On the cusp of Palo Alto Superintendent Don Austin's annual evaluation, two groups — those who passionately want him out of the job and those who avidly support him — have both written letters to the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education.
Austin's evaluation will be discussed in closed session this month, and the board will announce the outcome of the evaluation on June 20, board President Jennifer DiBrienza said. Austin's contract currently ends in June 2026. If he receives a satisfactory review, the contract will extend to 2027, she said.
But whether he should remain in his position is becoming increasingly contentious. A May 23 board meeting was mostly packed with parents, teachers and students who are upset with Austin over recent decisions regarding math education, the shift of two moderate/severe special education classes to other schools, and recent incidents of student violence and harmful behavior. The most recent episode was an assault on two teachers who received serious injuries and that also injured the student.
Now more than 500 parents, students and teachers have signed a letter to the board arguing against renewing Austin's contract. The letter claims he has made decisions unilaterally without the school community's input and has escalated conflicts that resulted in a lawsuit over math placement and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for moving two classrooms of special-education students out of district "choice" schools.
A judge ruled in 2021 that the district violated the state's Mathematics Placement Act of 2015 because the district's math system prevents students from taking more advanced classes.
But another group of six parents of current and former students has written to the board opposing the petition. In an undated but recently released response to the petition against Austin's continued employment, they pointed to multiple initiatives Austin undertook to ensure school safety during the pandemic, increase mental health services and improve equity in education, among others.
A lack of input and notification?
The petitioners against Austin are taking aim at what they say is a pattern of behavior that has resulted in broken trust, alienation, a culture of intimidation, escalating conflict and expensive lawsuits. But while the criticisms have been plentiful, specific examples and written documentation of this pattern during his years at Palo Alto Unified have been less in evidence, at least publicly.
Rowena Chiu, president of the Ohlone Elementary School PTA, who helped draft the petition, spoke on her own behalf and not as a representative of the PTA. She said that many people who speak openly in a private chat will not come forward publicly out of fear that doing so will affect their children.
Kamal Ardeshna, a parent, however, said that in 2018 while she was president of the Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE) board, she sent notes to the school board and to the administration regarding multiple complaints from students and parents about a computer science teacher and robotics coach whose behavior and qualifications had come into question.
At one point, Austin and the school's principal sent her simultaneous emails informing her that since her children were no longer in the program (her eldest son had graduated the year before), she needed to remove herself from the discussion because it was not her concern, she said.
"There was a lot of push for me to stay out of it," she said.
When the robotics lab was then shut down for two months, supposedly over "safety issues," Ardeshna said, the timing felt like retaliation against all of the complainants.
"People can't go on this way. They are scared of the people running the school. There is a lot of discussion of retaliation. It happens, generally, in that way: It sounds like a valid reason, but you understand what's taking place. You understand that it's very hard to prove," she said.
Parents who signed the petition for Austin's removal said they weren't included in the decision to move the moderate/severe special ed classrooms, an instance of unilateral decision-making that they and others claim has persisted under Austin's leadership. Many parents reportedly were surprised by the change, which was announced in early February. At the board's Feb. 14 meeting they objected to the lack of parental input.
DiBrienza told the Weekly in February that structuring the special education program was the administrators' decision.
Amanda Boyce, a district special education director, told the board during the meeting that the plan was discussed at the Jan. 23 meeting of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education in Palo Alto. The names of the schools weren't announced. The CAC is a volunteer group advocating for families of students in the special education program. It supported the plan, Boyce said.
But Board member Shana Segal called out the lack of parental involvement at the time.
"What seems to have been forgotten in some decision-making affecting Palo Alto schools, including this recent restructuring, is that the voices, experience and knowledge of parents who have children in Palo Alto schools need to be heard in a timely way in order that they have an opportunity to contribute effectively," she said.
Parents who signed the letter asking for Austin's contract not to be renewed have taken offense at comments Austin has made at board meetings, which they say shows he isn't listening to the school community and disparages differing viewpoints and stakeholders rather than seeking understanding and consensus.
"This disrespect has alienated many in our community, leading to groups feeling bullied and shamed," they said in their letter to the board.
They noted a specific incident that rankled when Austin responded to critical comments from parents and students at a May 9 board meeting.
"You don't need another academic goal. I don't think right now, but we do need goals around resiliency. And the disproportionate responses to 'news that we don't like' is a problem. And I think we're teaching our kids some really, really bad things," Austin said.
"I've talked about this before: If you always see yourself as the victim, you're not in a position to help lift up others. And I think we have slipped into a place that we need to get out of so that the next version of the (PAUSD) Promise will not only have resiliency goals for our students, we will have them for staff members and for our parents because our students will learn from our parents and take us there," he said. "And of all the things that are so amazing about this district, resiliency is a hole and we need to call it out."
Austin has a different take on the accusations that he hasn't listened to the district community.
"Like in any position responsible for making decisions, there is often a correlation between receiving a desired response and believing you were heard. The opposite is equally true," he said in an email to the Weekly.
In a follow-up text message on June 23, Austin said the petition against him was unverified and, since it was online, had no signatures.
"There is no way to know how many people submitted multiple names," or if the names of whole families or people outside of the district were included, he said.
Chiu, one of the petition organizers, in an email response said that spot checks of the petition names found few duplicates among people with the same, common last names.
"I am confident in standing by the integrity of the petition. Those who did sign did so of their own volition because they share our concerns about the superintendent," she said.
Improving outcomes for children
Six parents — Nana Chancellor, Michelle Higgins, Elizabeth May, Veronica Saleh, Christina Schmidt and Sara Woodham-Johnsson — have signed a letter of support for Austin.
"We write this letter not to say that Dr. Austin is perfect but to highlight that his job is to improve outcomes for our children, which we believe he has done and will continue to do by centering students in PAUSD’s decision-making. He is nationally recognized for his accomplishments in PAUSD," the letter states.
"Any potential replacement for Dr. Austin as superintendent of PAUSD is paying very close attention to the way our community is treating him. There is a huge difference between respectful advocacy — for issues, for policies, for improved transparency and communication — and what we have been witnessing," they said.
The parents said the district's accomplishments during Austin’s tenure include: safely and proactively reopening schools during COVID; after-school care on district campuses that is accessible regardless of family income; establishment of a comprehensive in-house student mental health program; mental health supports, including opening wellness centers at all three middle schools, and 9 a.m. high school start times that align with sleep recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
With Austin as superintendent, the district has also adopted a literacy curriculum with significant gains particularly among historically underserved demographic groups; supported the establishment of a plan for executing and measuring progress toward closing the achievement gap; restructured middle school math to make a pathway to AP calculus accessible for all students; restructured the moderate/severe special education program so that students are better served in separate K-2 and 3-5 classrooms rather than a single K-5 setting; eliminated the practice of inflating district grade-point averages with non-PAUSD classes; installed high-tech cameras on all campuses for increased security, which has proven effective in resolving several recent incidents; provided funding to hire new behaviorists to improve support for students and teachers; and hired and retained the most diverse leadership team in the district’s history.
A report released on Tuesday showed significant gains in the district's equity in literacy initiative across all demographics.
"While managing these challenges, he also increased student services and cultivated a district leadership team that is proactive and insightful in placing student needs at the forefront of district policies. His student-centered leadership and empowering staff has led to some of the largest increases in student learning in years," they wrote.
The pro-Austin parents said they also worry the rancor directed at Austin is causing unnecessary angst and distraction in the parent and student community at a time when the district has much to feel proud of.
"This work is 'The Work' of a public school district and deserves to continue without distraction," they said.
DiBrienza said that relationships and communication with community stakeholders are a part of any review of Austin and would be considered during any evaluation. She defended Austin against the allegations.
"Dr. Austin has endured many personal attacks and insults over the years, including making fun of the colleges he attended. His consistent response has been to not respond and to continue to ask the community for civility.
"It also seems important to note that parental pressure has contributed to the departure of every superintendent of PAUSD. This is not a new treatment for leaders of our district, unfortunately, and anyone applying for the position here, including Dr. Austin, is aware of how some in our community treat superintendents," she said in an email.
DiBrienza said that Austin "has a habit of specifically not escalating conflicts by answering questions as calmly as clearly as possible and moving on to the next topic.
"The issues have escalated because some community members are unhappy with the responses. This will always be the case as we are a large and diverse community and have different expectations of our school district. In several instances, the advocates for a particular issue have said that they will continue to escalate until they get exactly what they want. We cannot always provide each community member exactly what they want," she said.
The petition against Austin accuses him of retribution, and many social media posts and emails put out by the petition's creators talk about retaliation, she said. DiBrienza challenged those making these accusations to come forward.
"California has anti-retaliation laws and these are serious accusations. No one has ever brought forth a specific claim of retaliation by Dr. Austin, and if there is a specific example anyone has, the board is very interested in hearing about it. If there are no actual instances of retaliation and retribution, we hope the petitioners will cease making these vague and unsupported defamatory claims," she said.