The race for two open seats on the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education is starting to heat up, with one incumbent planning to run for re-election and one newcomer declaring his candidacy.
Board President Ken Dauber and member Terry Godfrey's first terms will end this November. Dauber said he plans to run for a second term; Godfrey won't.
Dauber, a Google software engineer, said there remains "much work to be done" on the issues he's focused on during his four years on the board, including student mental health, fiscal responsibility and accountability at both the district and board levels.
Dauber first ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2012 and then won a seat in 2014. During the 2014 campaign, he set himself apart by stating he would repeal a board resolution criticizing the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights' investigative practices. During his tenure, the board repealed that resolution and eventually signed a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights.
If re-elected, Dauber said he will continue to push for full implementation of the district's homework policy, progress on which has been stymied over the last several years, despite a request from Dauber two years ago to place a review of the policy on the board's agenda and a district goal last year to create a system to track high schoolers' homework loads. Dauber has repeatedly pointed to better monitoring of homework loads as a crucial lever the district can pull to improve student well-being. Now, with Dauber as president, the board is set to have a special study session devoted to homework this month.
Dauber said he also wants to maximize the amount of district funds available for teaching and learning by improving "management, fiscal responsibility and accountability in district operations." He continues to emphasize the importance of evaluation and data to inform policy decisions at the board level.
Newcomers declare, eye candidacies
Shounak Dharap, a 27-year-old lawyer and 2008 Gunn High School graduate, said this week that he plans to run for a seat on the school board.
Like both Dauber and Godfrey, concerns about student well-being prompted Dharap to get more involved in district issues. Dharap started attending board meetings last year during a contentious debate over reporting weighted grade point averages (GPA) at the high schools, voicing concerns about the impact this could have on students' mental health -- particularly those who struggle to find academic motivation in an intensely academic school district, as he did while attending Gunn. He has emphasized his own circuitous path after high school -- struggling at Santa Barbara City College and then University of California, Santa Cruz before finding his passion later, in law school -- as an example of the need to promote alternate definitions of success in Palo Alto.
After two Gunn students died by suicide in 2009, Dharap was part of a group of current and former students who started an informal support network on Facebook to reach out to their peers. Called "Talk," the group posted phone numbers of current and former students, including Dharap, who were willing to lend an ear to anyone wanting to talk. Dharap remembers talking to students at the time.
At University of San Francisco School of Law, he lead mental health and substance abuse initiatives as student body president.
Dharap currently works at The Arns Law Firm, representing injured workers and families in class-action lawsuits. Previously, he worked for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, where he assisted in felony prosecutions and helped to assemble a statewide task force to combat human trafficking; as a law clerk at the United States Attorney's Office, where he worked on narcotics prosecutions; and as a judicial extern for the state's 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Unlike most who run for school board, Dharap is not a parent. But he believes his professional and personal background make him a unique candidate.
"We would do well to get a perspective of someone like myself who is an attorney and has to deal with nitty-gritty deadline details all the time and ... who's come up through the system," he said.
Dharap is centering his campaign around engagement: for school staff, students and community members, including alums. For staff, the district should invest more heavily in training and professional development, he said, including in areas of bullying, sexual assault and harassment.
For students, he advocates for more hands-on, experiential learning, like the project-based Connections Program at his alma mater JLS Middle School, and "normalizing" electives and extracurriculars for students who are less academically inclined. He said he's repeatedly heard from parents chagrined by the pressure their children feel to succeed rather than pursue areas of passion.
"We can't keep painting students with a broad brush," Dharap said.
He also believes the board can play a more active role in closing the achievement gap by reaching out directly to minority and low-income families. He's proposed holding monthly, open board meetings in East Palo Alto for working parents who cannot make meetings during the week.
The biggest challenge currently facing the district, Dharap said, is division in the community. He witnessed these divisions during last year's debate over weighted GPA and a sexual-health education program; they emerged again last month as the board chose new names for two middle schools that had been named after eugenicists.
"There are certain wedge issues that seem to drive the community apart." he said. "The biggest challenge is going to be bringing the community together again."
His intention to be an elected official who is open to differing points of view from his own and is willing to "admit when I'm wrong" will help bridge these divides, he said.
"The most important thing that can come of me running is just raising the level of discourse in the community and raising the level of engagement," he said.
Parent Kathy Jordan, who was spurred to action last year by the district's mishandling of student sexual-assault reports at Palo Alto High School, said she is also considering running for school board this fall. She said she is most concerned about a lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to the district's compliance with federal gender-equity law Title IX, as well as financial management.
"I have nothing official to announce yet, but I can say that I care deeply about our students and how the district is run, and I also care about showing respect for our taxpayers' dollars that finance the district. I think our community deserves better," she said. "That's why I've devoted so much of my time to try to change things and bring badly needed reform."
About her decision not to seek re-election, Godfrey wrote in an email to the Weekly: "I love our students, and it has been an honor to work on their behalf, but for personal reasons I can't commit to another four years at this time."
Godfrey, a financial director and former president of both the Palo Alto Council of PTAs and Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE), has advocated for a more transparent and flexible budgeting process as well as student mental health and well-being. She served as board president during a turbulent 2017, when the district faced intense scrutiny for its handling of the student sexual-assault reports at Paly and for the sudden retirement of former Superintendent Max McGee.
She plans to focus on continuing progress on Title IX compliance, closing the achievement gap and two new districtwide curricula -- one on social-emotional learning and the other, computer science -- during the rest of her term.
Whoever is elected in November will join Melissa Baten Caswell, Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza at the dais.