising parity to cyberbullying, at a Tuesday evening forum focused on the primary grades.

The debate, co-hosted by the Barron Park, Ohlone and Fairmeadow elementary schools' PTA groups, was the fourth of the election season.

The very first question, prepared by event organizers, asked the candidates whether they’re concerned about "disproportionate" PTA fundraising among the elementary schools and if so, how they would address it.

While the district's major fundraising organization, Partners in Education (PiE), distributes dollars equally to all schools on a per-student basis (and is the only fund organization allowed to pay for personnel salaries), PTAs are allowed to support materials, programs, events and school improvements at individual schools.

The five board hopefuls, the majority of whom themselves have served on their children’s PTAS, agreed that there are fundraising disparities between the elementary schools, and that the board must uphold its own adopted value of "progressive parity," under which the district must "provide adequate and comparable school facilities, learning environments, educational experiences, opportunities, and staffing ratios throughout the district, including shared resources."

Current Board President Heidi Emberling suggested that the site-level PTA's umbrella organization, the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, should initiate conversations about the issue.

Fellow incumbent, Melissa Baten Caswell, said those conversations have already been happening over the years as PTAs have ramped up what they raise money for -- "it started to include things like computers and bus rides for going on field trips and special programs -- and then it becomes a problem," she said.

Baten Caswell said she was a proponent of pairing schools that raise the most money with those who raise the least to help them work together, but that proposal "never came to fruition."

Jennifer DiBrienza suggested looking to PiE to help support schools with less PTA dollars, perhaps using some of the money it raises "to backfill places that are inequitable to help reach that parity," she said.

Todd Collins pointed to a change in policy made this year at the middle schools as a potential model. Money the schools were previously retaining from site-based facilities revenue, he said, has now been put into a "centralized pool" that is redistributed to the schools on a per-student basis.

One audience member probed the candidates' positions on another disparity in the district: the perception that despite being a K-12 unified school district, more attention and focus is given to the secondary than elementary schools, "particularly from the highest level of district management."

Most of the candidates disagreed with this perception, though DiBrienza, herself an elementary-school parent, said she often hears from parents who say, "We're a K-12 district, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it."

Collins said he thought the "misconception" might actually arise because the elementary schools are, in fact, doing so well.

"I don't think it is a reflection of lack of attention or somehow neglect," he said. "I think it is more of a reflection of the fact that we’ve got such strong elementary schools ... that there's meaningfully less drama and attention there."

Baten Caswell pointed to several efforts and initiatives underway at the elementary schools, including launching a new writing and reading program several years ago, bringing full-day kindergarten to all sites and the district's current work to find a new mathematics curriculum that better aligns with the Common Core State Standards. The board also recently voted to release $60 million in bond funds to support capital improvements at the existing schools, she noted.

Baten Caswell, Emberling and DiBrienza said where the district should, however, invest more at the primary level is in early intervention for struggling students.

"I think looking at putting resources where we need them the most and where they can have the most effect certainly means we need to look at our early-ed environments," Emberling said.

The candidates also discussed the evolution of direct instruction, the teaching practice in place at Hoover Elementary School’s choice program and its alignment with Common Core. Some noted that the traditional notion of direct instruction has evolved over the years in Palo Alto, with teachers incorporating more projects and hands-on learning as schools work to meet the new state standards.

The lines between choice programs are not drawn firmly in the sand, Baten Caswell said, with teaching styles from one often bleeding into the others and vice versa.

DiBrienza, an education consultant, said direct instruction largely does not align with Common Core’s "practice" standards, which, instead of traditional content standards, outline how students should be developing more complex skills like "persisting in solving problems that are unknown previously." She noted the Hoover administration and teachers have "worked really hard over the past few years to look at what works for kids and what aligns with the Common Core," resulting in positive changes for students.

As all of the district's choice programs evolve, there's an opportunity, Collins said, to assess what has been done in the past and what the community will want in the future.

The board hopefuls also discussed a persistent achievement gap at the elementary schools, illustrated most recently in student performance on the state’s new standardized test. While the majority of all elementary students met or exceeded standards in math and English, students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities lagged behind in both subjects.

The candidates pointed to progress that has been made in the wake of the district's Minority Achievement Talent Development (MATD) committee, from adding literacy and math intervention specialists at the elementary schools to requiring all teachers and staff to undergo unconscious bias training.

The minority-achievement committee is continuing its work this year on developing a comprehensive equity plan for the district with specific goals and measured outcomes, DiBrienza noted.

Jay Cabrera repeated a proposal he’s made to reduce the district’s reserve cap from 10 percent to 5 percent to release more funding to support new programs, such as ones that might help close the achievement gap.

Collins said the district must replace its "broad-brush approach" to assessing the achievement gap with a "laser focus" that identifies the specific students, grade levels or subjects where gaps continue to persist, and then specific interventions.

"We really need to not be afraid to delve deeply and take a look and say how can we serve these populations that aren’t doing quite as well in our district," echoed Emberling, adding that Palo Alto should look to other school districts where minority and low-income students are faring better.

The event organizers and audience members also asked the candidates for their thoughts on how well the district supports high-achieving elementary-school students, cyberbullying and a proposal to rename some of the district’s schools.

There are two more candidate forums coming up, both hosted by high school students. Gunn High School will host the candidates for a debate on Thursday, Oct. 6, during school hours, 10:05-11:25 a.m.

Palo Alto High School will host the candidates 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


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15 people like this
Posted by Focusing on What Matters
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 5, 2016 at 6:20 pm

Thanks to the candidates for spending time talking about K-5 issues. Jennifer DiBrienza by far had the best response as it regards the district's tendency to focus on high school issues. While several of the candidates dismissed the question as irrelevant and pointed out all that is happening to support K-5 and the success of our excellent K-5 schools, Jennifer pointed out that, yes, the schools are excellent, but that it's not just our high test scores that count. She went on to talk about gaining a better understanding of the experience students are having in the environment, which should count as well. I, for one, appreciate that Jennifer didn't just brush the question under the rug and that she takes seriously the concerns that elementary school parents raise. Thank you, Jennifer!

4 people like this
Posted by casey
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2016 at 9:45 pm

casey is a registered user.

Was there a report on how wide the disparity was in PTA fundraising between the different schools?

3 people like this
Posted by Parent Volunteer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2016 at 10:59 pm

There was no report. As a parent volunteer, I am aware of a school that fundraises about $40,000 per year and another school that fundraises $150,000 per year. The disparity is large.

Before PiE (and its predecessor organization) was founded, the disparity was evern greater - believe it or not. That's why concerned members of the community founded PiE's predecessor organization (and eventually PiE). PiE's main purpose was to provide parity in school funding between all schools in Palo Alto. PiE is able to do this because it is the only organization that can fund "STAFF" at PAUSD. PTAs can't pay for staff.

Former superintendant Kevin Skelly really disliked the disparity in PTA fundraising between the schools. He suggested one main fundraiser for the schools. This makes a lot of sense. Other districts have moved in this direction.

1 person likes this
Posted by casey
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2016 at 12:10 am

casey is a registered user.

Thanks Parent Volunteer. Our elementary school switched from an annual auction to direct appeal this year. I wonder how it will affect fundraising levels. If we have one fundraiser for all the schools, I am not sure if the auction model scales.

5 people like this
Posted by School spirit
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 6, 2016 at 6:45 am

There's a reason for the PTA funding disparity. Some schools put in the work for it with large auctions anfpd massive community involvement and others don't.
The solution is to get more community involvement in the lower participating schools. Perhaps pairing with higher fundraising schools so they can learn his to do it. Handouts aren't thy solution.
On the other hand, some schools, such as the non neighborhood schools just don't and never will have the community involvement. That's just one of the downsides of those types of schools. Penalizing the neighborhood schools because of it would be a huge backwards step.

10 people like this
Posted by Focusing on What Matters
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 6, 2016 at 7:42 am

Actually, @ School Spirit, I think it's a little more complex than that. Despite the fact that Palo Alto is an affluent town, the level of affluence differs quite a bit depending on what pocket of town you're in. The schools in the North cluster of town tend to have higher home values and related financial resources associated with them. Those schools tend to raise more money than the schools in other parts of town, where you tend to have more dual-income families. I think the town, overall, though, is seeing a shift to lower volunteer rates because, more and more, we have dual-income families so it's just difficult to find enough people to do the work that has typically been done. All of that is to say that, overall, all the PTAs in our town are probably going to benefit from re-thinking the way they've traditionally raised money and staffed their programs, as we see a smaller volunteer pool. We should also be sure that we don't compare dollars raised on an absolute scale. Some schools are quite small and others quite large, so you would expect some disparity in the absolute value of the dollars they raise. A school with <300 students isn't going to raise as much money as a school with <600 students, and frankly won't need as much money to do the same work. Unless said school with <300 students is severely underresourced in comparison with other schools at an absolute level. One last note is to be sure we know why we're raising the money, what we're doing with it, and whether it is truly serving the needs of the school community.

2 people like this
Posted by Choice School
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2016 at 8:12 am

Actually @ School Spirit -- the choice schools (non-neighborhood schools) have excellent school community. Our school has some of the most involved and engaged parents in town -- and does very well with fundraising. You cannot state that the non-neighborhood schools don't have school community -- go talk to families there and you will see how wrong you are!

I agree with Focusing on what matters -- there are some schools that are much smaller (such as in Barron Park) and some schools that are much larger (midtown schools), but there is wide income disparity in this town. The idea of the schools joining together, and having one large fundraiser then splitting the money would be a great idea -- plus it would be a unifying activity.

3 people like this
Posted by Community Spirit
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 6, 2016 at 8:24 am

"Our school has some of the most involved and engaged parents in town -- and does very well with fundraising. "

Then you don't have a problem. It's the schools without the community that are suffering and solving it by penalizing the schools with community spirit would be backwards.

Not everyone can have a legendary "Addison Auction" party (the budget for their auction alone is more than some schools raise in total!) but Duveneck raises the same overall amount simply via an "ask".

I'm also pretty sure that telling the parents of Addison that they need to give up 40% of the funds they spent all that effort raising would not go down well. It would just halt the auction and switch those funds to other efforts such as subsidized after school enrichment programs.

There is a reason for the separation between PiE and PTA. You want MORE not less community connectedness so any solution should focus on that.

Perhaps we should follow the property tax model. Standardize the "ask" across all schools and let it be centrally managed. Then, allow schools who want to raise more opt out of the "ask". PTAs can either use the PTAC "ask", which they don't have to lift a finger for, or opt out raise funds in some other manner. PTAC can then adjust the ask to make sure the final result is equitable across schools.

12 people like this
Posted by Focusing on What Matters
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 6, 2016 at 1:51 pm

@ Community Spirit, I think you're still missing one subtle point, which is that many of the elementary schools in our district have great community spirit and it doesn't equate with the amount of money their PTAs can raise. It's just simply true that some neighborhoods have wealthier families who can afford to give more money to their schools than others. Some neighborhoods may have parents who can afford to give more of their time and skills to their schools. All in all, we should find ourselves more often celebrating the ways people can contribute to their communities rather than squabbling over who has more of what, while at the same time being sure that there aren't wild discrepancies between actual educational services, offerings and opportunities. While I've always known that some of our elementary schools in other parts of our town raise more money than our neighborhood school does, I've never felt the kids in our neighborhood were missing out or lacking something as a result. Thank goodness!

9 people like this
Posted by Sue Allen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 6, 2016 at 2:27 pm

It's interesting that some think the PTA Council for all PAUSD Schools should look into the differences in PTA Funding. I was PTA Council Treasurer about 25 years ago and saw the major differences then, and started the discussion that led to what is now PiE, and the rule that PTAs cannot fund personnel. Before this happened there were a couple of PTAs actually hiring extra teachers and paying them directly from the PTA bank account! We got that fixed quickly, so that the teachers were PAUSD employees paid thru donations from the PTA. The creation of "All Students Matter" and then combining it with the previous Palo Alto Foundation for Education to our current Partners in Education, took a lot longer. But it's been a good system for personnel -- more money for all the schools, with local control at each site over how it is spent.

The comments about poor test scores for minority and low-income students is interesting. I've worked in Ravenswood District for almost 20 years. It was a disaster. It is now a great place! People should seriously move to EPA and put their kids in the good schools there. Yes, the test scores are lower, but it's primarily family demographics. If the parents are not high school graduates and the family doesn't speak English at home, then the students struggle in school. Ravenswood Teachers are doing great work under difficult conditions. But now they have 1-1 laptops in all classes, grades 3-8. They have great art, music, science teachers. There is a MakerSpace at every school site. Come and visit any school on any day and you will see great learning happening.

6 people like this
Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 6, 2016 at 2:49 pm

When is the district going to get real about the lack of mathatical intervention at the elementary school level? We are living among math engineering giants in a Valley of Kings. This should not be a financial burden or an academic challenge for any one child, classroom or school. Yet the Have's and the Have-Not's is cavernous for any help.

I should not have to call Stanford nor the National Association of Mathematics in Santa Clara for tutoring help for my struggling elementary school age child. They had nothing to offer in the way of help anyway. So she has gone to bed crying, whimpering that she feels stupid and dumb in class. She’s too young for Dream Catchers. And there is the PAUSD expectation that she know her math facts 100% before entering 6th grade. Huh? We are indeed very nervous about middle school and the not knowing part and her emotional and social well being. BTW there are plenty of distracting electronic classroom interventions keeping our attention off the prize.

8 people like this
Posted by Agree about the math!
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 6, 2016 at 3:24 pm

@ Native to the Bay -- our child went to middle school woefully unprepared in math too! We had weeks and weeks and weeks of tears, parental tutoring and HOURS of extra work. Our child also went to bed upset every night -- after doing several hours of math just to keep up, feeling stupid and saying "I am the only one in class who doesn't get it". Math is totally ruined for this child! Of course said child is actually quite good at math, but left elementary unable to multiply and divide -- there was NO decent math instruction.

11 people like this
Posted by Don't get carried away.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 6, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Well...I think in all the talk about fundraising/funding disparity et al... We are forgetting one important thing...PTAs are NOT FUNDRAISING Organisations. They are primarily an ADVOCACY organisation...making sure that each child gets to enjoy the same opportunities and exposure as his or her classmate, with regards to access to Public School Education, irrespective of their family's socio-economic status or background or which part of the town they come from.
Whatever the school PTAs raise as funds should determine the goal or purpose of that school PTA and therefore all PTA related activities should revolve around what is possible with that amount. These are Public Schools not Private ones.
But, if the parents/adults want to make it as a 'I am not just keeping up with the Joneses, but can beat them' kind of competition with regards to fundraising...I wonder where the problem stems from?

7 people like this
Posted by It's about the money
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2016 at 11:06 pm

I'm pretty sure PAUSD PTA's exist only to fundraise and lost long ago any sense of advocacy.

1 person likes this
Posted by money for nothing
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 9:50 am

@Focusing on What Matters,
I think you're being naive. There is an upper limit to the amount that PTAs can reasonably spend at the school:
[x] Schools supplies for all students
[x] Scholarships and schools trips
[x] Classroom stipends
[x[ A few one-off capital improvements

All school parties are designed to be self-funding.

Once PTAs start carrying forward a large surplus, they start having their non-profit status put at risk so they need to spend their funds. That means that a number of PTAs don't even bother to chase corporate matches since they just don't need those funds.

It's also not "a few wealthy individuals" it's getting everyone in the school involved and willing to donate that makes the difference.
There isn't any neighborhood school in Palo Alto that is too poor to hit that self-imposed limit. The only thing missing is the people willing to do the volunteering. The funds are there.

If the schools could show that they did that and still came up short, then we could have a sensible conversation about it. If the schools don't do that and just ask for money from the schools that do, well....

2 people like this
Posted by Norma
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 7, 2016 at 4:37 pm

I listen carefully to Dibrienza and am concerned with the conflict of interest between her being a teacher and represented by a strong teachers union, and her potential service on the school board. She does not seem comfortable with transparency, and is very supportive of costly adventures that may benefit teachers more than students.

1 person likes this
Posted by It's about the money
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2016 at 5:19 pm

Can you please elaborate? I don't know much about her. I'm not sure I see how being a teacher is a problem, anymore than is having kids in school (ostensibly getting preferential treatment because of school board parents - bet they don't go through a school year without their emails about their depressed and struggling child getting answered, ever).

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