Melissa Baten Caswell: software firm CEO

Two-term incumbent emphasizes her 'institutional knowledge'

After serving for almost a decade on the Palo Alto Board of Education, Melissa Baten Caswell didn't initially plan to run for a third term this November.

But with a relatively new superintendent who "comes from a state with a very different culture" and many district retirements over the last few years, she felt strongly that her historical perspective on the board would be valuable, she said at a Sept. 22 candidates forum.

"I think that we are in a juncture in our history where we need to have a bridge in institutional knowledge," she said in her closing statement.

Baten Caswell has served on the board through one major economic downturn, two superintendents, a major shift in state academic standards and the roll-out of a $378 million bond, among many other big- and small-picture changes in the Palo Alto school district. (On a personal level, she has noted that she has had children in Palo Alto schools continuously for the last 16 years, longer than anyone else on the board or running this fall.)

Her campaign priorities center on "build(ing) on what we have," from investing in innovative and engaging educational programs and recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers to making data-driven decisions, she told the Weekly in August.

She has cited her role several years ago in reinvigorating the district's guiding document, the Strategic Plan -- she persuaded the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to help the district develop a new document and new process with stronger community input -- as a linchpin that continues to help the board make good decisions. Before this effort, the Strategic Plan was not being used consistently, and community members weren't aware of the goals it set for the district, she said.

Using data to hold the district accountable to the priorities laid out in the Strategic Plan is key to its success, and Baten Caswell said she plans to continue to push for that if re-elected.

The district's progress on this front includes seeking data about inconsistencies between high school curricula, homework loads and grading practices among teachers and courses. The district is now using a consultant's in-depth study from last year that identified where the inconsistencies lie to guide improvements in syllabi planning and professional development, Baten Caswell said.

She also pointed to new surveys high schoolers are taking at the end of each semester in each class -- data the district can then use in teacher evaluations.

One example of the district's failure to set clear metrics and gather data is the 2012 homework policy, which puts a weekly cap on the number of hours of homework for different grade levels but has been implemented unevenly at different schools.

She thinks the policy itself needs revision. The current policy doesn't take into account the fact that students take different amounts of time to complete the same assignment, so she suggests hour requirements at the class level, including for Advanced Placement classes. A possible model is Mountain View-Los Altos High School District's new homework policy, which expects two to three hours of homework per class per week for college preparatory classes, and four to five hours per week for each AP class, she said.

"If we're going to expect people to live by a policy and if it doesn't quite work, then we need to go in and make adjustments," she said.

When it comes to the $4.2 million deficit facing the district, Baten Caswell has described it as a structural problem that was the result of a district staff "mistake," but said she is confident the district will be able to address it. She did press staff in August to look for cuts that could be made this year, but last week she supported budget measures that rely on alternative revenue sources and unspent money rather than ongoing cuts.

She told the Weekly this was a "trade-off" made in order to have time to engage the community in future cuts.

"Given that we've already made decisions about salaries, which is the biggest part of our budget, it's hard to get that feedback into this year's budget," she said. "We would have to make decisions that probably wouldn't be optimal and we wouldn't be able to get the whole community involved."

Her first look for cuts next year will be at the district office, which she said needs to address real "operational inefficiencies" -- inefficiencies that she's said make it challenging for not only community members but even board members to get information in a timely manner, with significant implications for transparency in governance.

Baten Caswell has not supported a colleague's proposal to roll back the most recent raise provided to non-represented senior administrators, arguing it would deal a more costly blow to morale, particularly for principals.

"Probably what you'd end up losing in that situation," she said, "is the people you'd most want to be on board and loyal."

She does, however, support getting rid of the district's longtime "me too" practice for providing compensation increases to senior administrators. She said she would like to see instead a model that relies on performance evaluations.

In hindsight, entering into a multi-year contract with the teachers union got the district into financial trouble this year, Baten Caswell said. Moving forward, the district should return to its practice of one-year contracts, she said.

Achieving one of her top campaign priorities, retaining and recruiting high-quality teachers, depends on making the Palo Alto school district "the best place to work," she said. To her, this means not only making sure Palo Alto's compensation ranks in the top five of competing school districts but also supporting teachers in their long-term career aspirations.

"If you have a kindergarten teacher who would love to teach fifth grade ... or if they're interested doing something else in administration or eventually becoming a principal, we should know these things way up front and we should be helping our teachers because we should be committing to a career for them," Baten Caswell said.

Providing teachers with affordable housing close to the district is critical, she said, though she doesn't support the idea of the district assuming the role of landlord. She's interested in pursuing a more regional solution, such as collaborating with other local school districts to create teacher housing in the area.

As an incumbent, Baten Caswell said she stands by her voting record, with a regret or two.

During several contentious years of Office for Civil Rights investigations into allegations of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment in the district, she supported spending $50,000 to direct the district's law firm to write a three-page resolution challenging the federal agency's investigative processes and sending the resolution to many local and national elected officials to ask for their support.

Today, she maintains that the Office for Civil Rights did not follow its own policies and that the district's "due process rights were violated," as the resolution stated. She alleges that emails and documents related to some of the cases were released before their conclusions. Left unaddressed publicly by the Office for Civil Rights, this made it difficult for "teachers to do their jobs when they feel like they're being investigated in the court of public opinion," she said.

Her main regret is not the resolution itself, but the amount of time the district spent on it.

"I think we naively thought that ... there would be a bigger impact," Baten Caswell said. "I don't think it had the impact that we were hoping for."

If re-elected, the longtime schools volunteer, former business manager and parent of two children would become the second board member in the past 40 years to serve more than two terms, following in Camille Townsend's footsteps. In the 2012 board election, Baten Caswell was the top vote-getter.

Melissa Baten Caswell: fast facts

• Age: 52

• Education: bachelor's in psychology and economics and MBA from Dartmouth College

• Current occupation: PAUSD board trustee, software company CEO

• Family members: Husband Lee; daughter Lainie; and son Cas (attends Palo Alto High School)

• Has lived in Palo Alto for 26 years

• Favorite quote: "We must become the change we wish to see in the world." -- Mahatma Ghandi

• Favorite class in high school: psychology

• Proudest moment: When I was awarded a Golden Oak Award, the most prestigious PTA Honorary Service Award.

• Best piece of advice you were ever given: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again."

• Campaign website:

In her own words: Where Melissa Baten Caswell stands

1. Do you support opening a new elementary, middle and/or high school?

Not now. After several years of declining enrollment, we have 26 elementary rooms not being used as primary classrooms. We still have a bubble moving through the secondary schools, but with declining enrollment projections for the next six years, resources should be focused on improving existing school learning environments.

2. What changes do you propose for the district's approach to administrative compensation?

Currently administrative compensation follows a process (widely practiced across California) based on the compensation in the negotiated teachers union contract. However, this is not merit-based, and administrators are not represented by the union. I would like to move to a plan where administrator compensation reflects individual and district performance.

3. What is your vision for the future of Cubberley Community Center?

We should plan Cubberley to best meet the needs of our community. The city and PAUSD should work together to create a joint master plan that reflects the need for community center resources, multi-use playing fields, immediate district requirements, education program flexibility and a school in the longer term future.

4. Should public hearings be held on the terms of union contracts during the negotiation process?

Yes. I generally support public hearings on negotiations and keeping our community informed along the way. On some issues when evaluating negotiating options, some confidentiality can lead to better outcomes. However, after the district's positions and budget implications are established, I support bringing the issues to public hearings.

5. How can the district better monitor and ensure implementation of its homework policy?

Fully implementing Schoology software across PAUSD can provide better information on homework tasks and volumes. PAUSD can gather teacher- and department-specific homework feedback with targeted questions in the student semester-end surveys. Our current broad-brush hourly limits may need review to better reflect different kinds of learners and course types.

6. What is the best way to expand access and capacity of district's choice programs?

All choice programs should have lottery-based admission. PAUSD should make sure that program information is proactively disseminated across the community. Choice programs with wait-lists should be reviewed annually and expansion evaluated, balancing the effects on neighborhood programs. Best practices from choice programs should be incorporated into regular programs.

7. What are your top three ideas for improving the district's fiscal health?

Actively look for process enhancements, system improvements and operational efficiencies; include all constituencies in budget reprioritization; tie administrative compensation to individual evaluations that are based on district operational and fiscal goals.

8. What should the district do to identify, deal with under-performing teachers?

Candid feedback is essential; every site needs to take input from student, parent and teacher evaluations very seriously. Many of our outstanding teachers collaborate for mutual improvement and coach others who struggle. Teachers who are underperforming are put on improvement programs and can be terminated if goals are not met.

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?

If an emailer seeks to influence board vote or policy, I believe that the email should be made public whether sent to a district or personal account. However, specific law regarding public email communication disclosure is currently under Supreme Court review and PAUSD should make policy changes based on law.

10. Should the district rename Terman and Jordan middle schools?

I am open to renaming. The connection between these school's names and eugenics flies in the face of our community's current values, and it does not set an example of the kind of behavior that we teach, model and expect from our students.


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13 people like this
Posted by Service
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2016 at 3:05 pm

I think it speaks volumes that Caswell's only regrets around the OCR letter are self-centered, with no thought at all to the families she hurt. Hand in hand with the OCR letter are the lawsuits the district waged against families of special ed students. Intimidation, misusing power, petty bureaucrats retaliating rather than learning diplomacy - that's what I'll remember from her tenure. We should be so lucky to have some of those "loyal" bureaucrats she wants to keep giving higher raises to, to leave.

I have never in my life been so disappointed in incumbents that I am voting for whoever else is new. It couldn't be worse. Everyone else is competent, and the missing ingredient in incumbents is caring about serving families, first foremost.

It has long been a tradition fir board members to step aside after two terms. Caswell even got an extended term, didn't she? It's time to let others lead. The schoolboard was never supposed to be a place for people to entrench power locally.

2 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 13, 2016 at 5:09 pm

Caswell and Emberling need to be replaced. They have done enough.

We need new people who won't be acting to keep the status quo, or thinking only about what is good for their own kids, as the past board members under Skelly have done.

2 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 13, 2016 at 5:24 pm

I received my ballot, and unfortunately I did not see the incumbents (Melissa or Heidi) resolve the budget deficit issue without the use of financial tricks, so I will not be casting a vote for either.

Although Srinivasan Subramanian dropped out of the race, he is still on the ballot, and I will be casting one of my votes for him. If he is fortunate enough to get elected, but still decides not to serve, will there be another election held?

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

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