When asked about the most significant issues the Palo Alto Unified School District will face in 2019, the Board of Education trustees and Superintendent Don Austin this week pointed to similar concerns, including the longstanding priorities of closing the achievement gap and improving special-education services, as well as the looming proposal by Stanford University to expand.
They all also focused on making progress with the district's bread-and-butter operations, from smarter budgeting to more focused goal setting.
All expressed a hope that the school district will continue to stabilize this year, uninterrupted by the "drama" of high turnover and public controversy that shaped the last few years in Palo Alto Unified.
"It's like hygiene and safety," Vice President Todd Collins said. "If you don't have that, you're not even in a position to work on the other things. We disciplined ourselves to focus on a smaller set of top priorities as opposed to spreading ourselves thin. We're in the position to make slow and steady progress. That wasn't the case before."
Stanford's proposed general-use permit, which the district expects will generate enough new students to have a significant financial impact on the district, was at the top of the list for several board members. In November, the board unanimously approved a resolution asking the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to require Stanford to give the district both land and money to offset the impact of additional students generated by the expansion, which proposes building more than 2 million square feet of academic space by 2035. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is trying to negotiate a potential development agreement with Stanford by this spring.
The resolution asks that Stanford be contractually required to pay annual payments to the district, with the payment based on the number of students attending the district who live in tax-exempt eligible housing owned by Stanford; to set aside land for a new elementary school; and to make a direct contribution beyond mandated developer fees to mitigate the cost of building a new school.
"We are not yet at a place where I think we can be comfortable that the outcome is going to be positive for students and the district," board member Ken Dauber said. "I would like to see Stanford and the county having some clear and public discussion that gets us to the point where we know that if and when more students are generated at Stanford without property-tax revenue associated with them that there's going to be dollars to support the education of those students and that we're going to be able to provide those students with a neighborhood school that is situated in a way that it's accessible for those students."
Also on the horizon this year is a proposed master plan for a reimagined Cubberley Community Center, the 35-acre Middlefield Road campus of which the school district owns 27 acres and the city of Palo Alto 8 acres. The district is currently engaged in a joint planning process with the city.
This plan will be a "big moment for the district and the community," newly elected board member Shounak Dharap said, "because it's going to lay the path forward for what we want that space to be" as both an educational and community resource.
Melissa Baten Caswell said that whatever is built at Cubberley, some part of it will need to be flexible enough to become a school (and potentially, a home for the district office) if needed down the line.
All of the board members expressed a commitment to focusing on improving outcomes for low-income, minority and special-needs students this year, all areas that have been longstanding priorities but have resisted consistent progress. The district also suddenly lost its equity coordinator at the end of 2018, and a debate over whether a single district-level employee should and can be in charge of this work will ensue this year.
Austin is planning to hold targeted focus groups in early 2019 on equity and also intends to break out special education as its own district priority goal, rather than have it embedded within another goal.
President Jennifer DiBrienza has publicly voiced a commitment to having equity on the board's agenda in some form at every meeting, from big-picture goals to smaller efforts that are having an impact at schools. She plans to push for a shift in focus from the underperforming students themselves to the systems that are contributing to their lack of success.
"The results we're getting, our system is causing. You either fundamentally think that low-income students of color are not as bright or we are doing something that affects the outcome.
"I don't believe the first one, so it's got to be the second one," she said. "It doesn't mean the people in the system are biased, but the system is set up to get the outcome you're getting."
More cautious budgeting is likely ahead this year, DiBrienza and others said. The district has a new chief business official who is bringing fresh eyes to budget practices that largely haven't changed for decades. Baten Caswell said she hopes 2019 will bring more proactive rather than reactive budgeting; she and the other board members want to better prepare the district for a likely economic downturn and to get rising pension costs under control.
DiBrienza and Dharap also said they want to revive a focus on innovation this year by finding ways to systematically support teachers who want to try new or alternative ways of teaching. DiBrienza said Austin's recently implemented strategy of "agile teams" — collaborative groups that form to tackle a problem or question in a short period of time — could serve well as a structure to let teachers test out ideas in a low-stakes way.
Later this month, the board will meet to hear Austin's proposed three-year plan for the district, developed over the course of his first six months in the district. The plan will focus on operations, planning for staff succession, school safety, equity and special education, he said.
The current board will evaluate his plan with the aim of strategically focusing on a few long-term goals — a preference often expressed by the board — rather ambitiously attempting to "swallow the ocean."
Collins sees 2019 as a year of unflashy "ditch-digging work" for the district. He cited a saying in the venture capital world: "Overnight success is years in the making."
"People are very impressed by the result at the end, but the process along the way is distinctly unspectacular. They put one foot in front of the other over and over and over again, and it becomes a habit and a culture. That's the habit and culture we're trying to create in PAUSD," he said.