Todd Collins ran for school board in 2016 on a commitment to data-driven decision making. Four years later, he sees major improvement in that area in changes both tangible and cultural, such as his push to include Palo Alto Unified's performance on the California School Dashboard in the district's "PAUSD Promise" plan. The dashboard shows data broken down by student group in areas such as academics, chronic absenteeism and graduation rates — a color-coded reminder of the persistent gap between the district's highest-performing students and its struggling ones.
"Without that we can always tell ourselves we're doing a great job because without a yardstick you never knew if you grew," Collins said. "Putting that in place and getting everyone to agree that those are important metrics to look at and measure our overall success is a big step. We never did that before."
Collins, an investment manager, longtime schools volunteer and current president of the board, believes the school district is more stable, better managed and effective than in recent history but that there is still progress to be made on key issues, particularly as the district navigates reopening schools.
He acknowledged that the district fell short when schools first closed, both educationally and in terms of communication, but said the experience this fall has vastly improved. He said he considered in the spring whether the board should increase communication by hosting town halls, even talking with the city's mayor about COVID-19 forums he and the city manager were holding but decided against it.
"The void that we were trying to fill was so large and I think the board had not a lot to add to what the superintendent was saying," he said. "In terms of outward communication, I think the staff was doing what needed to be done. I didn't always like the tone or the format or the consistency, but it wasn't like I would have something different to say."
Collins voted in support of the district's reopening plan. He said it would be problematic if the district didn't offer an in-person option for the families who want one. He also said the district should bring middle and high school students back to campuses "by any means possible" for safe social interaction before their classrooms reopen next year, concerned about the impact of school closures on their mental health.
Acknowledging the emotional divide on reopening among teachers, Collins said both transparent communication and action will be essential in the coming months. He, for example, read and was assured by a third party 200-page report on airflow efficiency at the schools but understands why the information feels inaccessible to teachers.
"We should turn that into something that we can post on the door of every single room in that building to give people confidence that the airflow has been examined and determined by a third party to be sufficient … because otherwise how would people know? It's the action and communication of the action that need to happen," he said. "Just talking to make people feel better I don't think is going to address people's concerns in a meaningful way."
He also suggested to Superintendent Don Austin to create a webpage that's updated weekly with any news of positive COVID-19 tests among students or staff.
Collins has said closing the achievement gap is the district's No. 1 priority and that the district should be measured not by its highest-flying students but those who struggle the most. Moving the needle on such an entrenched problem, for him, must be rooted in data, such as the recent addition of a regular report to the board on how many students are receiving D and F grades at the end of every quarter.
"We're never going to have a big dashboard where we can manage PAUSD by remote control … but using data in very direct and pointed ways to inform our decisions and especially in real time is something we've started to do," Collins said.
In a recent debate hosted by the South Asian Parents Association, he acknowledged that there's a growing sense in the district that focusing on issues such as equity and mental health means "we are pushing back against families who want rigorous and challenging curriculum."
"I think that's a mistake," Collins said. "We want to challenge people and have them succeed academically … we (also) don't want that (pursuit of academics) to take over people who don't want that and have them feel, that's the only way. Creating a culture that allows diversity and inclusion of different academic goals is critical."
At a recent board meeting, Collins said he's concerned that important issues the district was making progress on before the pandemic have fallen by the wayside, including plans to comprehensively address dyslexia and to evaluate the district's literacy curriculum. He said it's up to board members to keep such issues front and center by asking staff to formally report on their progress. He can often be heard on the dais pushing administrators for measurable data so they will actually know if a program or initiative accomplished what it was supposed to and has said the district's greatest lever for success is "focused management attention."
In a sign of his governance philosophy, Collins pushed back somewhat on the Weekly's request to answer where he stands on eight issues of interest to voters. While understanding candidates' position on specific issues is appropriate, he said, it risks distracting from the more foundational issues of management and accountability.
"Without those things, our policy choices don't matter much since we will struggle to translate them into effective action. That's where the district was for many years — 'issue churn' — and I think a major accomplishment, possibly the biggest, of the last four years, has been to change it," Collins said. "We can easily get distracted by the issues of the day that will also come and go. That's why we need to focus heavily on the few most important things and make sure we get them done."
In 2017, Collins brought to his board colleagues a proposal to support a ballot measure that would limit board members to serving two consecutive terms describing term limits as a common, good governance practice in place for many elected officials. Voters ultimately approved the measure the next year.
Collins has three children who attended district schools. Before he was elected to the board, he chaired the district's bond Citizens Oversight Committee and served on the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), which in 2015 and 2016 evaluated the possibility of opening new district schools.
• Age: 59
• Occupation: Entrepreneur
• Education: B.A., Harvard University; MBA, Harvard Business School
• Family members: Married, three children
• I've lived in Palo Alto for: 16 years
• My favorite high school class: Calculus and creative writing
• My favorite quote: "Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts." — Winston Churchill
• My proudest moment: Watching my disabled son learn to ride a two-wheel bike — he did what no one thought he could.
• Campaign website: toddcollins.org
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