It's not the nitty gritty of the issues facing the Palo Alto Board of Education that drives Jay Cabrera. It's the prospect of a reinvented election process, transformed by small-contribution campaigns and populist candidates, as he describes himself.
But in his view, not belonging to the "insider club" of other school-board candidates and community members who are immersed in the goings on of the district is actually to his advantage -- and the community's.
"To have true governance that is for the people, of the people, by the people and to the people, we need normal, everyday people running for office and getting involved in our governance systems.," Cabrera said at a Sept. 22 school-board forum, acknowledging, "I am an outsider."
"I challenge people to really think about -- you have three candidates you can vote in, to consider maybe it's not just the best candidate but electing the best board," he continued. "Having a diversity of viewpoints and opinions on the board can be very effective for our students."
Cabrera, a social entrepreneur, sets himself apart from the other four candidates running for school board in several ways. He does not regularly attend school-board meetings. A 36-year-old graduate of Gunn High School, he has no children. A strong proponent for getting rid of "big money" in political campaigns, he is not accepting donations larger than $100. And he has run for public office eight times, including in the 2014 Palo Alto school-board race and for mayor of San Francisco, mayor of Santa Cruz and the state Assembly. He said he is committed to running as a small contribution, non-partisan candidate for the rest of his life.
Cabrera grew up in Palo Alto, attending Nixon Elementary School, Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School and Gunn. After graduating in 1998, he attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied environmental science and biology, was elected to student government and worked on sustainability issues.
Cabrera currently serves as executive director of Community LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit whose main program teaches students poetry and video-production skills. He told the Weekly he's also working on various political projects and hopes to form a "broad, non-partisan political coalition" that would organize interactive, even fun, informational forums to brief voters on what's on the ballot this November, from the local to federal level.
Cabrera's top campaign issues and proposals haven't changed since he ran in 2014, when he received 2.75 percent of the vote. He advocates for more interactive, transparent governance and looks to the community to guide his decisions -- to the point that he lets his supporters cast votes online to tell him if and where he should run for election next.
Critical of one of the board's primary processes for hearing community input -- giving members of the public three minutes to make statements at weeknight board meetings -- he suggests instead a participatory democracy model. If elected, he said he would invite members of the community in for more open, interactive discussions of the issues.
People should also be able to vote online in real time on any subject before the board, he proposes. Regardless of the topic, he would look to these votes to guide his own decisions as a board member, he said in an endorsement interview with the Weekly.
"I'm not going to haphazardly just vote any which way. The goal," Cabrera said, "is to educate citizenry and get people engaged and involved in what's going on."
When it comes to school-specific issues, he is most passionate about improving student mental health and wellness and has said that talking to students directly would be his first step on any decisions related to the subject. He argued, however, that changing the tide on what is a broad "societal issue" is beyond the school board's scope.
He has several specific proposals for improving student life in Palo Alto schools, from instituting computer science as an academic requirement (starting early in elementary school), to making the district's two high schools more "university like." This means more real-world learning and life skills: He said he surveyed current Palo Alto high schoolers during the 2014 election, and the top thing they said their schools lacked is instruction on relevant life skills. He'd also like to see more student choice and empowerment. High school students should have the freedom to either explore more academically or focus in on what they know they're interested in pursuing, like college students do, Cabrera told the Weekly in a previous interview.
He is also an advocate for lowering the national voting age to 15 years old to encourage earlier and deeper civic engagement.
At the board level, Cabrera supports lowering the district's Basic Aid Reserve Fund level to release more money to the classrooms. While the state requires the district maintain at least 3 percent of its General Fund in its reserves, Palo Alto Unified requires 10 percent. Cabrera said that 5 percent would be more appropriate.
Cabrera might be the only candidate in this race willing to admit that his chances of winning are low -- but he's looking at the bigger picture. He said a community member came up to him after the Sept. 22 League of Women Voters debate and told him when he was answering, he came off as passionate and excited. When he wasn't talking, he sat back, crossed his arms and "looked defeated," the person told him.
"I feel in some ways I am defeated," he told the Weekly. "I'm literally one of the only candidates in the eight elections (I've run in) -- and I've come in last place almost every single time -- who's willing to stand up and speak out and tell people that we have to change our electoral system.
"I feel like it's an obligation of mine to push that issue and encourage people to get the money out of the elections," he said. "If no one else is going to do, I feel like I have to do it."
Jay Cabrera: fast facts
• Age: 36
• Education: bachelor's in biology and environmental studies with an emphasis on sustainability from UC Santa Cruz
• Current occupation: social entrepreneur, nonprofit CEO
• Family members>: no spouse or children
• Has lived in Palo Alto for 23 years
• Favorite quote: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - Albert Einstein
• Favorite class in high school: physics (because of the teacher, Mr. Dunbar)
• Proudest moment: Helped pass one of the most comprehensive sustainability policies through the UC Regents to create the UC Sustainability Policy.
• Best piece of advice you were ever given: "I got no time for the people who dislike me, because I'm too busy focusing on the people who love me."
• Campaign website: jaycan.us/SchoolBoard
In his own words: Where Jay Cabrera stands
1. Do you support opening a new elementary, middle and/or high school?
Yes -- a combined space for both elementary and middle, and hopefully high school classes as well. Can also be combined with the Cubberley Community Center goals.
2. What changes do you propose for the district's approach to administrative compensation?
Pay administrators the same as teachers. The lowest-paid teachers makes as little as $70K per year. The superintendent gets $250K per year. That is a substantial difference. The majority of teachers make about $100K per year. The top administrators are easily getting $150K+... Yes, there are a few teachers getting paid pretty high up the scale, but overall the difference is not the highest priority issue my campaign is focused on.
3. What is your vision for the future of Cubberley Community Center?
Mixed-education space and a cultural epicenter for all types of students, including adult education. It could also be the perfect space to launch building a more university-like model of education and also have space for faculty housing. This should be where we are the most interactive with the community, innovative and experimental.
4. Should public hearings be held on the terms of union contracts during the negotiation process?
The public should be able to engage and interact regarding any issue that comes before the board, so yes, there should be public hearings.
5. How can the district better monitor and ensure implementation of its homework policy?
Teachers should be required to enter (on Schoology) the estimated time to complete homework so that you can compare the homework loads across classes.
6. What is the best way to expand access and capacity of the district's choice programs?
To fully fund them. If a pilot or small program has a lot of interest and there is access and capacity issues, by fully funding the program and increasing its budget you will be able to maximize and increase the number of students who have access and increase its capacity.
7. What are your top three ideas for improving the district's fiscal health?
Increase taxes (locally, statewide, and fix Prop. 13); cut administrative overhead and reduce the reserves from the current 12 percent down to about 5 percent over 10 years -- participatory and temporal budgeting.
8. What should the district do to identify and deal with (including firing, if necessary) under-performing teachers?
Work with the community to change the laws to ensure that the youngest teachers are never fired simply for being young. That is age discrimination. Also help build a process for parents and students to directly be engaged in the firing process for the worst teachers.
9. If a member of the public emails a board member about a district matter, should it be made public (as long as it doesn't violate student privacy)? And if it is sent to a board member's private email account?
I am supportive that all correspondence with elected officials should be open and transparent.
10. Should the district rename Terman and Jordan middle schools?
If the community wants to do this and make it a priority I am OK with that. I personally am fine with the names to stay the same, if that is how the majority of the community wants it. If we do change the names, I would support the most interactive process possible to allow the community to choose the new names.