Editorial: Collins, DiBrienza for Palo Alto school board

Read the Weekly's endorsements in the 2016 Board of Education race

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.

The two incumbents running for re-election to the school board, Melissa Baten Caswell and Heidi Emberling, are no exception.

That is one reason why it will be difficult to elect the two qualified challengers in this race, Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza.

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:

2013 (11 editorials)

2014 (9 editorials)

2015 (13 editorials)

2016 (7 editorials)

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46 people like this
Posted by Nana Chancellor
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2016 at 7:29 am

Thank you Weekly for endorsing Jennifer DiBrienza and recognizing that "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."

She will be a fantastic board member and a breath of fresh air! GO JENNIFER!!!

37 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 14, 2016 at 7:36 am

Ok so. You just wrote a 10,000 word editorial largely about the problems of lack of transparency and behind the scenes conduct by the board and ripped into the incumbents, deservedly, for this behavior.

Then, you wound up your best roundhouse and promptly punched yourself in the face by endorsing Jennifer DiBrienza, despite writing this: "Her clear preference is to address problems quietly behind the scenes, an approach that has repeatedly gotten the district into trouble."

This. Makes. No. Sense.

34 people like this
Posted by Kirstin Sego
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 14, 2016 at 7:50 am

I'm thrilled to see the endorsement for Jennifer DiBrienza. Her extensive experience as a teacher and working with public school administrations will be a terrific asset to the Board. She will be able to hit the ground running. I continue to admire her enthusiasm and passion for K-12 education, as well as her unflagging determination to improve the educational experience for all of our students.

32 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2016 at 7:58 am

While the incumbents are sad, Dibrienza is no better. More lack of board experience, more "know it all," more "big ideas," no financial, management, or oversight experience whatsoever (hey, why would we want those on the board of a $200+ million organization with 1500 employees?).

She's just more of the same, but without even direct experience in the middle or high schools. And I didn't even realize the transparency thing. Sigh. More of the same, I'm afraid.

28 people like this
Posted by Susie
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2016 at 8:12 am

Jennifer is an experienced educator who has a positive vision for our students and a deep understanding of evaluation and accountability. She is a collaborator who has experience bringing school communities together. She is just what our district needs!

32 people like this
Posted by Sarit Schube
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 14, 2016 at 8:33 am

I, too, believe Jennifer DiBrienza's " experience as an educator will help other board members better understand the impacts of their decisions on the classroom and students." We need such experience on the board. No other candidate has it. Thank you for endorsing Jennifer.

44 people like this
Posted by Helen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2016 at 8:36 am

Todd Collins will be a great addition to the board. He is a calm voice of reason and experience, and seems to be the perfect addition to Ken Dauber's data-driven and sensible reforms. Finally we can have a board that makes sense. I'm thrilled that he has been endorsed, and definitely will be voting for him.

54 people like this
Posted by JLS Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2016 at 8:41 am

Todd Collins is a great endorsement. I have met him a couple of times now, and he totally gets it - it is like night and day talking to him vs. the incumbents. He has kids who have gone all the way through, including college admissions, and seems to know what it is really like. And he has a special needs child, which is a perspective we sorely need on the board. I also like that he isn't afraid to speak his mind - we have had so much group-think on the board (except for Dauber).

22 people like this
Posted by kindaliked
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2016 at 8:45 am

Quit bashing Camille. She's a dedicated public oriented community member. Your attacks over differences in policy would be fine if you checked the facts and realized she's been on the right side of decisions for some time. She's the only one willing to take on Ken Dauber's ridiculousness.

33 people like this
Posted by George Jaquette
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:04 am

I am glad to see that the Weekly has endorsed Jennifer DiBrienza, as she brings critical experience as an educator to the board.

Working with the administration to prioritize investments in education requires both fiscal insight and an understanding of how to work with educators. We need to have both skills on the board, and having a parent with children in the district on the board would be a great addition.

George Jaquette
parent of children at Palo Verde and JLS, proud of our PAUSD educators

18 people like this
Posted by Wait a minute...
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:05 am

" Jennifer DiBrienza's " experience as an educator will help other board members better understand the impacts of their decisions on the classroom and students."

Wait, isn't Dr. McGee an educator? And Heidi Emberling? And the two (!) chief academic officers who are at every board meeting? Why is this person going to bring such a different perspective when there are already at least 4 career educators attending every board meeting? Is that really what we're missing??

28 people like this
Posted by Rita
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:06 am

First off thank you to the Weekly for writing this article. Everything needed to be said and it is a good reminder to our community that we really need more from our board members. Their job is difficult and it’s clear that they each care about our schools, so I am very appreciative of all they do. But it is time for a change and we need board members that support transparency and that are willing to accept and acknowledge their mistakes and quickly react to addressing them. This is why I support Todd Collins. If you look back at all he his down for our community and what he plans to do if elected, you can see that he is a voice of reason that the board desperately needs. Not only does Todd support innovation at our schools (he has proposed great ideas for both our elementary schools and our secondary schools) but he also knows what it takes to make these ideas a reality. I heard one candidate say it is our “moral imperative” to innovative and I could see that folks were moved by this comment. But unfortunately saying something is a “moral imperative” doesn’t create funding nor does it create an environment that is conducive to innovation. That’s just talk, with no tangible actions on how to make it happen. We need a candidate that is seated in reality, that doesn’t get swept up by “sensational talk” and that can make things happen. Todd is that candidate. Cast your vote for Todd!

36 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:07 am

I hope every parent in the school district will read this editorial.

I'd be willing to print copies and had deliver to every house hold.

22 people like this
Posted by Paly mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:16 am

To Posted by Wait a minute.

I agree with you, that we don't need more educators on the board. This is just another reason that I support Todd Collins, but as the paper mentioned, our best chance is to vote for both Todd and Jennifer. Hands down, Todd is the better candidate for what we need on our board today. And I think that Jennifer is missing her calling and should be a school administrator. As I've listened to her speak, it's clear that most of the changes she wants to make are school level issues, not board level issues. So for her to have a significant impact, I'd like to see her move into administration in our schools. I think she'd be great there.

16 people like this
Posted by PAUSD bashing
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:19 am

PAUSD bashing is a registered user.

I wonder what made [the Weekly] hate PAUSD so much. He has been trying to bring this district down for years. With Ken and Todd on the board, he may just be able to finally do it!

43 people like this
Posted by Sally Kadifa
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 14, 2016 at 9:19 am

Sally Kadifa is a registered user.

Great to see the Weekly endorsing Todd Collins' candidacy! He will bring so much to the board! He is a parent of three PAUSD kids and knows the schools well as a very hands-on and involved PTA volunteer and member of district committees. He has extensive experience serving on boards, and has financial skills and knowledge that will serve our community well. Todd has been a strong supporter of Rita Tetzlaff's and my efforts to convince the district to maintain reasonable class sizes at our secondary schools as our high schools increase in number of students attending over the next 5 years.
If you want to know more about Todd's positions on important district issues, the Weekly endorsement interview video is a great place to start.
Web Link
[Portion removed.]

33 people like this
Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 14, 2016 at 10:20 am

I couldn't agree more with this editorial. Thanks so much to the Weekly. It's high time for a change. Throw the incumbents out.

39 people like this
Posted by Gunn Dad
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 14, 2016 at 10:51 am

The Weekly has been bashing PAUSD for years. They bashed the District when Kevin Skelly was the superintendent. They based the District now that Max McGee is superintendent. They have gone negative on school board members Townsend, Baten Caswell, and Emberling. In fact, the only person they are ever positive on is Dauber – and that, of course, is only because Dauber is 100% aligned with the Weekly on bashing everyone else.

The budget issue is completely overblown. The District negotiated a pay increase for teachers that allows for the second year of the increase to be reduced and the third year of the increase to be eliminated if revenues came in below expectations. That was a smart thing to do and cushions the impact of the lower-than-expected revenue figures. What’s more, the shortfall will only be about 2% of the annual budget and the district has already announced how it will overcome that shortfall without impacting classroom instruction. So the end of the world is not coming, and this is not a situation where the school district has made a mistake, either in its budgeting or its labor negotiations.

As for the OCR (Office of Civil Rights) claims, this has been another one of the Weekly’s favorite issues. Interestingly, the issue largely died out (in terms of press attention in the Weekly) after Dauber was elected in 2014. Both Dauber and the Weekly had made a big issue out it both before and during the 2014 campaign. Here is the deal with the OCR claims. Prior to 2011, I don't recall any mention of anyone in Palo Alto filing an OCR claim regarding PAUSD. And then something changed in 2011 and over the next several years, over 10 claims were filed. The vast majority of those claims were ultimately dismissed, though not before PAUSD had to spend significant time and money dealing with them. Why the sudden surge in claims in a short period of time? Coincidence? Something in the water? Probably not. And it probably wasn’t anything PAUSD was doing wrong since almost all the claims were dismissed. The bottom line is PAUSD has moved aggressively to address any possible civil rights concerns. It’s time to stop bashing the school district and school board members over OCR issues – in fact, it was never right to do so in the first place.

If you want to support Jennifer and Todd, go for it. It’s your newspaper, you buy the ink, and you every right to support who you want. But please focus on the positive and spare the community the negative. It really is ok to do that. And, yes, you can make an articulate and effective case for Jennifer and Todd without having to bash the District or Melissa and Heidi – or at least I hope you can.

13 people like this
Posted by Ina 840
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 14, 2016 at 11:10 am

Who is behind the campaign strategy that says we should give up our right to vote for THREE candidates??

Fine to endorse the candidates you (mostly) think should be elected.

Leave strategy to campaign managers, unless you think of yourselves as such.

Shame on you.

22 people like this
Posted by Michelle Kraus
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 14, 2016 at 11:14 am

Hey folks, I think that Melissa Baten Caswell is running for a third term because she is telling the community that she is deeply committed to the Palo Alto schools and wants to use her depth of experience to see many projects come to fruition.

41 people like this
Posted by Hal Plotkin
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2016 at 11:21 am

Thank you for this carefully written, detailed coverage of this important race. It will be important to my family as we cast our votes. I served in the U.S. Department of Education during the period covered by this report and was shocked at the actions of the Palo Alto School Board with regard to the federal office of Civil Rights. That office is staffed by dedicated, conscientious public servants who, for very good reasons, are legally required to investigate all complaints they receive. I also served as an elected trustee at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District where we responded to OCR investigations fully, promptly and by addressing the issues that were raised. Our board and administrators would never have dreamed of contesting OCR's right to conduct a full investigation. I hope local voters understand the profoundly disturbing implications of the actions of our local Palo Alto school board in this matter, as indicated by this thoughtful editorial.

38 people like this
Posted by Jordan Parent
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 14, 2016 at 11:41 am

I am thrilled that the weekly wrote this editorial. I agree that Todd and Jennifer will be terrific board members. Thanks for the suggestion on only casting 2 votes!

19 people like this
Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 14, 2016 at 11:57 am

@Gunn Dad,
The budget issue is overblown? There is a shortfall of "only" 2%? [Portion removed.]

This is a fiscal disaster and example of gross mismanagement.

"She's the only one willing to take on Ken Dauber's ridiculousness."
Huh? Dauber was more conservative than other Board members on the budget, and wanted to invest in reduced class sizes. [Portion removed.]

38 people like this
Posted by newcomers vs incumbants
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2016 at 12:11 pm

It seems to me that the various candidates largely concur on the various issues facing PAUSD (with the exception of Cabrerra, who I believe is simply using the School Board as a stepping stone to higher office). Given that, combined with the budget mess due to the budget voted in by current School Board members (which mean that we won't have class size reduction after all, even with the increased funds from the School Bond Measure), I think we should give the newcomers (Collins and DiBrienza) a chance and our votes.

7 people like this
Posted by No more anger
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 14, 2016 at 12:57 pm

[Post removed.]

29 people like this
Posted by PA parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 14, 2016 at 1:22 pm

I have been very impressed by Jennifer DiBrienza, and I must say that I am baffled by the conclusion that she is anything other than a huge proponent for transparency.

There is nothing in Jennifer's experience, record, or statements that supports this narrative. In the coffees I've attended and conversations I've had with Jennifer, I've found her to be authentic and candid, and she clearly understands the role of transparency in building trust within the community.

And as an aside, DiBrienza is a specialist in K-12 education. Emberling's background is in early childhoood education and parent education. Those are very different areas of expertise and experience. Not more of the same.

17 people like this
Posted by Kudos to Gunn Dad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Thanks, Gunn Dad.

Don't know why the Weekly folks are always so angry. MBC, HE, and CT are good people who have served the community ably. They don't deserve to be ripped to shreds for every perceived mistake. Palo Alto can be an unhappy place and the Weekly is certainly not helping with editorials like this. It seems there's some Trumpian parts to the weekly -- PAUSD and its schools are falling apart when the reality is something vastly different, just as Trump says the world is falling apart.

Todd Collins is a good man and will be a good and potentially great board member, particularly if he can keep things in perspective. You can make a strong case for him (and Jennifer) without ripping the other candidates. It isn't civil, or nice, or good for our community.

Good manners are contagious, and meanness is as well.

11 people like this
Posted by Gunn Dad
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 14, 2016 at 1:31 pm

@ Stew Pid: Yes, the shortfall is only 2%. Sorry to have to interrupt hype with the actual facts, but that's the reality. And no, it's not a fiscal disaster (or anything close to it) nor is it an example of gross (or any) mismanagement.

55 people like this
Posted by Karen Gibson
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 14, 2016 at 2:42 pm

Thank you Weekly, for this accurate and detailed coverage of the race, and for endorsing these two candidates. I agree that we need to maximize the chance for both Todd and Jennifer being elected. We desperately need new blood and a sensible majority vote on the board.

Todd is a great candidate. I’ve known him for years and worked with him on the PTA. If he had been on the current board, I doubt we would even be in this financial mess now. He’s already saved PAUSD close to a $1billion before even running for election. He also understands the importance of getting back to our past goal of reasonable classroom sizes, and for continuing the movement forward to help the emotional well-being of our children. He is calm, thoughtful, data-driven, and creative with his ideas. He has common sense and is committed to helping the students in our district.

It’s an easy vote for me this election!

p.s. @Gunn Dad – As the parent who filed the current Gunn OCR complaint, let me address your comments. First, that’s correct that the issue has died out recently; there is simply nothing new to report right now. I don’t believe your conspiracy theory. Second, I am so tired of people who don’t know anything about my family’s claim, yet think they are experts and have the right to criticize us. I can assure you that PAUSD, and school board at the time, did not move aggressively to help my daughter stay safe. In fact, they did absolutely nothing at all. I admit the new principals and McGee are doing a better job, but the old crew has got to go.

13 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2016 at 12:15 am

"r 10 claims were filed. The vast majority of those claims were ultimately dismissed,"

This mirepresentation has been corrected many times before on these discussions, so I can only believe that you have some agenda for smearing the OCR and the families who sought help. The district had two settlement agreements against it - extremely rare - and some other cases in which the OCR found there was insufficient evidence that the district didn't have *procedures* (meaning, OCR wasn't deciding the cases, just whether the district had finally put proper procedures in place). In one case, the OCR did indeed find the student was treated badly but didn't find sufficient evidence that it was the result of racial discrimination. This is hardly a glowing endorsement or as your post implies, an outright dismissal. OCR makes very clear on their website that they do not take all cases even where someone has been wronged, they take cases in which there is a procedural problem, or usually a large class of students at stake, or a very egregious individual case.

The OCR does not usually decide individual cases, except in really rare, egregious cases. It decides whether districts have PROCEDURES to follow the law. In our district, the OCR made the extremely rare - in the entire nation - finding that in not just one, but two cases, the district failed to have basic procedures for protecting students' rights. These are procedures districts have already written themselves and had approved long before, not something confusing no one told them about.

That's all the second case was about, that the district was found not to be offering families 504 procedures, and the OCR told them they had to, and they had to train the staff about 504 procedures. That's school civil rights 101. It shouldn't have resulted in any nastiness, no hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees complaining to the OCR. It should have resulted in the district thanking the OCR for helping them come into compliance with the law, and then doing so. Instead, the district continued to cover for unprofessional and unethical behavior by some employees, probably egged on by the law firms who were making big money. I know several families who are still considering whether to file complaints about retaliation that had very real consequences to children, and there is an ongoing open investigation even now, so your characterization of some vast conspiracy to - what? - "embarrass" people for, um, not telling the public or the board about being told how the district could follow the law to protect students?

The initial two settlement agreements happened months before ending up in the newspaper. They were known by others including the Weekly for months. People involved were given every opportunity to demonstrate good faith with the families of our district. The settlement agreements only became newsworthy because of the then Superintendent trying to hide them, after entering into them without telling the board, which he apparently had no authority to do.

The inappropriate and unprofessional antagonism of these board members, and of certain district employees toward families, has resulted in a lot of harm the public has not seen, and with the district spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars with lawyers on a leash, colluding/gossipping/backbiting in ways that even ended up in classrooms against vulnerable kids, it's no wonder.

[Portion removed.] This editorial was spot on. Given what I know about what has been done to special ed students and families who dared to try to get help when their parents weren't on the board, the dam will break again someday, sooner or later, and it will be worse. I hope then, the community will focus on the students and not on whether certain people in the district office can control the world and their image just the way they like it.

20 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2016 at 1:05 am

As for why Palo Alto didn't used to have complaints -- PAUSD used to have a reputation for some of the best special ed in the area. And then it changed. Most of the employees responsible are still here. And still not held accountable, thanks to people like Caswell and Emberling, whose focus has been too divorced from the itnerests of our kids.

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Posted by again?
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 15, 2016 at 8:23 am

[Post removed due to factual inaccuracies.]

15 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2016 at 10:48 am

While I was not able to see the above post, I can see the online name, so I would just say: those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. The district office never learns, they just shore up the echo chamber. The real "mess" was that the district office, meaning the few employees whose self interest/CYA is at issue, kept the experience from resolving the underlying problems: a culture in which families whose kids face serious problems are more likely to be marginalized, ganged up on, talked about behind their backs between the district office and school sites in a way families cannot defend against or correct but that damages relationships and ultimately the child's connection to school.

Just as last time, copious proof is out there, yet district employees think they can control the situation through the same problematic or even unlawful (such as withholding records or retaliating behind the scenes) behavior as last time. Rather than learning the importance of being proactive, transparent, tackling problems to solve them, being unerringly truthful and ethical, serving ALL families in a public district, and holding bad apples in the office accountable, they think complaints are evidence of bad people who are part of a conspiracy to "embarrass" them and if they just control everything, or worse, pile on to the heap of examples of bad behavior, it will all go away. It won't go away, it's hurting real people, and we need new biard members who want a functioning district and are willing to speak up and correct probkems before the $800 million is gone, or before another generation if children endures what that chapter brought only some to light.

16 people like this
Posted by Who Will Pick Next Superintendant?
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 17, 2016 at 12:25 am

Who Will Pick Next Superintendant? is a registered user.

Voters in PAUSD need to ask themselves this question:

Whom do they want to choose their next PAUSD Superintendent of Schools?

The current Superintendent said he was 66 or 67. He will likely be gone in 2 to 4 years. This means whomever you elect chooses the next Superintendent.

Emberling and Baten Caswell picked the current Superintendent. Emberling traveled out of State to see his school, clearly adoring the Superintendent's small private school and wanting to emulate it in Palo Alto. Hence, the nearly secret until the last minute proposal for a small choice school of 650 students.

Parents were told this Superintendent would cure OCR findings of civil rights violations, special education's dismal performance and lawsuits against disabled families because the new Super had a disabled child who had attended school in another State. Emberling also told parents she would improve Special Education because she had a special needs child. That has not worked out so well.

It is a common phenomenon an educator with their own Special Education child can be the worst person for a disabled child because they think everyone is the same as their kids. Senior Administrators and Board Members believe everyone has the same wonderful experience and treatment by Senior Administrators as they, blinded to the fact that they have power and other parents do not. They even say silly things like "I haven't heard any problems. I visit school. My kid goes to xyz school."

The OCR cases, dismal test scores for Special Ed despite millions in expenses, and lawsuits against parents continued. The out of state Superintendent, seemed to know nothing about California. He was unaware or just never reported the California Department of Education found numerous violations in a Special Education audit, despite the importance of this audit to families. It was reported that the audit was 100% compliant - misleading families from the fact that the CDE had ordered corrections to numerous NON Compliance findings, and had watched and monitored PAUSD closely until each non-compliance finding was corrected. PAUSD only reported it after corrected, when the Special Ed head responsible wanted a huge promotion and to retain the lawyer responsible for the OCR, lawsuits and non compliance problems. Apparently the Superintendent and Emberling thought all things were so perfect for PAUSD's disabled children and parents were so happy, that the current Superintendent and Emberling promoted the insider Special Ed head, making sure she was the only candidate allowed to apply for the promotion and a now 32% raise. This was discussed behind closed doors by Emberling and Baten Caswell, per Palo Alto Weekly records requests related to the Agenda setting committee.

Voters, do you want the same Board Members choosing the next Superintendent?

36 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2016 at 2:27 am

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

I support Todd Collins and here's why.

It's painful to recall these things, but as everyone probably remembers we had a Gunn Grad of 2015, a 19-year-old who was back at home in Palo Alto, who ended her own life on the railroad tracks in late April.

So we were in that most dangerous time, the weeks immediately after a death, when the chance of a copycat suicide is at its highest. And for two or three months our newspapers and local TV had been visiting the tracks, checking the crossings, and had noted that the guards were frequently missing, had no bathroom facilities, no train timetables, no flashlights. Two of the security guards had even been arrested for crime in the nearby neighborhoods.

Fearing negligently guarded crossings, unusually despairing teens, I wrote emails of "alert" and then "emergency" to city and school leaders, including Todd Collins, because he had declared for school board--and he was the only person I heard back from. (It wasn't until my third email, labeled "emergency," that others in addition to Todd wrote back.)

And then Todd became the only other adult in Palo Alto who teamed up with me to do what no one else was doing: driving around, early or late, to the five crossings, to observe whether guards were present or not, keep a record of it, notify the District and the City Manager, speak to the news media.

I mean, he was out there in the night, in the cold, driving the length of Alma, getting out of his car to look, keeping a list of unguarded crossings, speaking with the guards who did happen to there, about their salary and working conditions, etc.

What I'm saying is: he demonstrated how much he cares about Palo Alto's children, even when he didn't have to, even when no one was watching, even when others were home asleep.

That kind of devotion is exceptional and we should get ahold of it when offered, grab it, vote for it, get it onto our school board.

21 people like this
Posted by Long time resident
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2016 at 12:01 pm

I'm thrilled to see the Weekly endorse these two candidates and agree wholeheartedly with this analysis. This is a community of highly analytical, extremely smart people. But we're also very busy busy - so we often just default to voting for the incumbent(s) without really digging into the candidates' records. In this situation, however, it is clear that Collins and diBrienza deserve to be elected over the incumbents, and will bring much-needed expertise and vision to the board. Thank you, Weekly, for laying this out so concisely and thoroughly.

2 people like this
Posted by Who Will Pick Next Superintendant?
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 17, 2016 at 2:23 pm

Who Will Pick Next Superintendant? is a registered user.

Palo Alto Weekly Editor:
Do you have the OCR response to the District that no Evidence Tampering Occurred? Can you post it?

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Posted by I'm for Melissa!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2016 at 9:53 pm

Dear Palo Alto Weekly,

Your editorial was 100% expected, but your views do not reflect the views of the entire community and nor do the comments here on this thread. Many of us support Melissa Baten Caswell and we do not support Ken Dauber or anyone aligned with him.

Melissa cares about ALL students. And, yes, she cares about high-achieving students, but so do many members of our community. Why shouldn't the board represent all interests?

In addition, Melissa care about student engagement and our community. She's not willing to rip it apart to rebuild it. She has not been successful, but you cannot lay the blame for a lack of Board consensus on Melissa. Nor, sadly can you lay the blame on her for selecting Dr. McGee. I'm no fan of Dr. McGee, but what great candidate was going to join a community with so much infighting, with an active OCR investigation and incredibly high housing costs.

This is a high performing District. Many people moved here for the school quality and we want it to remain high quality and become even better. We want people on the Board with recent high school experience at PALY or Gunn, who understand the challenges of education is a social media, competitive society. We want people on the Board who understand that kids are taking summer classes to get ahead (and repeat the class for a better grade in the fall/spring), that not all teachers are created equally and that many of our families are first or second generation (I'm a first generation myself) and want the best opportunities for our kids. These are huge stress inducers that go well beyond how many APs a kid takes.

Palo Alto Weekly and people on this thread, we (the parents and families) need to work together with social service groups to create more positive environments for our teens where we support ALL kids. Melissa is the only candidate who can do this. She has the experience, the heart and the mission.

8 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 19, 2016 at 12:46 pm

I support Todd Collins. He is the only candidate who agreed with Ken Dauber's positions on the finances.

I have not decided about DiBrienza yet. She has the virtue of not having made the errors that the current board made, but I am concerned about whether she will represent the residents and parents. We need a board that listens to us first and foremost before they listen to the staff or the teachers and their representatives.

It is just time for the two incumbents to leave the scene. Their failure to even consider rescinding the raises is huge with me.

18 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 19, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Melissa does not care about my child, and a lot of others I know, whatever you say. Having reported a number of serious problems to the district, including to Melissa, but getting no help at all precisely because we have not pushed, I have to say, Melissa seems just very attached to being a local bigwig. She operates more for appearances than principle. She pursued that letter against the OCR even as the district was doing things that were 1000 times worse to special needs families than the district was complaining about in the letter. A lot of the things done to families the public (and apparently Powell) doesn't know about -- but Melissa does, and does nothing.

I want to see people elected who have a deep and abiding integrity, and will act to protect all children, even if the parents aren't of the same social class, even if they aren't likeable, even if they don't push until they get heard, even if it means an apology might be in order from the district and hard work has to be done to fix problems. Melissa has shown herself to be the opposite of such a person, enjoying the limelight and caring more about appearances than doing the right thing. Someone please put forward a term limit for school board for the next election, please.

15 people like this
Posted by So True
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 19, 2016 at 2:40 pm

^^ so, so true. Well said. That is very much my experience too. Melissa isn't evil, but she cares a lot more about her own and the district's image and helping her kids/friends than about taking care of all the kids who go to school here. She fails the test of a good elected official.

2 people like this
Posted by Weighted GPA position
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 21, 2016 at 1:39 am

Would anyone know the position of the candidates on WGPA? This is a key factor in deciding who will get my vote.

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Posted by Special Education Delays
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 27, 2016 at 11:52 pm

Special Education Delays is a registered user.

The Special Education Review (going on for over a year), is now delayed until November 11 according to the Superintendent. Included in the Review was an assessment of how well parents feel the Board of Education communicates with them. Now the report will be delayed until after the November 8 election, so the voters cannot consider it in casting their votes.

3 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 30, 2016 at 3:47 pm

I'm sure Jennifer is a nice lady, but she has no practical experience in running anything. Her statements are just the type of 90k foot level BS we don't need. Max is bad enough.

Paraphrasing "...65% of jobs our children will have don't exist yet...we need to teach tem to think and learn.."

It's called Liberal Arts - Christ, she went to Stanford and she doesn't understand Liberal Arts?

What we need is a German system where at 13-14 kids not suited for college learn useful trades...That's why they kick the world's butt.

Jennifer would be nothing but more hot air.

10 people like this
Posted by Chris Dewees
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 4, 2016 at 12:52 pm

Thank you for endorsing Todd Collins! I think he will be a fantastic addition to the Board.

To all who bash Ken Dauber, recall he was the only member of the Board who recognized the folly and stupidity of last June's salary raises and had the courage to oppose the same.

6 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2016 at 1:03 am

No, DiBrienza is talking about how the world is changing, and recognizing that a souped up Prussian model of education as practiced in Palo Alto doesn't do a good job fostering creativity, independence, and well-rounded human beings.

You couldn't be more old school and off the mark thinking her statements were about a need that Liberal Arts could fill. The current model of schooling has so much overhead, the kids spend a huge amount of their effort and day on things that don't really help them think independently but in fact make them dependent on external direction. They get almost no autonomy while they are in high school. Di Brienza's understanding the big picture is the first step to effective improvement.

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Posted by Good to know
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2016 at 2:13 am

@sense, good to know. Dibrienza = want to change everything. Sounds like she'll get right on that budget problem. I can cross her off the list!

5 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2016 at 12:27 pm


How do you get from vision and big picture thinking about education to inability to oversee district management? I would much rather have someone at the helm who starts with a deep desire to improve education in Palo Alto and help prepare our kids for the 21st century than bring in ineffective incumbents whose motives seem to be to go on to other office or just be a big cheese around town while that person's kids are in school.

But, it doesn't sound like your post was really from someone deciding, but someone who has an agenda and is mudslinging. I'm willing to give DiBrienza a chance. She can't be worse than Heidi, and Melissa has had long enough to show us that she isn't the great manager she touted herself as. She dominates everything and not to good end. We need to be rid of the old guard and the unhealthy CYA. Some real passion for doing a good job for our kids as DiBrienza is showing, will go a long way.

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Posted by PA Voter
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 5, 2016 at 2:00 pm

[Post removed due to unsubstantiated factual assertion.]

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Posted by Paul Westerberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2016 at 8:12 pm

[Post removed.]

5 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 6, 2016 at 11:16 am

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

A lot has justly been said about Todd Collins’ invaluable financial expertise, amid a time of budgetary shortfall. Not enough has been said about Jennifer DiBrienza’s ability to address another shortfall--the deficit of trust between our community and its schools.

For awhile, I’ve sensed a sadly growing gap between our town and its high-school faculty. Maybe both have just become too busy--don’t actually talk with one another, or communicate face–to-face, as people used to. Maybe the community has been too cold in response to teachers’ grief, not lavishing cards and flowers on them when they’ve lost students they loved. Maybe teachers are too cloistered in their work, not standing up for themselves in the media or at board meetings (a professional risk, in any case).

Ms. DiBrienza--who’s taught grade-schoolers in a tough, mixed neighborhood in NYC and grad students at Stanford--can reconnect us to the professionals in whose hands we place our kids all day. She’ll be the only one on the board who’s actually served on the front lines amid parents and students. She knows her way around a school-day: the desks and technology, the youngsters, the time-pressures, the individual and urgent needs. And yet she’s no pushover or apologist for educators--as seen in her staunch advocacy for teacher evaluation, and for high standards for hiring and retention.

Todd Collins--for the financial solvency of our schools. Jennifer DiBrienza--for the solvency of parent-to-school, student-to-school connections.

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Posted by jkl
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 21, 2017 at 10:43 am

Web Link Todd Collins--for the financial solvency of our schools. Jennifer DiBrienza--for the solvency of parent-to-school, student-to-school connections.

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

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