Although term limits have become the widely accepted standard for city, county and state office holders in California, approved by substantial margins by voters, most school boards have successfully resisted by declining to submit them to voters for approval.
Like opponents of tougher gun laws who never think the time is right for a public discussion about them, neither immediately after a horrific shooting, when emotions are high, nor later when the pressure for action dissipates, school boards seem to always find a reason to deny the public the chance to vote on and enact term limits.
But due to the unusual current make-up of the Palo Alto school board, with four of the five members still in their first four-year term and the fifth on track to finish her third term totaling 13 years in 2020, the school district has a rare opportunity to put a term limit measure on this November's ballot without it being personal or affecting any of its "young" members, who all say they will not seek more than two terms. The time is right — and long overdue.
The proposal to put term limits before the voters came from Todd Collins, one of the two members elected in November 2016. He believes the district would benefit from ensured turnover on the board and the predictability of when open seats would create opportunities for community members to run for office without having the nearly impossible task of defeating an incumbent.
Perhaps predictably, although unfortunately, during discussion at Tuesday night's board meeting, only third-termer Melissa Baten Caswell resisted the proposal, citing how rarely a school board member has sought a third term and the value of experience. She pointed to other school districts with trustees who had served for 20 or more years and who were highly valued resources to other board members, including those in neighboring districts.
The other three Palo Alto board members each expressed support for Collins' proposal and a belief that two terms (eight years) is an appropriate length of service, but Jennifer DiBrienza and Terry Godfrey also wondered if the estimated one-time cost of $70,000 to $100,000 to put the term-limit measure on the ballot was a justifiable expense in light of the district's current budget challenges. Board president Ken Dauber and Collins argued the one-time cost was minor compared to the importance of the reform.
Although in the last 40 years only two school board members decided to disregard the long-established but not required practice of stepping down after eight years, both occurred in the last six years — a time of unprecedented chaos and controversy within the district. In 2012, Camille Townsend ran for and won a third term and then left office at the end of 2016 after 13 years on the board, deciding against going for a fourth term. In the 2016 election, Baten Caswell successfully sought a third term. In both cases, potential candidates were likely discouraged from organizing campaigns because of the uncertainty of whether these incumbents would step down or run for another term.
So those who say that term limits aren't needed because of the self-discipline of school board members are misguided, and now is the time to adopt term limits so the turnover of board seats is no longer left to chance and subject to personal desires or ambitions.
The last time this issue arose, in 1997, was when then-school board member Don Way proposed a two-term limit be placed on the ballot for all the same reasons being advanced by Collins. Way's colleagues at the time saw no need for it given that the two-term limit had become deeply embedded into the culture of school district politics. The proposal quickly died away, as it has on many school boards throughout the state.
The reality is that incumbency is worth at least 10 to 15 percentage points in a local election, forcing interested challengers to start well behind before the campaign even begins. Without term limits, and especially in a community as rich with talent as Palo Alto, this advantage undermines the desirable rotation of our representatives and creates no predictability of opportunity.
This problem has been solved in almost every city and county in California with overwhelming voter approval (and at a cost of putting the measure on ballots) and with almost universal positive effects for our democracy.
While the cost of placing a term-limit measure on the ballot is not inconsequential, a one-time expenditure of up to $100,000, drawn from the district's substantial reserves, should not influence this decision. This district routinely spends this kind of money on items far less important than this reform. It is more than ironic that the two board members who failed to follow the unofficial two-term limit voted repeatedly, mostly in closed session, to unwisely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses fighting against the federal Office for Civil Rights.
Turnover on elected local public bodies is the lifeblood of democracy. It is what fuels new ideas, opens up access to underrepresented segments of the community and prevents administrators from becoming too close to the officials to whom they report. Our current school trustees should not put a price tag on that.