A proposal to impose a two-term limit on Palo Alto school board members received near unanimous support on Tuesday — save from the sitting member who is currently serving her third term.
Trustee Todd Collins asked his colleagues to support a ballot measure for the November election that would limit board members to serving two consecutive terms of four years each, the same as the Palo Alto City Council.
Despite majority support for the concept itself, the cost of doing so — $70,000, with an additional $30,000 for legal fees, members estimated — gave at least two board members pause.
Collins described term limits as a common, good governance practice in place for many elected officials, from the local to state level. Term limits, he argued, encourage turnover and could help reduce other barriers to running for a seat on the board. There is currently no limit for Palo Alto Unified school board members.
Trustee Terry Godfrey agreed. She said she made the "unusual" decision to not endorse Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell's 2016 re-election campaign precisely because Baten Caswell was running for a third term.
"It made for an awkward conversation but I felt strongly that we should be a two-term place," she said.
Godfrey said she doesn't feel a sense of urgency, however, to put a measure before voters this year. She and President Ken Dauber will finish their first terms this fall and it's unlikely, she said, that there will be a member running for a third or fourth term in the next election in 2020.
Collins and Dauber disagreed about the timing, arguing that it's better to pursue term limits when no sitting board member would be personally affected.
Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza said she would support putting the measure on the ballot but is reluctant to spend $100,000 when the district has a laundry list of educational priorities to invest in and is also facing potential budget cuts this year.
"I don't think it's immaterial," she said of the cost.
Baten Caswell, who was first elected to the board in 2007, said she doesn't think the lack of term limits is problematic in a district where most board members typically serve one or two terms.
When former member Camille Townsend was re-elected in 2012, she became the first Palo Alto school trustee in more than 40 years to serve more than two terms. Baten Caswell became the second in 2014.
Weighed against other issues facing the district that will require funding — closing the achievement gap, reforming special education and addressing failures to comply with federal gender equity law Title IX — term limits falls short, Baten Caswell said.
"I just don't think this is a problem right now. I would rather spend that money on something that is our problem right now," she said.
Dauber argued that the one-time expense of the ballot measure is "not really a material cost given the importance of local governance of the district to the community (and) to the organization."
"Practically speaking, we are not going to decide not to do something of benefit to students because we have to take $100,000 out of the district's reserves to pay for this," he added.
At Godfrey's suggestion, Dauber will consult with district lawyers about if there are alternatives to a ballot measure, such as enacting a bylaw on term limits.
Under state Education Code, "the governing board of a school district may adopt or the residents of the school district may propose, by initiative, a proposal to limit or repeal a limit on the number of terms a member of the governing board of the school district may serve on the governing board of the school district."