Those who have worked with Don Austin describe him as a confident, accessible and "tough" leader who has ample experience navigating a demanding community.
Austin, currently the superintendent of the K-12 school district in Palos Verdes, California, has been named the Palo Alto school district's next superintendent, pending approval of the Board of Education on May 22.
Administrators in Palos Verdes say he is a hands-off mentor who leads by asking questions. He is credited with prompting a heightened focus on student mental health, leading difficult conversations on budget cuts and overseeing the creation of a $200 million districtwide facilities master plan.
Austin's critics, however, have blasted him in news articles for poor judgment and failed transparency in a range of public controversies, from a court decision that found the school board violated California's open-meeting law the Brown Act to allegations, later determined to be unfounded, that dirt at a district-owned soccer field was contaminated. His relationship with the teachers' union appears to be fractious, with negotiations stalling last year over a requested raise and teachers refusing to write college recommendation letters for high school seniors in response. (They ultimately agreed to a cumulative 3.75 percent raise.)
Austin's supporters say he has handled the flareups well and that he works to connect with others, including those who oppose him.
"He's willing to endure the slings and arrows to get the end result," said Keith Butler, Palos Verdes' associate superintendent of business services.
Some chalked up the opposition to resistance to an outsider trying to effect change. Before Austin, Palos Verdes had not hired a superintendent from outside the district for 20 years.
"If you're asking for change there's always going to be segment of the community that hates you," said parent Jeffrey Frankel, who serves on a district parcel-tax committee. "That, I really think, is Palos Verdes."
Members of Austin's cabinet in Palos Verdes were most willing to speak about his record as a superintendent. However, key district players — including representatives of the Palos Verdes teachers union, the local PTA and education foundation, and all members of the school board — declined to comment or did not respond to requests for this story.
The current board president and one longtime former member both declined to comment until after the Palo Alto school board votes on Austin's contract. Multiple leaders of parent watchdog groups only repeatedly stated that they "wish him well."
A former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: "I feel very bad for your city that you are getting him, but I don't want the board members in Palo Alto to change their mind because I don't want anyone in the PVSD suffering anymore with him at the helm."
• Watch Weekly journalists discuss Austin on an episode of "Behind the Headlines."
Austin's tenure in Palos Verdes began amidst controversy. When he was hired, a grassroots parent campaign — the first of several he would encounter — was rallying against the new Common Core State Standards. Parents were concerned the standards would lower the quality of teaching in the high-performing district.
Austin said he underestimated the "passion" of this group, which he described as a vocal minority, and struggled to find common ground with them. Communication about the new standards before his hiring, particularly about changes to mathematics instruction, had been spotty and fueled the opposition, he said.
"Initially it was very frustrating because of my nature — I want to work with and talk through issues with people. I wasn't successful with some of the people" who opposed Common Core, he said. "They would report something that was knowingly false, easily proven false. I would give them the documents and show what the reality was and they would discard them and continue with the false narrative."
As an example, he said the opposition group continued to make inaccurate statements about the salary of the district administrator overseeing the implementation of Common Core after receiving her pay stub. Bill Lama, a former parent who led the anti-Common Core effort in Palos Verdes, denied this and said his group was focused solely on protesting the standards and the money being spent to implement them.
Combating the spread of inaccurate information has been a theme of Austin's time in Palos Verdes. In 2015, he devoted his superintendent's report at a school board meeting to a Powerpoint presentation on "misinformation versus disinformation," correcting what he said were errors in a paid advertisement opposing a district parcel tax.
"When misinformation or disinformation gets out to the community and is not checked, it's reckless and it does do damage," he said in 2015. He blamed social media for inflaming and expediting the spread of inaccurate information.
Similarly, in 2016, the community was in an uproar over allegations that a pile of dirt delivered to a district field, leased to the local American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) chapter, was contaminated and posed serious health risks. Despite tests that confirmed the soil was safe, concern persisted in the community. Austin said it turned into a monthslong "feeding frenzy."
"There was a general desire for some people for the district to be at fault or AYSO to be at fault or to find a villain and it was hard for them to accept there wasn't one," he said.
Several administrators alluded to this dynamic in Palos Verdes. Austin's reputation there is "mixed," said Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Principal Brett Kuykendall.
"I think for the most part people respect him as a leader and appreciate what he's done," Kuykendall said. "(There's) a small population that is very vocal about the decisions he's made. ...It's just hard to say when is it reality and when is it hysteria?"
Violations of the Brown Act
In 2016, more than 50 parents joined to file a lawsuit against the Palos Verdes school board for violating the Brown Act. They alleged four separate violations related to the board's handling of a controversial solar panel contract, which the board cancelled in the face of community opposition.
In a closed-session meeting, the board accepted a waiver letter with the solar company, signed by Austin, but did not announce the action when they returned to open session. A court later ruled that the failure to publicly report the closed-session decision violated the Brown Act. The board also violated the law by not properly agendizing the closed-session contract discussion, the court found.
The court decision states that Austin took responsibility for the decision to waive the contract but not for the Brown Act violation. He stated that the board accepted but did not formally vote on the waiver, which the court said amounted to trying to "avoid the implications of the Brown Act."
"Even if Austin is to be believed on this point, that is no answer," the court said.
Austin told the Weekly that the lawsuit was a "distraction." In a statement to the press at the time, he called the allegations false and "frivolous."
Two community members behind the lawsuit, including a former school board member, declined to comment for this story.
Austin said he and board members "leaned heavily" on the advice of district attorneys in their handling of the solar-panel contract. They were advised that it was not necessary to publicly announce the closed-session acceptance of the waiver, he said. He declined to elaborate on the legal advice they received.
Though the district vowed to appeal the court decision, the board later settled, agreeing to pay about $21,000 in attorney fees without admitting any fault, liability or wrongdoing.
Attorney Jeff Lewis, who represented the group of about 50 parents who filed the lawsuit, said that the school board took an "adversarial approach" to the case, opting against an opportunity to settle the case early without admitting fault.
Austin said the district was advised against pursuing this option, through which a demand to "cure and correct" gives an agency 30 days to address alleged Brown Act violations.
A mentor for others
Administrators in Palos Verdes speak well of Austin, particularly of his focus on mentorship. In interviews, they described him as a collaborative coach rather than a top-down manager.
"He's been very active in leadership development and working with principals — and when I say working with principals, (I mean) offering guidance but not over-control," Kuykendall, the high school principal, said.
Kuykendall and others described Austin's management style as "not always giving an answer but a lot of times asking more questions."
Deputy Superintendent Trent Bahadursingh, who has worked in Palos Verdes for 14 years, said Austin has impressed upon his administration this practice.
Bahadursingh said he often hears Austin say, "'Let's dig deeper on things. Let's not just do a head nod.'"
Administrators described Austin as a visible superintendent, frequently visiting campuses, talking to students, attending football games, school musicals and other events. (This is despite the fact that for four years he has commuted about an hour each way between Palos Verdes and Huntington Beach so his youngest daughter could finish high school.)
He also encourages his cabinet to be present at schools, administrators said, to strengthen the relationship between the often-disconnected central office and school sites.
Student mental health has been a priority during Austin's tenure, staff said. The high schools now have wellness centers, on-site therapists, yoga and mindfulness classes. The district also partnered with Challenge Success, a Stanford University research group devoted to alleviating academic pressure and stress through school reform.
At the district level, Austin did not shy away from difficult public conversations about budget cuts, Butler said. The district is facing a shortfall this and next year after several years of deficit spending, which Austin attributed to dipping into reserves to pay for teacher and staff raises. The board recently approved $1 million in cuts from the district's $120 million budget.
Unlike Palo Alto, Palos Verdes is not a Basic Aid district and relies primarily on state rather than local funding for revenue.
Austin also prompted a review of all district facilities for the master plan, on which movement had stalled before his arrival, he said.
Austin's proposed contract
Under Austin's proposed three-year contract with Palo Alto Unified, he will receive a starting salary of $300,000 and pay a monthly rent of $1,800 to live in a district-owned property in Palo Alto. If he decides to move out during the first year of his contract, his annual salary will increase to $325,000.
Austin's base salary is similar to that of his predecessor, Max McGee, who started at $295,000. The board "reserves the right" to change his salary at any time, the draft contract states.
Austin will also receive health, dental, vision and other benefits "in the same manner and subject to the same limitations as other certificated senior cabinet-level employees," the contract states. Austin will not receive the up to $6,000 to pay for a life insurance policy, which McGee did.
He will be reimbursed for work-related expenses, including transportation in his own vehicle, but he will not receive the $750 monthly (equivalent to $9,000 annually) car allowance that McGee did.
Also absent from Austin's contract is a provision in his predecessor's contract that stated board members must express any "concerns, criticisms and dissatisfaction with the superintendent's performance" only in closed session meetings or through the evaluation process "to avoid damage to the Board's and the Superintendent's image and credibility, and as not to lessen each other's ability to perform effectively."
Austin's current contract in Palos Verdes was set to expire in 2020. He currently earns $308,752 a year in Palos Verdes, including a $900 monthly car allowance and additional $1,000 for his doctorate degree. He was set to receive a raise this July, contingent on a satisfactory evaluation, that would be no less than 2 percent but no more than other certificated managers received, his contract states.
The school district has not released Austin's application materials, despite requests by the Weekly, stating that the search firm hired by the district to conduct the superintendent search "owns" the documents.
If the Palo Alto school board approves his contract, Austin is set to start his new position on July 1.
In many ways, Austin will be tasked with settling the dust in Palo Alto. Recent years have been marked by community upheaval over the district's handling of student sexual violence and financial mismanagement. Austin's predecessor resigned midyear after two sitting board members publicly called for his removal. Divisive debate has erupted over issues including renaming schools, reporting students' weighted grade point averages and sex education. Internally, high turnover has led to new faces throughout the district office and at school sites, with more vacancies coming at the end of this school year. Some staff members, particularly from Palo Alto High School, have described publicly a sense of demoralization and broken trust among their ranks.
Major initiatives are also on the horizon, including reforming special education, taking action to close the achievement gap and expanding social-emotional curriculum districtwide.
Austin believes he has the skill set to meet Palo Alto's current challenges.
"That's something I really take a lot of joy in — helping people find ways to work together and really function as a unit," he said.
"I've already started reaching out to people up there and everyone I've spoken to has been optimistic, enthusiastic and willing to give it a shot together," he added. "That's all I want at this point."