Board members supportive of term limits, but some wary of cost | News | Palo Alto Online |


Board members supportive of term limits, but some wary of cost

Change would cost $70K, plus $30K in legal fees

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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."


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16 people like this
Posted by Experience counts
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2018 at 11:06 am

In this busy world we live in it is hard to find thoughtful, educated and dedicated individuals who will donate their time to take on the task of being on the school board or city council. Not all members of the board fit this description but some do, and it is a shame to have to move them out of the way due to term limits.

Also when no one in the community has been in the "system" long enough to really know what is going on, you end up with the staff running the show. This is not always the best results since staff members come with their own ideas and agendas which may differ from those of the city residents.

Alternatively, we do want to encourage new ideas and don't want anyone to get too complacent so new members can be helpful. An election can bring out these ideas but too often it seems that the candidate with name recognition and not necessarily the best ideas gets the vote.

A more informed electorate would be the better answer to electing the appropriate candidate rather than just a forced turn over because the electorate keeps electing the same (possibly less qualified) candidate. If only more people would pay attention to what their representatives are up to we wouldn't need to have term limits.

15 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 17, 2018 at 11:30 am

@Experience - you're kidding right? The advantage of incumbency is well documented; look at the US Congress, one of the very few elected offices we vote for that DOES NOT have term limits. "In this busy world," voters almost always choose the familiar name, which is the incumbent - only serious scandal creates a different result.

Palo Alto luckily has a steady supply of decent people to serve - but they mostly don't want to run against incumbents, because they are almost sure to lose. Given how scandal-ridden and mistake-prone the school district has been, governance reform seems like a sensible move.

8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2018 at 11:54 am

I feel undecided on this.

But I would like to say that having term limits just may encourage those who wish for something to start a political career to consider starting on our school board. In the past there have been school board members who graduate to city council and then beyond. I would like the school board members to be those who seriously want to lead our school district, not to be those who feel like it is getting their feet wet in the political arena. That would not help our students.

Once again, I am undecided on this, but certainly I feel that this is something that should be put in the discussion mix.

17 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 17, 2018 at 11:55 am

I'm a big supporter of term limits. Our community needs periodic fresh thinking. If term limits is good enough for POTUS, then why not for school board governance?

And Ken Dauber is right: $100K is a drop in the bucket (taken from our reserves) given the importance of achieving better community governance of our schools.

11 people like this
Posted by Committed School Supporter
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 17, 2018 at 7:24 pm

It is so disappointing to see the Palo Alto School Board's recent debate on term limits. While the concept may seem "democratic," appearances can deceive. As recent PAUSD history amply attests, there are times in the cycle of Board work when incumbents, such as Melissa Baten Caswell, provide irreplaceably important long-term perspectives. In recent years, this has been especially helpful when PAUSD has seen so much change in the leadership of District staff. To establish fixed term limits in PAUSD would clearly cost Palo Alto's voters, a highly educated and discerning group, the opportunity to select candidates who might address these needs. Furthermore, it is embarrassing to watch the current Board even consider approving the expenditure of up to $100,000 to put this concept on the ballot at a time when budget cutting is needed. This amount would fund a full time teacher--or three aides--who would work directly with students. I urge the Board to stop its birdwalk into term limits, and return to the pressing work of ensuring high standards of care for our students.

6 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2018 at 8:47 pm

I wish they put that same thought of prioritizing where to spend money on the decision to rename schools.

8 people like this
Posted by Parent of 3
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2018 at 11:05 pm

@Committed - haha, that's a good one. First, as they said, the one-time cost would come out of our tens of millions of reserves, not out of operating funds. It wouldn't "fund a full time teacher" - it would sit in the bank. They are spending almost $2 mil on legal bills - you think $100K one time for better governance is a bad investment?

Second, that "institutional knowledge" you like mostly consists defending old bad decisions - like fighting to the end on the OCR resolution or sticking by McGee.

Sorry that you are embarrassed to see the board work on something that everything from the US President to our city council already have! Me too - if people had just stuck to the decades-long tradition, it would never have come up.

Like this comment
Posted by Who has the power
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2018 at 3:19 pm

I think Ken has the right idea, but I think has the power structure backwards. Palo Alto charters the district in its City charter and there puts our district under the rules of the state ed code. That means we can change that, anything, limited by broader legal constraints like constitutionality. A charter amendment does take an election, but term limits could be combined with establishing an ombudsman position that operates outside the district, takes complaints, advocates, works for families, and most of all, answers to someone other than 25 Churchill (spends the day somewhere else).

What is to stop the public from asking all candidates to pledge on their honor to serve only two terms?

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2018 at 3:28 pm

Surely it comes down to the voters. If voters don't want someone to run a third time, then don't vote them back in. That is the default way of not having someone going beyond 2 terms.

If voters like the idea of people running for more than 2 terms, then they will probably vote them back in.

That kind of simplifies things really. Voters can vote with their votes of those running, rather than an expensive item on the ballot.

Then again, there was the case about 10 years ago when nobody ran and the previous board just remained in place.

Not sure how term limits would apply if nobody wanted to run.

8 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 18, 2018 at 6:03 pm

Yes, @Resident, the voters can always not vote for people running for extra terms. But in practice, it is extremely difficult and expensive for challengers to unseat incumbents - so it rarely happens. Most challengers don't run because the cost of trying (and likely failing) is so high. Term limits - for everyone from POTUS to our own city council members - has been the standard solution.

As for when "nobody ran," in fact, no one was willing to run against two returning incumbents for two seats. That could happen again this year. There are almost always good people willing to run when there are open seats - hence the desirability of term limits.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2018 at 6:28 pm


Thanks for your response, which is a valid argument and I tend to agree with you.

But I also think that it is quite possible that if this was put on the ballot, it might lose. Then the situation wouldn't change and the only thing we would have is more clout for the incumbents who want to run again and we suffer the cost while the situation remains the same.

Has anyone done any type of market research to see which way the voters would vote? From the same rationale, if incumbents decide to tell their followers to vote for no term limits, won't it fail? I don't like career politicians of any type and I particularly don't want to encourage 3 or 4 term school board members, but it does sound to me that unless there is a distinct indication that voters would vote for term limits, then what's the point.

When we see that people like Liz Kniss can get elected for CC after a hiatus there is obviously a following that will continue to vote for the same individual and it goes to show that term limits make sense. I just hope that it will make sense to the majority of PA voters.

But, I will admit to having no real expertise in such things.

10 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 18, 2018 at 8:06 pm

@Resident, that's a good point; no point in spending the money if the measure is likely to fail. In the presentation from the school board meeting, they listed the approval percentage of other school board term limit elections - they ranged from 60 - 90%.

When Palo Alto approved city council limits in 1991, it was 57% to 43%, not particularly close, and in an off-year, low-turnout election. In 1992, when the County put supervisor term limits on the primary ballot, they passed with 71% of the vote.

I don't think the voters have become more trusting of our elected officials in general or the school board in particular in the last 25 years. And four of the five sitting board members said they supported the limits. So there's good reason to believe the voters would too.

4 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 20, 2018 at 9:52 am

I don't see how term limits for board members will help manage our schools better. Boards in the business world are voted in and out based on their merit to contribute. We have voting here and I don't see any hesitation of the voters to say their mind based on the contribution of each individual. In the last election, a one-termer was voted out while a two-termer was voted back in. I prefer to have board members participate based on their ability to convince passionate parents and voters that they will do their best to represent the community.

I also see an impedance mismatch developing if we install term limits. Board members regularly negotiate with groups that are staffed by long-term professionals. Term limits introduce a "lame duck" situation where board members will lose influence as they work with the union, teachers, and staff who operate on longer time horizons than a two term limit.

I simply don't see this as an issue that merits dollars and distraction from the serious work of managing our schools and children.


4 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 20, 2018 at 12:11 pm

@Parent, while there are instances where challengers defeat incumbents, they are rare. The data from the board presentation showed 3 out of 18 local races where challengers won (including the one you mentioned). Aside from the last election, I can't think of any in Palo Alto where a school board incumbent was voted out (my memory only goes back ~20 years though). Congress of course is another example - people hate Congress, but 90% of the time, the incumbents are re-elected.

There's actually a lot of investor activism on public company board term limits. Here's a discussion from the Harvard Law School Governance Forum on it (Web Link). Investors have the same concerns as voters - directors can "go stale" and can become "captured" by the managers they are supposed to oversee. Indeed, it is incredibly hard to figure out the contribution (or lack of) of individual directors, which is why rules can be helpful.

In terms of the "impedance mismatch," the de facto standard for the last 40 years in PAUSD was two terms; there were no exceptions. This has only changed in the last five years. So in fact we functioned fine with a two-term limit; the breaking of that tradition seems tied to weaker governance norms that have contributed to a variety of problems.

14 people like this
Posted by PTA Member
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 20, 2018 at 5:42 pm

The biggest board screwups in recent memory were the OCR mess and the budget busting 3 year teacher contract. Townsend was in her third term and Caswell in her second when they voted for it. Dauber was in his second year when he voted against it. Only when the board turned over could it turn the page on OCR and do the right thing.

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a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Apr 4, 2018 at 10:54 am

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