It's been an exhausting and frustrating six months for anyone with school-aged kids, as well as the teachers, administrators and school board trustees responsible for our children's education.
School leaders have been trying to develop and implement reopening plans in the midst of a chaotic, ever-changing environment, while teachers and their union push back because of what they believe are inadequate safety measures. And as the pandemic has dragged on and frustrations have grown, parents and teachers are raising legitimate questions about how the public school system is responding.
In times of crisis, trust and good communications become the two most essential ingredients for operating any organization. Trust, which is built over years, not months, is a reservoir that can quickly be drained, especially when good, clear communication is lacking. Unfortunately, this is where the Palo Alto Unified School District finds itself. The lack of clarity in district communications with the public during the last few months has eroded the fragile trust that had been slowly building over the last four years at the very time it was needed most.
Superintendent Don Austin, just two years into his job in Palo Alto, has worked hard under these difficult circumstances. Faced with zigzagging public health guidance, he and his team had to constantly shift gears in the face of changing circumstances. It's hard to fault him or the school board for not finding the perfect plan that would satisfy everyone.
But parents did expect to be heard and involved, and to have clear, centrally located information available about the district's plans. The district's website and home page, newly launched (again) right in the middle of the pandemic, does an awful job at presenting the information parents need. The "return to school" information reads like a government report instead of providing clear, practical and up-to-date guidance to parents of what is happening and why. And nothing is to be found that explains to parents the very vocal health concerns of their children's teachers or how they are being addressed.
So it is in this environment that four candidates, frustrated by what one described as a "hot mess" of flawed district communications with the community, have stepped up to run for three seats on the school board against two incumbents, Jennifer DiBrienza and Todd Collins, both in their first terms. Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell is stepping down after 13 years. (Voters approved term limits in 2018 that will limit newly elected board members to eight total years, but those already in office were not affected.)
One of the most noteworthy qualities of this group of six candidates is that four of them (incumbent Jennifer DiBrienza and challengers Jesse Ladmirak, Karna Niswaner and Matt Nagle) actually have children in the schools. With DiBrienza being the only current trustee with kids enrolled in the district, the board has not been as connected with the parent community as it should be. This has been a particular problem in the current situation, when anxious parents needed to feel their views were being heard and respected. The board shouldn't have been caught flat-footed as parent concerns neared a boiling point over the last two weeks.
DiBrienza and Collins have both served the district well during their first terms and we strongly support their reelection. The last six, COVID-impacted months notwithstanding, the last four years has been a period of steady re-building of district operations following many years of poor management and a culture of non-accountability. DiBrienza and Collins, along with Trustee Ken Dauber, helped lead the board beyond its past divisions and finally pushed out former superintendent Max McGee and restored order with the appointment of an interim superintendent. The board hired Austin, who went to work replacing senior managers and principals that McGee had put in place, bringing order and stability and putting an end to the constant drama. The board brought in outside resources to investigate the sexual harassment cases that had led to multiple complaints by the federal Office for Civil Rights and took corrective personnel actions to begin rebuilding trust in the district. Collins, DiBrienza and Dauber, in their roles as the last three board presidents, played important roles in guiding Austin as he sought to reorganize and strengthen a troubled organization.
DiBrienza, with two children in the schools, the oldest now a sophomore at Paly, has a doctorate in education from Stanford, is an educational consultant specializing in math instruction and earlier in her career was an elementary teacher. In her first term, when not working with her colleagues to address the district's management problems, she has focused on the educational experiences of students in the classroom and on addressing educational equity and student well-being. She is a clear and direct communicator with her ear to the ground and a willingness to call out mistakes when they happen.
Collins, a private equity investor who has advised many companies and CEOs, has three grown children, two of whom graduated from Gunn High School, and served on several school committees prior to running four years ago. He helped bring much more discipline to the board's oversight of the past and current superintendent and the district's fiscal operations. He doggedly pressed McGee to properly carry out his most fundamental responsibilities, such as getting board minutes written, Public Records Act requests responded to and holding senior administrators accountable for failures to follow policies and legal mandates. Collins' financial expertise alone is worthy of his reelection.
For the third seat we recommend Jesse Ladomirak, a Palo Alto native with three children at Addison Elementary School and one at Greene Middle School. Along with her husband, she owns a San Francisco home renovation business and functions as its general manager and CFO. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley's School of Law and previously worked for a law firm that represented public agencies, giving her a valuable understanding of the legal duties and responsibilities of the school district. She has worked extensively with kids as a tutor, including at the Opportunity Center and in East Palo Alto through the nonprofit All Students Matter.
Ladomirak's interest in running for school board was prompted by what she felt was the district's inadequate communications with parents during the pandemic and the disconnect between the administration and teachers about distance learning and reopening plans, both of which she says has led to a breakdown in trust. She is very aligned with the current board's priorities on student health and wellness and on improving outcomes for all students, especially low income students and students of color. She also sees a need to reach out to parents who aren't among those who currently voice their concerns to the board so that these families are better represented.
Had there been another slot available, we'd recommend Karna Nisewaner, an attorney and recent board chair of Palo Alto Community Child Care with two kids at Addison. She shares many of Ladomirak's qualities and views of district needs. The two Addison parents each decided to run without knowing about the other's plans. We hope she'll consider running again in 2022.
Matt Nagle is a former Juana Briones Elementary School principal who moved back to Palo Alto earlier this year after several years as a principal and teacher in a small, 500-student school district in west Marin County. He's got a helpful insider perspective, but having a recent school administrator on the school board comes with too many opportunities for a confusion of roles and responsibilities.
Katie Causey is a 2012 Paly graduate who describes herself as a "community advocate." She is the only candidate endorsed by the teachers union and, along with Nagle, said she opposes the reopening plan unanimously approved by the school board last week because of concerns over teacher health and safety.
With Causey not having any children, she is not the best candidate for a district that is already lacking in needed parent perspective on the board.
Out of a strong field, we recommend Jennifer DiBrienza, Todd Collins and Jesse Ladomirak for the Palo Alto school board.
Read the Weekly's endorsement of four candidates for City Council — Pat Burt, Ed Lauing, Lydia Kou and Greer Stone — here.