The Palo Alto Unified school board race is heating up, with two additional newcomers in the running and an incumbent announcing her reelection bid.
Jennifer DiBrienza, who is nearing the end of her first term on the Board of Education, confirmed she plans to seek a second term. Board President Todd Collins, also in his first term, has pulled papers for the race but said he's not yet decided whether he will run.
The two newcomers are parents Karna Nisewaner, a lawyer, and Jesse Ladomirak, who owns Teevan, a housing restoration company in San Francisco.
Katie Causey, a Palo Alto Unified graduate, also announced in July that she's running for a seat on the five-member board.
Three seats will be up for grabs in November when the terms of board Collins, DiBrienza and Melissa Baten Caswell expire. Baten Caswell is seeking a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education.
Below is information about DiBrienza's and Nisewaner's campaigns. Ladomirak declined an interview at this time.
DiBrienza, a former teacher and parent of three children, said in an interview she's proud of the progress the district has made in improving leadership, transparency and operations since her election in 2016. She sat on the dais through enormous turnover and controversy, including the resignation of former superintendent Max McGee, the departure of other top-level administrators and uproar over the district's handling of campus sexual violence and budget issues. In 2018, she voted to hire current Superintendent Don Austin as McGee's replacement.
DiBrienza served as board president in 2019, when the district grappled with the potential impact of Stanford University's ambitious expansion plan.
DiBrienza said she had always planned to run for a second term. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, she felt like Palo Alto Unified — with "radically improved" operations and leadership in place — was on the cusp of making progress on issues she's prioritized, particularly related to student mental health and closing the achievement gap.
The coronavirus has only "magnified" those systemic issues, she said.
"Before COVID it was really all about continuing the work I finally felt we were set up to accomplish," DiBrienza said. "After COVID, it's all COVID all the time, as it should be, but those things aren't really separate: our mental health and wellness, our connectivity, our equity are all rolled into that. We really have to continue to get better at each of these things that we're trying to do to make sure we're reaching all kids."
DiBrienza said the district is at an "inflection point" with its work to improve outcomes for minority and low-income students. She pointed to the creation of an assistant superintendent for equity position, the investment in full-time elementary school reading specialists, the board's commitment to having a standing agenda item on equity, anti-bias professional development happening this summer and groups of teachers reading the book "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" together as examples of ongoing work in that area.
Deepening the district's understanding of and commitment to addressing inequity is even more critical as the district prepares to begin a new school year fully online, she said.
She's "optimistic" that elementary schools will be able to physically reopen sooner, at some point in the fall, given the growing evidence around children being lower risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19. But she supports committing to a set time period for distance learning so that teachers, students and families can focus.
Worried about how the shutdown has impacted students' mental health, she wants the district to prioritize bringing students to campus in person for safe social interaction and engagement in small groups.
DiBrienza began her career as an elementary-school teacher and eventually administrator in the New York City public school system. After moving to the Bay Area, she worked as an education consultant to school districts across the country.
She has three children: a rising sophomore at Palo Alto High School, a rising eighth-grader not in the district and a rising fourth-grader at Ohlone Elementary School.
During the coronavirus shutdown, Karna Nisewaner felt compelled to move beyond just words about the state of her children's education and into action. In the spring, she watched her children, both Addison Elementary School students, struggle with distance learning and heard from other working parents about their challenges juggling full-time jobs with their children's online education.
"It's all well and good for people to complain, to say that they don't like something or that they're not satisfied but it's up to us to actually try to do something," she said. "I think it's important to step up and say, 'I think I could help.'"
Nisewaner has decided to make a bid for the school board to bring her perspective as a parent and lawyer.
Nisewaner, who grew up in Millbrae, has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. She started her legal career at the Palo Alto branch of intellectual property law firm Finnegan in 2001. She went on to work in legal roles at Intuit and IBM. She is currently vice president and deputy general counsel at Cadence Design Systems, an electronic design company in San Jose, where she's worked for the last nine years and leads a team focused on intellectual property, litigation, employment and transactions -- "all of the things necessary to make sure that business is running right and following all the rules," she said.
She hopes to bring this expertise as well as commitment to transparency to the board, if elected. As the district grapples with unprecedented challenges around how to educate students during a public health crisis, Nisewaner advocated for proactive communication and flexibility.
"I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all solution and I don't think it should be," she said about when and how to reopen schools.
For the district's youngest students — which include her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son — she wants the district to prioritize providing "something that goes beyond just Zoom meetings" in the fall.
Her son, who has an individualized education plan (IEP) for reading, needs to have someone sitting with him and going over online assignments. For her daughter, the hardest part was missing the social fabric of school.
Since 2017, Nisewaner has served on the board of directors for Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), including a term as chair. She led the board through the nonprofit's initial COVID-19 response, according to her campaign website. She suggested the district look to local child care providers for examples of how to safely serve students in person.
"I'm not going to profess to be an expert in education, but it's my job" as a lawyer, she said, "to understand the needs that various people have and figure out … (how to be) more flexible in our definition of what we're going to do."
Nisewaner also serves on the Addison school site council and volunteers with her daughter's Girl Scouts troop.