Holding our local elected officials accountable for their performance in office is not something we do very well in Palo Alto.
Incumbents not only enjoy a built-in advantage but generally unconditional support from their social, political and school networks, often without a rigorous examination of how well they have actually governed.
There is no way to sugar-coat our views on the performance over the last four years of Baten Caswell and Emberling; their actions on the school board, while surely well-intended, have allowed the district to gyrate from one crisis or controversy to another, undermining trust and confidence in the board, in Superintendent Max McGee and in the operation of the district.
We expect and need more than good intentions from our leaders, and we have the opportunity to put in place a board with better judgment. In short, we need new blood.
Emberling was elected for the first time in 2012 and is asking for a second four-year term.
Baten Caswell was elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2012, the beneficiary of an extra year due to the change of elections from odd- to even-numbered years. After nine years on the board, she now seeks a third term that would bring her to 13 total years on the board.
It is very disappointing that Baten Caswell chose not conform to the tradition of a voluntary limit of two terms (eight years), becoming only the second such school board member in more than 40 years (the other being current Trustee Camille Townsend). In doing so she is telling the community that she does not have confidence that others can serve as capably as she. The result is to discourage others in the community from stepping forward and to thwart the essential evolution of leadership. Her view that the board needs her institutional knowledge is the argument given by every incumbent seeking longer service and belies the fact that elected bodies regularly overcome this loss as members turn over.
With three school board seats on the November ballot (the third incumbent, Townsend, chose not to seek a fourth term) three challengers have stepped up to run against Baten Caswell and Emberling in spite of the difficult odds: Collins, a school volunteer and investment manager; DiBrienza, an education consultant and former teacher; and Jay Cabrera, a perennial candidate for multiple local offices, including for school board two years ago.
Like their supporters, we respect Baten Caswell and Emberling and appreciate their service. They are good people trying their best.
But our school district has not by any measure been well-governed or well-led over the last four years, and these two, along with Townsend, must bear much of the responsibility.
Their lack of transparency, failure to hold the superintendent accountable and inclination to retreat into closed sessions, often with shaky legal justification, has repeatedly turned important issues deserving of public discussion into tangled and largely avoidable controversies.
The most recent example is the mishandling of the board's greatest fiduciary responsibility: sound fiscal management. In May, the board majority approved a three-year union contract (a first in Palo Alto) with a 12 percent raise and an automatic equivalent "me-too" raise without regard to performance for all highly paid non-union managers and senior administrators.
A month later, the board adopted a budget incorporating those raises that could only be balanced by assuming a 9 percent increase in property-tax revenue. And then just two weeks later, the district learned that the property tax increase would be only 5 percent and revenue would be $5.2 million below projections (later increased to $6.1 million.)
The board failed the community on many levels. It negotiated and agreed to a costly three-year union contract without informing the public until it was already a done deal and approved by both the unions and the board in closed session. If given the chance, many in the community would have cautioned the board about the long-term risks of both the multi-year contract and the exceedingly generous pay increases. And they also would have demanded financial forecasts under different revenue scenarios so that the risks could be quantified, something the board did not ask of its staff.
Because of the size of the raises, no funds were available for investing in the numerous program improvements that the board had just spent months discussing with the community, a process that misled the public into believing that robust financial resources could fund programs such as foreign-language instruction in elementary schools, class size reductions, a new school and new classroom innovations. At the very time these were under discussion publicly, the board was negotiating raises behind closed doors that would consume all our new revenue, and more.
Then once the mis-budgeting of property-tax revenue was discovered in early July, instead of immediately preparing financial models for the impact on this and future years, Board President Emberling and Superintendent McGee created a long drawn-out process (still underway) that focused on how the mistake occurred, wasting precious time that should have been devoted to implementing adjustments to this year's budget.
Worse, however, has been the confused and convoluted presentation of this issue to the public and the attempt to paint the problem as minor when compared to budget cuts that we've had to make in past recessions. If the board was determined to accept the risks and uncertainties of three-year employee contracts, it should have at least deferred approval of the contract for 45 days until it could confirm it would have the property-tax revenue to pay for it. And its casual use of "me-too" raises, which has been quietly incorporated without discussion into contracts with its senior administrators, is an embarrassment.
In addition to its failures in financial management, time and time again, from the big to the small, this board has found itself out of compliance with the law or the district's own policies.
It delayed by almost two years complying with Seth's Law, which required that complaints of discriminatory bullying be handled within clear timeframes through a formal process.
It repeatedly violated the state Public Records Act by not providing the required timely responses to document requests, at one point falling more than a year behind in releasing routine email communications between board members and district administrators.
On multiple occasions, even knowing it was under scrutiny because of earlier mistakes, the board failed to ensure that timely and legally mandated investigations were done in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment by teachers and administrators.
It even failed to ensure that routine minutes of its meetings were completed as required by board policy, at one point earlier this year falling months behind.
But the shirking of its governance responsibility has been most striking in its handling of the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigations over the district's handling of student bullying and sexual harassment. Acting in closed sessions for more than a year, the board not only paid its attorneys to fight and resist the OCR but to embark on a foolhardy and unsuccessful vendetta to change OCR procedures and limit its authority on a national level.
Both Baten Caswell and Emberling supported this strategy, and they both voted for a June 2014 resolution that publicly (and wrongly) accused a Palo Alto parent of document tampering in an OCR case that had already been closed in the district's favor. Both recently told the Weekly they were unaware that OCR informed the district months ago that there had been no document tampering by the parent, only the copying and pasting of two electronic documents by OCR staff.
Any responsible board would have worked cooperatively with investigators, acknowledged its mistakes and sought an early resolution that would focus on improving policies and procedures. The board's actions to pursue a defensive strategy cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees as well as defamed a member of the community.
With two major investigations of sexual harassment at Palo and Gunn high schools still open and the board having again waited too long before seeking an early resolution with OCR, it is almost a certainty that the district will soon receive more damaging findings about its handling of allegations against former Paly Principal Phil Winston and English teacher Kevin Sharp, among others.
Sadly, instead of pushing back on its lawyers and seeking second opinions, the incumbents allowed the district's law firms to lead them into an abyss, all in secret.
The poor handling of the zero period controversy at Gunn, the confusion over class-size data, the rejection of teacher recommendations on math curricula, the multi-year debate over high school counseling, the lack of enforcement of the homework policy, the transfer of Winston to a special-ed class at Jordan after his inappropriate behavior as Paly principal -- these are just a few of the avoidable controversies that this board has allowed to fester.
With three board seats up for election and only two qualified challengers running, it is a foregone conclusion that one of the incumbents will be re-elected.
Since our goal is to maximize the chance that both challengers are elected, we urge voters to only cast ballots for Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza. By withholding the third vote, the advantage of incumbency will be somewhat offset and there is a chance that both Collins and DiBrienza would receive more votes than one of the incumbents. Voting for either of the incumbents only serves to reduce the odds of that happening.
Collins and DiBrienza will bring special and valuable expertise to the board.
Collins, 55, is an investment manager with three children, two of whom graduated from Gunn and who are now in college and one who is autistic and attends a special school in San Jose. He has served on several school committees and recently chaired the elementary school subcommittee of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee. He has been critical of the board's handling of the current financial problem, arguing that it was a self-inflicted crisis due to the adoption of an overly generous multi-year teachers' contract, and that once discovered, the board did not move fast enough to reduce expenses. He has also not hesitated to be open and honest with feedback to the board and administration when he has seen processes go sideways, such as McGee's involvement with a parent group advocating a new high school at Cubberley that was kept from the board and public. Collins believes that the district suffers from a fear of owning up to mistakes and not being transparent about its decision-making. We couldn't agree more.
DiBrienza, 45, is an education consultant and former elementary school teacher who received a doctorate in education from Stanford University with an emphasis on math instruction. She has three children, two at Ohlone and one at the private Girls' Middle School. She has worked at Stanford to improve math curriculum and has helped teach math to aspiring teachers at the Stanford Teacher Education Program. Her focus in this campaign is the need for the school board to honor the professional judgment of its teachers more and to be supportive of innovation in the classroom. We have some concern over whether she will be able to pivot from her teacher-centric orientation to the governance and policy-making responsibility of an elected school board member, where transparency and oversight of administrators and teachers is critically important. Her clear preference is to address problems quietly behind the scenes, an approach that has repeatedly gotten the district into trouble. We hope that she will quickly learn, if she has not already, that this is not a winning approach in Palo Alto. Her values of inclusion, equity and student well-being are what our district needs, and we believe her experience as an educator will help other board members better understand the impacts of their decisions on the classroom and students.
The election of Collins and DiBrienza, along with the retirement of Camille Townsend, will go a long way toward moving beyond the divisiveness and bad judgments of the last four years and refocusing on improving district management, transparency and decision-making.
We recommend that residents of the Palo Alto Unified School District, which includes some 1,200 households in Los Altos Hills, vote Nov. 8 for Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza.
Readers interested in reviewing the editorial positions the Weekly has taken on school-related issues since 2013, which provide analysis of most major issues referenced in this editorial, can find them here: