Without a lot of fanfare, drama or the divisive undercurrents that have created so much disruption and controversy for many years, the Palo Alto Board of Education is looking to implement changes that could significantly improve district decision-making and create a predictable flow of new perspectives and ideas.
Most importantly, on Feb. 13 the board voted 4-1 (with Melissa Baten Caswell opposed) to put a ballot measure before voters this November that would limit elected school board members to two, four-year terms. The proposal, made months ago by first-term trustee Todd Collins, would put in place the same eight-year cap on school board service as has become the norm for most elected city and county officials in California. This is an overdue step that we strongly support.
While stepping down voluntarily after eight years has been the informal practice in Palo Alto for more than 40 years, it has been ignored twice in the just the last six years— by former trustee Camille Townsend, who served three terms plus a year for 13 years total, and Baten Caswell, who ran for a third term in 2016 and edged out one-term incumbent Heidi Emerling for third place. Like Townsend, Baten Caswell will have served 13 years when her current term expires in 2020.
The value of limiting terms for local elected officials has been well-established. The advantages of incumbency are so great that those in the community who are interested in serving are discouraged from running unless an incumbent chooses not to run. Obtaining important endorsements is difficult because the friends and supporters of incumbents are unwilling to switch horses. And with the odds of success so low, the expense of mounting a campaign against an incumbent also keeps good candidates from stepping forward.
This year provides the rare opportunity to adopt term limits without appearing to be aimed at any of the current trustees, since each has stated his or her intention to not serve more than two terms. Two (Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey) will complete their first term this December and two (Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza) are less than two years into their first terms.
We applaud Collins' initiative in bringing this proposal to the board, and Dauber, Godfrey and DiBrienza for supporting it.
Other welcomed governance improvements are under discussion by the board. At its Feb. 6 retreat the board considered ways to improve staff-board communications, strengthen staff reports and presentations and monitor progress toward district goals.
Until interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks pushed back, the board showed enthusiasm for another proposal made by Collins — that the superintendent be seated with other senior district staff members instead of the dais alongside board members. The current arrangement, board members agreed, isolates the superintendent from her top administrators and creates the impression that the superintendent is disconnected from, takes less ownership of and is less accountable for staff presentations. It also provides no opportunity for the superintendent to confer with senior staff during the meeting, as occurs regularly at city council meetings.
Hendricks stressed the importance of projecting to the public and staff that the district was led by the board and superintendent and asked for the chance to play a more active role in staff presentations without moving locations. The board ultimately agreed to finish out this school year without changing the seating arrangement but appears likely to take advantage of a transition to a permanent superintendent in July and make the change. Godfrey correctly pointed out the bad optics of moving a female superintendent mid-year from the dais to the staff table after many years of male superintendents sitting with the board.
We have long questioned why school superintendents have been seated with the elected board members instead of their staff and agree this is a reform whose time has come.
We also like the board's desire to improve staff presentations by having them focus on the policy reasons and trade-offs behind recommendations rather than PowerPoint presentations of data and background information that is better contained in a well-written staff report. Similarly, the board's request for dashboards and other reports that are concise summaries of progress toward goals will make meetings more efficient and create more accountability.
The board's attention to how the governing process is working and the roles of the board and superintendent is a welcome step toward rebuilding public trust and confidence in the district. There is much work to be done, especially around transparency and staff accountability, but this needed attention to basic governance is a good and needed beginning.