Clearly there are a number of leftover bruises and raw places from the scrapes and batterings of the past year and a half, but a talented new school superintendent shows every sign of being up for the challenges of running a school system known for its hyper-involved parents.
There also is a sense of anxiety about what comes next, mixed with hope that we can now leave the turbulence behind and move forward toward resolving some truly important strategic issues that we face as a district and community.
It is in this context that the Weekly has evaluated the six candidates for the three openings on the school board: the seat occupied by incumbent Camille Townsend and the seats being vacated by outgoing board members Mandy Lowell and Gail Price, who have each completed two terms.
As the only incumbent running and the current board president, Townsend carries the burden of defending the board from its handling of two controversial issues: the intense dissatisfaction of the district's principals and other managers with their treatment by then superintendent Mary Frances Callan, and the approval of a new language immersion program in Mandarin, to begin next fall at Ohlone Elementary School.
Rather than addressing these issues and how they were handled head-on -- as incumbents routinely do when they seek re-election -- Townsend has resolutely declined to discuss or analyze what has occurred in the past 18 months.
While we agree that there are important issues to discuss regarding the future of our growing school district, Townsend's "let's-put-the-past-behind-us-and-move-on" approach disrespects those who believe the school board's handling of the two controversies is emblematic of the governance culture within the district.
Townsend was elected four years ago at least partly on the strength of her energetic efforts in support of the successful campaign to save the district's basic-aid funds from a grab from the governor's office, involving millions of dollars. She helped the district navigate through major budget cuts and win passage of a parcel tax that helped maintain reduced class sizes and the quality education program on which Palo Alto prides itself.
While we agree with her that it is time to look forward, there does need to be some assurance that past patterns of the complete acquiescence of the board majority to a strong superintendent will not recur. Townsend's flat refusal to look back even to analyze what occurred, not to point a finger of blame, is disquieting and disappointing.
As board president when the Mandarin-immersion proposal came to the board for action, Townsend missed the opportunity to put aside her personal enthusiasm for the program, insist on better staff work in preparation for a decision, and then lead a confused and embattled board to an outcome that would not divide the community.
With new superintendent Kevin Skelly now on board and much healing needed to rebuild the community's confidence in the school board, we think a fresh start is important.
Of the five others in the race — Melissa Baten Caswell, Claude Ezran, Barbara Klausner, Wynn Hausser and Pingyu Liu — we feel that four (Baten Caswell, Ezran, Klausner and Hausser) have done their homework on specific issues and are qualified to serve. All would bring different backgrounds, strengths and approaches to complement holdover board members Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom. (Detailed backgrounds are in this issue, and video interviews with each candidate will be available via www.PaloAltoOnline.com.)
We believe Baten Caswell, Hausser and Klausner would provide the strongest leadership at a time when the board needs to become a more cohesive whole. Ezran is a dedicated and solid contributor to school affairs and would make a good alternate choice in a less pivotal year.
But we now have a new superintendent who is emerging as a strong leader with opinions relating to key issues such as size of schools, number of schools, size of classes, rebuilding facilities and curriculum. We need a strong school board to balance and steer Skelly's energy and drive through the new, we hope smoother, rapids ahead of us.
Klausner has been both a teacher and a curriculum developer in Palo Alto schools, a relationship that ended last June in preparation for her campaign. A parent of three children, Klausner has helped launch new district-wide reading- and math-improvement programs. A high-energy self-starter, she served on the Nixon Elementary School Site Council, the district's Strategic Plan Committee, and on the boards of the Palo Alto Foundation for Education and the girls softball league. Formerly a lawyer, she changed careers and earned a master's degree in education at New York University.
Baten Caswell calls herself a full-time volunteer: For two years she served as president of the district-wide PTA Council. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and began a career on Wall Street but shifted from finance to people and high-tech, rising to executive positions in marketing at Apple, Sun and other firms.
One of her campaign emphases is on creating a new Strategic Plan for the district that includes specific ways to measure progress. She cites a need to rebuild "a culture of trust and collaboration" and to "make sure we are the lighthouse district we think we are."
Hausser is a parent and a former member of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, serving two years as chair. He has served on the boards of Palo Alto Community Child Care and Palo Alto Little League and on the Community Development Block Grant Citizen's Advisory Committee. He is director of communications at Public Advocates, a non-profit legal and civil-rights advocacy organization in San Francisco.
His focus is on rebuilding "a sense of trust between the board, administration, staff, teachers and parents" and on assuring transparency in district business. He recognizes that "part of the job of the board is to ask the superintendent tough questions."
Barbara Klausner, Melissa Baten Caswell and Wynn Hausser are the best bets for a pivotal time in the Palo Alto Unified School District.
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