In preparation for the Palo Alto Weekly's coverage of the campaigns for Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, we solicited questions from our readers that speak to their topmost concerns about the school district. From their many excellent responses, we've crafted a short questionnaire, which we hope will help elucidate the differences among the four candidates.
From their many excellent responses, we crafted a short questionnaire for the candidates to complete. In response, they discussed their primary concerns and experience in education. They also offer their opinions on student achievement, COVID-19 learning loss, diversity and inclusion, the superintendent and innovations. The candidates' answers on all these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, through Sept. 26. Here's what they had to say to the following question: What letter grade would you give for Superintendent Don Austin's performance to date, and why?
To grade our superintendent's performance to date, I would grade for hard and soft skills. For hard skills, I would give Superintendent Austin a "Satisfactory" grade because he brought focus and has executed on our goals in many areas. For soft skills, I would give a "Needs Improvement" grade because he should have involved the community in executing the district's goals.
We were the first district in the county to reopen schools during the pandemic, but re-opening was scary for everyone — teachers, staff, parents, and students. Unfortunately, the process of deciding when to re-open was problematic. For those particularly scared, it felt like a rubber-stamp process in which the community was not invited to participate and their valid concerns were not heard. This points to a larger issue — poor communication.
Superintendent Austin has implemented some impactful initiatives. Unfortunately, he is not a communications specialist and his communication has been lacking. Without better communication, members of our school community lack the information needed to feel comfortable with change — even if it's done with the best intent.
As the superintendent's "boss," I believe it is the job of the school board to acknowledge that no superintendent will be equally skilled in every area and the right support people should be put in place to complement the superintendent's strengths and weaknesses. In this case, we needed a communications officer, and the district just hired one — now we will see how better communication will help our district!
It's also important to note the state of the district when Superintendent Austin started. We had a lot of issues to address, but we lacked clarity and prioritization. Seeing this, Superintendent Austin created the PAUSD Promise with measures we can follow. This was an important step in the right direction and shows Superintendent Austin's strengths.
The Superintendent has done an admirable job in building a solid administrative foundation for the district, including by recruiting and building a core management team that is able to effectively implement policy direction set by the board. This has resulted in strong recruitment and hiring, increased academic scores, broadened opportunities for learning (i.e., industry certifications and dual enrollment), and a focus on equitable achievement. His involvement with other superintendents across California and the country has provided us with access to a broader perspective, knowledge, and resources for best practices.
During COVID, we were one of the first public school districts to begin reopening; and we did it safely. While this was a priority set by the board, Dr. Austin was the one who implemented the direction and lobbied to the county and state to make it happen, including by lobbying for prioritizing teacher vaccinations back when teachers were not in the first priority area for the new vaccines.
His leadership was also critical in clarifying county and state guidance for opening during COVID and I'm confident that without him we would not have been able to open as early as we did; nor would we have been able to do so without any COVID outbreaks on campuses.
The "minus" is because there's always room for improvement. Dr. Austin has been in the district for about four years now, but for a significant portion of that time, we were in crisis mode during COVID. Moving forward, there is an opportunity for Dr. Austin to continue engaging with the community and building his knowledge of PAUSD and Palo Alto's roots, including context for issues of historical importance to the community; as well as building stronger bonds with the various stakeholder groups (teachers, staff and parents) the district serves.
To best understand effectiveness, one needs to evaluate Dr. Austin's strengths and areas for improvement. As a parent, substitute teacher, educator, and regular attendee of board meetings, I would give the following evaluation:
Areas of strength:
• SWIFT Plan (2021-24)
• PAUSD Promise plan (2019-20)
• Supporting PAUSD's outstanding diversity of academic and co-curricular offerings.
• Collaboration with PTA/PTSA
• Connections with superintendents across the state
Areas for improvement:
• Policy changes. For example: repeated academic schedule changes and rules around non-class periods such as Prep, SELF, tutorial, Study Hall, etc. have not been adequately explained to students or parents.
• Partner provider relationships: For example, last March, PAUSD abruptly, and without explanation, announced that Right at School, a for-profit national chain, would replace Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), a quality nonprofit child care program that has served Palo Alto for decades.
• Many parents have felt Dr. Austin's responses to them have been dismissive and/or intimidating. We need to cultivate a culture of mutual respect.
• Families found out last minute that their elementary school aged children were placed in multi-grade classrooms without explanation. Similarly, Palo Verde families discovered from a newspaper article that their school would be relocating to Cubberley.
• Attracting and retaining high quality teachers is critical to PAUSD's success. Teacher morale is low. In a survey published in May, 50% of PAUSD teachers rated their morale as Very Low or Low. 63% cited lack of district administration support as the primary cause.
• Stakeholders report that parent, teacher, and student input is often disrespected or invalidated.
• Declining enrollment has been explained away by the pandemic or cost of living. However, I've learned through my consulting that school satisfaction factors are also at play. Declining enrollment leads to multi-grade classes, lower PTA/PIE donations and possible school closures.
I give him an A-.
I am very happy with Dr. Don Austin's performance as Superintendent because he makes it his job to be involved in the business of running a top-notch, affluent school district with the care and curation of its students and parents in mind. I was always amazed at his level, and willingness, of communication with the school community. His communication and his open and accessible style makes it very easy to talk to him about concerns, hopes, dreams, laments and anything else really. Through his tutelage, focus on early literacy has been a progressive accomplishment in PAUSD and has brought literacy numbers and data to higher standards every year since 2018.